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American Cities and Public Transportation

From both my personal observations since I came to Columbus, Ohio two weeks ago and numerous comments and articles on the Internet, it seems to me that the vast majority of American cities are built with the car as the primary means of personal transportation in mind.

This, of course, is probably stating the obvious to most Americans on this board, but what I want to say is that cities built around the car are not an inevitable law of nature, but a conscious design choice in city planning. Most American cities saw much of their expansion during a time when gasoline was cheap and plentiful, and to the people of the time, going everywhere by car was a sign of their newfound wealth - and they couldn't even conceive of even wanting to travel by any other way.

But now that the days of cheap oil are apparently over - and it is unknown whether they will ever be back - this is going to be a huge problem.

Commuting to work, or even just shopping for groceries by car, will become increasingly expensive, thus putting even further strain on the already shaken American economy - and this problem won't go away easily even once the economy recovers, since oil prices likely will still be high. Clearly, something needs to be done here.

To my mind, there are two main options. One is improving public transportation. There seems to be a strong stigma among many Americans - especially among those who have never lived in a city with a good transportation system before - against public transportation as a "poor man's transport" and as being slow and inefficient. And after my experiences with the local bus system in Columbus, I can understand that. But again, that's not something inevitable but merely the result of a lack of political will. A larger number of European cities - and quite a few cities in North America as well - have a widespread and efficient public transportation system with frequent stops along major routes throughout most of the day, to such an extent that even people who could easily afford to commute by car will take the bus because it is more convenient - and cheaper. Yes, such a system will likely require some subsidies to set up. But when compared to the subsidies that are used to expand the streets and freeways, would it really be that more expensive? And let's not forget the added benefits of reduced traffic and cleaner air...

The other possibility - which would involve a lot more effort than the first one - is to redesign the overall physical infrastructure of the cities. From what I've seen, American cities are often extremely wasteful when building new neighborhoods. Yes, all those enormous lawns look pretty, but do people really need them? What do they actually do with them, especially when they have no kids who could play around in them? In the end, they just contribute to the sprawling nature of the city and increase the distance to anywhere where you might need to go. Shops where you can buy groceries often tend to be clustered together at locations far from many homes, instead of being spread out through residential areas, again increasing the distance between your home and your destination. Conversely, there seem to be few, if any bicycle lanes that would make it easy to travel medium distances - and it's often just about impossible to simply walk to a nearby neighborhood without walking alongside a street that doesn't have any sidewalks.

Cities like Copenhagen - which has a population density lower than that of many American cities - have succeeded in restructuring the way they operate so that one-third of all people commute to work via public transportation, and another third commute by bicycle. I am sure that with enough effort and political will, many American cities could achieve similar results - and this option is increasingly looking better than the alternative. Mind you, I'm not arguing for abolishing the car - it still has its uses from time to time, and I am sure that most of those Copenhagen commuters still own one. It's just that I think it is important to offer genuine alternatives, so that the inhabitants of a city have the freedom to choose what mode of transportation they will use.

Some links of relevance to this topic:

Copenhagenize - Life In The World's Cycling Capital
Common Urban Myths About Transport


What are your own thoughts on this?

Comments

rfmcdpei
Apr. 13th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
There was recent speculation in The Atlantic that many of the more recently built suburban areas might become slums, between the collapse of the real estate boom and high oil prices. They might do even worse than urban slums, since those builders were at least built sturdily.

Toronto has major issues in regards to sustainability. Many of its suburban areas are becoming increasingly poor and dislocated from a well-off core and southern area, public transportation seems to be trying to become more organized, and bike lines are problematic (I bike, I know).
robertprior
Apr. 19th, 2008 01:02 am (UTC)
Toronto also has the problem that anything the city decides can be over-ruled by the non-elected, very non-transparent Ontario Municipalities Board. Look at the trouble with trying to create a neighbourhood hub, with good public transit, bike access, walking paths, etc, where a developer decided they wanted to put a big box store with acres of parking lot. In an urban site that already has traffic problems. City said "no", OMB looks like it will say "yes", and has thrown in another parcel of land while it's at it.

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