Thursday, July 28, 2005

Transforming American Cities

To deal with global warming and energy shortages, we need to transform our cities during the first half of the twenty-first century as dramatically as they were transformed after World War II. There is an emerging consensus among environmentalists that three policies are needed to change our cities: public transportation, transit-oriented development, and traffic calming.

We should be building public transportation in our cities - commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit - as rapidly as we built freeways in our cities after World War II. We have traffic jams because cities do not have enough room for all the automobiles: it takes ten lanes of freeways to carry as many people as one express-train track. Because it takes so much less space, transit is the most workable form of urban and suburban transportation - as well as being much less environmentally destructive than the automobile.

We should be building pedestrian and transit-oriented development near transit nodes and corridors, to provide passengers for the new transit. People are likely to use transit to commute if they live within a quarter mile of a stop. There should also be shopping and other services (such as doctors’ offices) near the transit stops, so people have the option of walking to these services rather than having to drive to them, as you do in conventional suburbs. This new should be both urban neighborhoods of apartment buildings, like those in European cities, and streetcar suburbs of single-family houses, like those built in the United States during the first decade of the twentieth century.

We should use traffic calming devices to make these neighborhoods safe and to reduce automobile use. Most people will move to pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods only if they are safe, which means that we must slow traffic down. And most people will shop locally only if we slow traffic down: with the high speeds that we have in today’s cities, many people will drive to regional malls and big-box stores to do their shopping. Studies have shown that people have a constant time budget for transportation: if they can go faster, they travel longer distances, and if they go more slowly, they travel shorter distances.

Before World War II, American cities were pedestrian and transit oriented. After World War II, the federal government spent huge sums of money on freeways and mortgage subsidies for suburban housing, transforming our cities into automobile-oriented suburban regions. There would be tremendous benefits if the federal government started to promote equally vigorous programs to build public transportation and transit-oriented development.

Our cities would be more livable. We would have fewer traffic jams and less road rage. Neighborhoods would be safer. People would be more likely to know their neighbors because they shopped locally. People would be healthier because they walked more.

We would save money. Transportation would cost less, because distances would be shorter and because walking would be a common form of transportation. Housing would cost less, because it would use less land and because we would be building so much more housing. Housing costs were low after World War II because so much new housing was built. With today’s concerns about sprawl, the only way to build this much housing today is compact, transit-oriented development.

We would be moving toward a sustainable future. Global warming has already begun, and global energy shortages are beginning. We have an obligation to build cities that will leave a livable world to future generations.

We should admit that it was a mistake to build freeway-oriented cities, and we should begin to move back toward transit-and-pedestrian oriented cities.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Streetcar Suburbs

We can see that much of Americans' spending on housing and transportation is wasted when we compare today’s suburbs with the streetcar suburbs where the American middle-class lived a century ago, which were more livable and cost only about half as much.

This postcard picture of a streetcar suburb in Brooklyn before World War I shows that streetcar suburbs were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than today’s automobile-oriented suburbs. Shopping and public transportation were a five-minute walk away.

Housing in streetcar suburbs would cost about 30% less than equivalent housing in modern suburbs, largely because of savings on land. Streetcar suburbs typically had 10 units per acre, compared with 4 units per acre in modern suburbs. But because they were not filled with cars, they were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than modern suburbs. They also had a stronger sense of community, because people walked to local shopping.

Transportation in streetcar suburbs would cost about 75% less than transportation in modern suburbs, partly because distances would be shorter and partly because walking would be the most common form of transportation.

We all know that automobiles make our cities more congested, noisier, and uglier, and that they cause global warming and global energy shortages, and we tolerate all these costs because we believe that automobiles make our lives more convenient. But in reality, they do not make our lives any more convenient.

In American cities, automobiles have caused low-density sprawl and have increased the distance we travel, so they have not saved us any time. For example, studies have shown that, despite all the changes in transportation technology, the time of the average American commute has remained about the same since the 1840s, when the industrial revolution began. Likewise, it is no faster to drive to the mall in a modern suburb than it was to walk to the local shopping street in a streetcar suburb.

This is the strongest possible indictment of the modern consumer economy. All the extra money we spend on suburban housing and transportation does not make us any better off. Instead, it makes our neighborhoods less livable.

People seem to think that it would be a great sacrifice if we had to consume less to cope with global warming and other environmental problems. But in this case, consuming less clearly would make our lives easier and more pleasant.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Automobile: A Negative Sum Game

To understand why people drive so much, it is useful to compare transportation with a model negative-sum game.

In this model game, you have a choice of two moves. One possible move adds 100 points to your score but subtracts 1 point from the score of everyone near you. The other possible move adds 50 points to your score and does not change anyone else’s score.

Obviously, everyone will make the first move to get 100 points. If there are many people near each other, this choice will give everyone a lower score than if they all chose the second move. But if you act on conscience and choose the second move, it will not do any good: everyone else will still choose the first move, and you will hurt yourself by lowering your own score. The only way for the average person to get a higher score is for people to get together and agree that everyone will choose the second move.

This game is similar to the choice that people face when they decide on their mode of transportation. Choosing to drive is about twice as convenient as choosing alternatives on most trips: it will get you there faster and be more comfortable. But choosing to drive imposes a small cost on other people: it increases congestion, noise, parking problems, the risk of accidents, and so on for everyone who is near you. Alternatives, such as walking, bicycling, or taking public transportation, create social costs that are so much smaller than the automobile that they are negligible by comparison.

Obviously, everyone will choose to drive, even though they would be better off if all they chose alternatives. If you act on conscience and choose an alternative, other people will still choose to drive, and you will just be worse off than you would have been if you had chosen to drive.

Traffic congestion shows most clearly that this is a negative-sum game. On many freeways, traffic averages 25 miles per hour or less during rush hour. If everyone carpooled instead of driving alone, it might take an extra ten minutes for the average person to pick up carpoolers, but half the cars would disappear and traffic would be able to flow at 60 mph, so the overall trip would be much faster. But if a few people act on conscience and carpool, they have to take the extra ten minutes to pick up carpoolers but they still face the same congestion on the freeway, so their overall trip is longer.

With transportation, as with the model negative-sum game, the only way for the average person to be better off is for everyone to get together and agree that they will use alternatives to driving alone. This agreement must take the form of laws limiting driving.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Thoreau Institute

Our award for the most badly misnamed organization in America goes to the Thoreau Institute.

The Thoreau Institute deals with only one issue: it attacks pedestrian-oriented development, and it defends automobile-oriented development.

It obviously has never heard that Thoreau believed in simple living and that his favorite form of transportation was walking.

NOTE: There are several groups named the Thoreau Institute. This post refers only to the Thoreau Institute that is run by Randal O'Toole.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Wrong Argument for Smart Growth

"Growth is inevitable, and so we need smart growth to minimize the damage that growth does to the environment." This argument for smart growth is effective in places where the population is growing rapidly, but it hides the real reason that we should support smart growth.

The argument is confusing because it mixes up two meanings of the word “growth,” which can mean population growth or economic growth.

People who say this really mean that more development is inevitable because of population growth (in places like California and Florida), and we should minimize the damage it does.

But population growth is not inevitable. Population has already stopped growing in some places (such as Japan) and world population should stop growing later this century.

In reality, the principles of smart growth are important even where there is no population growth. For example, the population of the Cleveland metropolitan area has not grown in many decades, but hundreds of thousands of people have moved from old neighborhoods in the city to new suburbs, creating the same problems of sprawl, automobile dependency, and destruction of open space that exist in other American metropolitan cities. Cleveland should have followed the principles of smart growth and concentrated new development in existing cities and suburbs, even though its population is not growing.

Economic growth also is not inevitable. In fact, the smart growth movement is important precisely because it should make us question whether economic growth is desirable. Freeways and suburban housing were the engines of economic growth in post-war America, but it seems that we would be better off if we lived in old-fashioned neighborhoods where you can walk. The right argument for smart growth is that it allows simpler living and less consumerism than our current patterns of development.

Because we use the wrong argument for smart growth, some NIMBYs claim that they are the environmental purists. People who want to stop any new development in their neighborhoods, keeping densities low so it does not become any harder for them to drive, sometimes say: "We don’t favor smart growth, because we want to stop all growth."

Obviously, the smart growth advocates who want to build walkable neighborhoods are working to protect the environment, and the NIMBYs who want to keep driving are promoting consumerism and harming the environment. But the NIMBYs are able to confuse the issue because we use the wrong argument for smart growth.

We should not be using the term "smart growth." Instead, we should be saying that we want to build walkable neighborhoods so we can live more simply and can end economic growth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

China's Car Culture

A letter to the editor of the New York Times:


Transportation planners in Shanghai are surprised that traffic is growing faster than expected: "Just one year after some roads were completed, they reached vehicle flow volumes that were forecast for 15 to 20 years from now." ("A City's Traffic Plans Are Snarled by China's Car Culture," July 12)

American Planners were just as surprised when the same thing happened here in the 1950s. Then studies explained the problem by showing that freeway building induces more traffic. For example, one recent study showed that, within five years after a major new freeway is built in California, 95% of its capacity fills up with traffic that would not have existed if the freeway had not been built.

Your article describes one commuter who faces such bad traffic that it takes him a full hour to commute 7 miles - considerably longer than it would take by bicycle. That is how congested China is today, when there is only 1 car for every 100 people.

Because of the high densities of Chinese cities, there is not enough land for all the roads that would be needed to accommodate Western levels of automobile ownership, over 50 cars for every 100 people. Congestion will only get worse if they keep building more freeways and encouraging more automobile use.

China should learn from Seoul, Korea, which is reducing congestion by taking street lanes away from automobiles so they can be used for Bus Rapid Transit.

Charles Siegel

The Berkeley BART Drum

There is talk about replacing the round entryway over the entrance to the downtown Berkeley BART station, called the BART drum, so I have been mulling over why I have always disliked the BART drum. I think I have figured out the symbolism that is involved.

In the early 1970s, I was a great admirer of the Bay Guardian and its crusade against high-rises. During the 1960s, the Guardian had also crusaded against BART, saying that it was part of a plan to bring in the commuters needed to turn the Bay Area into the corporate center of the emerging Pacific Rim economy. (I disagree with their opposition to BART, but I agree with their opposition to corporate globalization.)

The ABAG regional plan of the 1960s talked about BART bringing commuters into the "San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley core" of the Bay Area. In the dominant vision of that time, the Great Western Building (now the PowerBar Building) would be the first of many highrises that would transform downtown Berkeley into a part of the Bay Area's corporate center.

The design of the BART drum symbolized this vision of Berkeley's future. It was designed in the steel-and-glass modernist style that generally symbolized corporate architecture, and the colors of the steel and glass were chosen to match the Great Western Building next to it, the first building in Berkeley's new wave of corporate high-rises.

Needless to say, this vision of downtown Berkeley's future is obsolete. At the time, they were still thinking in terms of an old-fashioned urban core, and they were not thinking about the rise of Silicon Valley or of business parks in San Ramon and other edge cities.

Now, everyone realizes that downtown will not be a regional corporate headquarters, and that its success depends on attracting arts, political groups, and housing, as well as business -- drawing on Berkeley's historical role as a regional intellectual center.

That is why many people are now backing the idea of replacing the drum, designed to symbolize corporate modernism, with a structure designed to symbolize Berkeley's history and future as a cultural and political center of the Bay Area.

The BART Drum (lower center) and Great Western Building (right) clash with the traditional architecture of downtown Berkeley and with the historic streetlights installed recently to help revive downtown.

Language, Liberalism, and George Lakoff

Linguist George Lakoff writes that conservatives have become the majority because liberals do not choose terms that frame the issue properly. For example, when conservatives talk about “tax relief,” that phrase implies that taxes are a burden, framing the issue in a way that reinforces their ideas.

There is some truth to what Lakoff says about framing, but the problem is that Lakoff sticks with the approach that liberals have had ever since the New Deal. He wants more government spending to provide people with more services. That was the central issues in the scarcity economy of the 1930s, but it is no longer the central issues in our surplus economy.

Consider two phrases that liberals have introduced successfully. The phrases “smart growth” and “NIMBY” have changed the debate about urban development since they became popular during the 1990s.

Both of these phrases do a good job of framing the issue. “Smart growth” implies that opponents want dumb growth, and even more important, it positions itself as the moderate stance: some people are in favor of all growth, some people are against all growth, but we are in favor of the appropriate sort of growth. “NIMBY” (which stands for Not In My Backyard) is clever, and it frames the issue well by implying that anyone against smart growth is motivated by narrow self interest.

Apart from framing the issue well, these phrases have been successful because they have raised a new issue that is central to our surplus economy. Most Americans live in neighborhoods where they have to drive every time they leave home, creating traffic congestion, environmental problems, and the economic burden of supporting multiple cars per family. This issue did not even exist at the time of the New Deal, when Americans were less affluent than they were today.

Simpler living is another central issue of our time, and we need some good phrases to frame the debate about it. Juliet Schor has come up with two, “the overworked American” and “the overspent American.” But she uses the term “downshifting” to describe the alternative to overwork, and this phrase it too negative to be appealing.

But even more than new phrases, liberals need new policies that allow Americans to live more simply, like the policies that the Netherlands has to encourage part-time work.

When liberals start promoting the policies that are needed in today’s surplus economy, then the effective phrases will follow. As long as liberals focus on policies left-over from the scarcity economy of the 1930s, policies that do not deal with the central problems of most Americans today, then all the catchy phrases in the world will not let them recover their majority.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Avant Garde Today

This story sums up the situation of the avant garde today.

A few years ago, an avant-garde artist hired genetic engineers to create fish that glow in the dark. Animal rights groups complained about the possible suffering of the fish. Environmental groups complained about the possibility of the fish being released and contaminating the gene pools of wild species. But the artist stood by his project: avant-garde art has always offended people, and he was going to stand up against the conventions of society.

Less than a year later, a Los Angeles entrepreneur began to sell genetically engineered fish that glow in the dark as pets. Animal rights and environmental groups complained, but they could not stop him. It turned out that only one state had laws regulating genetically engineered pets.

A hundred years ago, the avant garde was criticizing the society of the time when it stood up against social conventions and “shocked the bourgeoisie.” Today, we live in a technological society rather than in a bourgeois society. The avant garde has to go further and further to shock people – until it finally has to stand up against nature as well as standing up against convention. Rather than criticizing the society of our time, it is paving the way for modern society to reengineer nature and human nature.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

If Only They Had Followed Federal Architectural Guidelines!

The Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for additions to historic buildings say that the additions should be in a modern style, not in the historic style of the original building:

“Recommended: Design for the new work may be contemporary or may reference design motifs from the historic building. In either case, it should always be clearly differentiated from the historic building….”

“Not Recommended: Duplicating the exact form, material, style, and detailing of the historic building in the new addition so that the new work appears to be part of the historic building. Imitating a historic style or period of architecture in new additions…”

Unfortunately, these guidelines were not yet in place when the United States capitol had its two wings and new dome added during the 1850s. The architect was benighted enough to design the additions in the style of the original building. The design obviously has no integrity: you cannot tell where the historic building ends and the additions begin.

If only the additions had been done in our more enlightened times, we could have had a design with more integrity, with the clearly differentiated addition in contemporary style that the Secretary of the Interior recommends.

And adding some starchitecture to the capitol also could have made it an icon that would attract tourists to Washington, just as starchitecture attracts tourists to Bilbao. A boring classical building could never become a national icon.

(P.S. I know that this picture exaggerates what would be built under the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines, which also say the addition should “be compatible in terms of mass, materials, relationship of solids to voids, and color.” But it exaggerates to make an obvious point. The guidelines make us design a building that is an incoherent mixture of traditional and modern styles, rather than a coherent building like the national capitol.)

(The Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for additions to historic buildings are available at

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Admitting the Truth About SUVs

At last, an ad for SUVs that admits the truth about SUVs!

It's so big, it's scary.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Thom Mayne, Nicolai Ouroussoff, and Caltrans

Thom Mayne had a few minutes of fame when he won the 2005 Pritzker Prize. His entry had just won the competition for the design of the state capitol of Alaska, and there was a public outcry against building this avant garde capitol. Many architects suggested that he won the Pritzker not because of the quality of his work but because the architectural establishment wanted to boost his reputation in the hope that there would be one state capitol in the avant garde style. Fortunately, Alaska ignored the Pritzker prize and dropped the capitol project.

Thom Mayne’s most important building is the headquarters of Caltrans in Los Angeles. Caltrans, the state department of transportation, is much reviled by environmentalists because it loves to build freeways.

New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s description of Thom Mayne and of this building is very revealing:

"Thom Mayne has never been a shy architect. Yet underneath the tough veneer lies a strong current of social optimism. …The new Caltrans District 7 headquarters, which covers a city block downtown near City Hall, … will house the state agency that oversees the ribbons of freeway that rank among the city's most spectacular engineering achievements. Like those freeways, the building is monumental. Its glistening metal skin and hulking form evoke the relentless faith in the future - in social mobility, individual freedom, eternal youth - that made Los Angeles one of the most radical urban inventions in American history."

“Relentless faith in the future” is a beautiful phrase - a perfect description of Caltrans and of the avant garde’s futuristic bias. Even though we all know that the freeways have just generated worse congestion - even though studies have shown that 5 years after a major new freeway is built in California, 95% of its capacity is filled with traffic that would not have existed if the freeway had not been built – Caltrans relentlessly pursues its failed vision of the future.

“Radical urban inventions” is another revealing phrase. Like Ouroussoff and the avant garde, Caltrans has acted on the principle that any radical innovation is necessarily a good thing. Fortunately, most people no longer agree, and even Los Angeles is moving to build more rail transit and transit-oriented development – moving away from its radical innovation of being the first city built around freeways and toward an urban form that is more traditional and more human scale.

But “social optimism” is the wrong phrase. The idea that we are going to keep relentlessly building freeway-oriented cities – places as congested and inconvenient as Los Angeles, places where you cannot get a quart of milk or a cup of coffee without driving - does not sound to me like an optimistic view of the future.

Ouroussoff often redefines the word “optimism” in this way: if you do not want to move toward an ugly dehumanized future as quickly as possible, then you are not optimistic.

(For a picture of Thom Mayne’s overbearing, sterile Caltrans headquarters, see The best description of this building is Henry Miller's phrase: the air-conditioned nightmare.)

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Green Cars, Splatometers, and Road Kill

When we hear talk about developing “green cars” that do not damage the environment because they use clean fuels such as hydrogen, we should remember the British experiment with the “splatometer.”

British scientists were worried about the decline of their country’s bird population. The population of field birds, such as larks, sparrows, buntings, and finches, was declining dramatically For example, the number of tree sparrows in Britain declined by 90 percent in the last 25 years. They thought the cause might be a reduction in the number of insects available for the birds to eat.

In 2004, they counted insects by attaching “splatometers” to cars. A splatometer is a small piece of plastic, about the size of a postcard, that is attached to the front of a car. After driving, the researchers counted the number of insects on the splatometer, and they found that it hit only about one insect every five miles, much less than they expected.

These scientists theorized that insect population was declining because farms were using more pesticides. But a rough order-of-magnitude calculation shows that cars themselves are responsible for killing a huge number of insects:

  • The average area of the front of a car is more than 100 times the size of a splatometer, so we can conservatively assume that, for every five miles driven, 100 insects are killed.
  • Americans travel about 10,000 vehicle miles per capita per year, so they kill 200,000 insects per capita.
  • There are 300,000,000 Americans, so the total number of insects killed by cars in the United States each year is 60,000,000,000,000 (60 trillion).

Assuming that Americans kill about as many insects per mile as the British, the number of insects killed by cars each year in America alone is 10,000 times as great as the world’s total human population.

Because insects are at the base of the food chain, there is no doubt that this causes a significant decline in the population of amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

In addition, it is estimated that cars kill about 100,000,000 vertebrates in the United States each year. This estimate seems conservative, since about 900,000 killings of deer are reported each year, and judging from the roadkill you see on American roads, the number of lizards, squirrels, possums, and other small animals killed must be more than 100 times the number of deer. Some species, such as Florida Panthers, are threatened with extinction because roads filled with cars have fragmented their habitat.

No doubt, we should shift to cars that do less damage to the environment, such as hybrids, but if we want to live in an ecologically rich world, we must also drive less.