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Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City (2014) (planetizen.com)
113 points by jseliger on Dec 27, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments

I recall in ~2009 my university (UWaterloo) had a referendum to increase tuition by $50/term (now $80/term) to increase city bus routes to the university and provide free service to students using your student card. I voted against it because I could easily carpool and was against another mandatory fee.

The vote was fairly controversial and passed by a narrow margin. But since the service was improved to every 15 minutes and I was already paying for it I started using the service and shortly stopped driving to school altogether.

By the time I graduated I really loved the system since it really improved my commute and really regretted voting against it. I just checked and now the approval is at 94% for the UPass.

This is the dilemma in a car society - whenever you ask people what they want, it's more roads and parking spaces. People can't even imagine how a good public transit can improve their lifes, including that of the remaining road users.

I think the solution is just for everyone to visit a place with a good public transit network and live there for a few months - in the US I can only think of New York. Exchange student programs should be mandated anyways, to mend the cultural gaps within the nation.

> People can't even imagine how a good public transit can improve their lifes, including that of the remaining road users.

For some reason, the most unexpectedly shocking levels of ignorance I ever encounter from otherwise intelligent people come from car fans when discussing transportation policy. I'm talking the most basic failures of logic from people that I don't consider to be complete idiots (the acquaintances I've seen this from may not be extremely intelligent, but are generally capable of reasonable conversation about any other issue). For example, one of the most common things I see is indignation at why a given public transit system doesn't fully pay for itself, somehow imagining that vehicle owners directly defray the entire costs of car-specific transport infrastructure at time of use.

I don't know what it is about this issue that uniquely disables so many people's brains and simultaneously supercharges how passionate they are about it. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that transportation/traffic/etc is a big headache in most people's lives and the idea of it becoming any worse, even temporarily, is unpalatable enough to short-circuit any form of adult thought.

My parents would say the trains are dirty and shake their head.

So hard to get people in the US to like public transit :(

Because trains are dirty in the US.

Go to Vienna, ride a train, and then go to San Francisco, and ride BART. Its night and day. Vienna had clean trains with a smooth ride. BART seems to always be dirty, and the cars screech like banshees.

Its a vicious cycle. No one wants to fund trains, so they fall into disrepair. The then get a bad rap about being in disrepair, so no one wants to fund them. If you want a real villain, blame the oil companies that bought up local trains and dismantled them in the first half of the century.

Placing the onus of the death of public transit in the US on the General Motors streetcar conspiracy fails to look at other economic aspects of the end of streetcars.

* Streetcar companies were the loss leaders for real estate developers.

* The Great Depression and WW2 caused deferred maintenance that undercapitalized transit companies could not afford after the real estate had been sold.

* Municipalities regulated fares, with voters regularly voting down measures to increase fares. At the time, transit agencies had to generate revenue almost entirely from fares.

* Transit companies had to pay recurring franchise fees for each mile of track, while bus companies didn't pay such a fee.

* With the increase in auto traffic slowing down streetcars, busses had more maneuverability in heavier auto traffic.

The new tapered wheels on BART cars are supposed to be only half as noisy.


> If you want a real villain, blame the oil companies that bought up local trains and dismantled them in the first half of the century.

That's quite a claim, considering air travel's hand in killing train companies. You have a citation for that?

First, streetcars aren't trains. They're good at circulating people around an urban center, but not for getting them in and out.

Second, even that article indicates streetcar systems were well on their way to death before the conspiracy started.

Third, the participation of oil companies in it was tangential; it was auto manufacturers who drove it.

As someone who's lived in Zurich, here's the main advantage of streetcars vs buses: They get their own reserved space in the middle of the road. That makes them very reliable and on-time like trains (assuming good planning / operations). That's why they're still popular in places with good service, and new ones are getting built.

I want to fund trains. And tracks too! What I don't want to fund is the colossal bureaucracy built up like barnacles around these trains. General management administrators, assistant general manager administrators, assistants to the assistant administrators. Because whenever we're asked to pay more taxes to increase funding to mass transit, THAT's where the money is going.

Trains and buses aren't exactly cheap, and the service contracts on top of that are even more. Subway cars (not trains) cost over $1 million each [1] [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R143_(New_York_City_Subway_car...

[2] https://www.bart.gov/about/projects/cars/delivery-plan -- Says $184 million is equal to 104 cars.

> Vienna had clean trains with a smooth ride. [...]

Same regarding the trains in The Netherlands and Germany. They get cleaned when they arrive at their destination and this is calculated in the downtime.

i hate to admit it, but i agree with your parents.

where I live, a small fraction of the people on public transit are obnoxious, play loud music, talk loudly on mobile phones, put their feet on the seats, eat and drink, litter, and create the appearance of being threatening to public safety. law enforcement agents are practically nonexistent.

because of that the entire experience of riding public transit is, rather than being relaxing, a bit tense. rather than being pleasant, it is often unpleasant.

on the plus side, underground trains get me to my destination very quickly.

if public transport were clean and pleasant, if the stations and trains and buses were safe havens rather than magnets for poor behavior and even crime, i'd get rid of my car.

It's a public space. There will inevitably be things you don't like about it, that's life in a city. Doesn't stop me from taking the bus almost everyday. You're really exaggerating unless your city is a lot worse than mine. Most trips are pleasant and without incident.

>create the appearance of being threatening to public safety

Care to elaborate?

Intimidation. I dealt with that a lot when riding the bus in my city, was a problem back in 1998, was a couple of years ago, and from my understanding still is today. Perhaps my city just sux though.



> You're really exaggerating unless your city is a lot worse than mine

my city is Los Angeles. my experience is that if I look at such a person while their expletive laden music (with lyrics that would not be tolerated as productive discourse on HN, to put it mildly) is blaring, i get back a hostile look. usually the person is physically larger and more powerfully built than i am. sometimes there are neck tattoos indicative of gang affiliation. i see no signs of concern about the comfort and privacy of other riders. there is a sense of carelessness and what i can only interpret as a desire to provoke and annoy. they are all but saying "i will disrupt this space as much as i want and i know you will not fuck with me"

> It's a public space. There will inevitably be things you don't like about it ...

I tried a test with that argument. I replaced "a public space" with "my old, dilapidated private car" and I found that the argument still works.

Then I thought about someone who complained they didn't like living next to a freeway because there was a lot of air pollution. The argument works there too.

Then I thought about the complaints I've heard about the difficulties of living in a neighborhood characterized by a high number of shootings and police sirens. Sure enough that argument wins again.

I'm pretty sure it can be applied to complaints about the atmosphere and global warming too.

That argument is unstoppable.

Yep this has been my experience with public transportation in the U.S.

For my city in particular, I would say the solution is more parking, but further from the city at public transport hubs, and remove the parking in the CBD. Which will give way to a more walkable CBD. Our CBD is small enough to walk around and it's inner public transport is free and frequent if you're not personally mobile enough for walking far.

It wouldn't be feasible to build out train infrastructure to reach all of suburbia but we definitely have some decent existing train lines.

My perfect commute from suburbia would be driving to a carpark beside a seperated bike path, then riding my bike the last mile and through a carless CBD. Where others might do the same but take a train instead of biking.

An argument against is car parking for less mobile people nearer their destination, but for where I live there are never free parks on the streets anyway, and you need to park in a multi-story. So perhaps a compromise and have the multi-story carparks on the fringe of the CBD, then better last-mile public transit for getting closer to your destination would work.

I think like many issues, people are often polarized to an extreme of no cars or only cars, but the best case likely sits somewhere inbetween.

Are you living in Denver? I visited there once and it seemed to me the way you describe. In any case one of the better American cities I've seen so far.

I absolutely agree that all important needs should be addressed - what works in Europe isn't necessarily the best solution for the US. That being said I do think there's a lack of good public infrastructure in general and this is IMO a shame - in many places around the world, public infrastructure is something people are proud of and something that makes many lives incrementally a bit better. Replacing 1-2h of daily commute full of car jams, bad air and stressed out drivers with standing or even sitting in a clean train while reading Hacker News appears to be a really low hanging fruit to me. For the first and last mile I think that shared autonomous cars/small buses will be a very good and cost effective solution - think of it like the limousine / shuttle services at airports.

Park-and-ride is totally a thing. People in the burbs should (and in some places, do) drive to rail stations outside the city and park in lots there. This is not "last mile", though, ideally you drive a relatively short distance to a rail station. Most of the trip should be via train. This reduces congestion in the city and accommodates suburban-types.

A car gives you privacy and freedom that trains and buses cannot. It's your space that you control; you're not forced to share it with strangers. You control the music, the temperature, and the route you take. You talk on the phone about whatever you want without worrying about being overheard. You can fill your trunk with a cart-full of groceries and drive it home. When you want to get somewhere, you can immediately get on your way. No train schedules, and no late buses. You drive home every day to your reasonably priced house, an appreciating asset that you own and that comfortably fits you, your spouse, and children.

There's a reason why even in dense cities with great public transit and walkable neighborhoods, the rich choose to be driven everywhere.

I have the feeling you live in a place where cars are privileged and where the whole environment might have been built with the car in mind.

In places that kept a historic center, or built themselves around walkable commercial areas, cars are just liabilities that you'll spend time and money to park, get frustrated to no limit by the congestions, slow paced traffic, overall polluted air, and cramped one way streets that you have no idea how to navigate without a car navi.

IMO it's really a matter of context and how the city works. You'll want to adapt depending on that.

My point isn't that having a car is always preferable in every place, just that there are good reasons for people to prefer to live in car-friendly places.

I recently lived in Seattle, on Capitol Hill, for two years. I didn't have a car for more or less the reasons you list, but I did end up using Uber a lot, even though I had free public transportation courtesy of my employer. If cost was no barrier, I would have exclusively taken Uber over public transportation.

I'm the other way around. I enjoy public transport and feel that cars are isolating and anti-social. I like seeing all kinds of people and having little connections with them. Cars encourage egoism. They battle for space on the freeway. In buses people share the space; they make space for each other or stand up to give a seat to elderly. Cars are often used for status. Public transport is humble.

I don't own a car and never use Uber, but I live in a bike and public transport-friendly city in The Netherlands.

Cars are a denial of public space and a tangible symbol of American selfishness. You're spot on. Peoples' snobbishness and entitlement in this thread is palpable. Americans dislike public transit for purely cultural reasons, no matter what they say. Boston's transit system is far from perfect but I'll put up with its warts to avoid the culture of car ownership.

I do all my best thinking on the bus...

You're right that it's a very much an American perspective, but I disagree with the characterization. How is it snobbish and selfish to want to live my life the way I choose to? Do you think that you are doing public works in giving strangers the gift of your physical presence on a shared rail cart?

>Do you think that you are doing public works in giving strangers the gift of your physical presence on a shared rail cart?

Not at all, but in my experience if you probe into why people avoid public transit, it's usually some variation on "I don't want to be near those people". I've literally heard those words verbatim from more than one person.

I spoke with a former coworker who has a practically door-to-door bus trip to work with a 20m headway (that I used to take, it was very fast and convenient, never had problems with other passengers). They chose to drive to the edge of the city where they could park w/ their permit, and then walk a pretty significant distance to work, just to avoid the bus.

It's a lower-class stigma, the bus is "for poor people" so people won't take the bus even when it's objectively the best option. If the "way you want to live" is going to great lengths to avoid people you think are beneath you (not saying this is you, but I've absolutely met people like this), that's pretty much the definition of a snob.

I'm going to venture a guess that it's not about poor people and more about crime and drugs and rudeness, which may sometimes correlate with but are not determined by economic class. A group of obnoxious rich teenagers can be as bad as anyone else.

I don't want to take a bus where people are stumbling drunk, arguing with the bus driver, talking about their heroin adventures, playing their music loudly on speakerphone, etc. These are all things that I experienced on the bus in Seattle, particularly but not exclusively during off-peak hours (e.g. 10:30am on a workday). My friend had an even worse experience: the person behind him was almost stabbed by a raving lunatic, saved only by two quick-thinking bystanders.

And I'm just a single young man. Would you want to expose your children to that?

Whether you want to accept it or not, the world is full of bad people, and even more people who don't share your code of public behavior. Why should you have a social duty to deal with that?

>I'm going to venture a guess that it's not so much about poor people and more about crime and drugs and rudeness

Maybe Seattle is just a shithole but these kinds of things are rare in the cities I've lived in, the worst I experience regularly is people being loud and even that is uncommon, especially during commuting hours.

>Would you want to expose your children to that?

I see school-aged children taking the bus whenever I ride around 2 or 3. I've been on the bus when entire classes of children get on with their teacher to go on a field trip. I took the city bus home from school when I was in school, the city provided free passes for kids who lived a certain distance from their school. Heaps of people bring strollers on the bus, there's a special space for them at the front and everything.

There are other people replying to you in other threads with similar experiences in different cities. Good for you that in the city you live in, on the routes you take, you don't experience this stuff. But maybe you shouldn't be so quick to call people selfish snobs.

I've used public transit extensively in a bunch of cities, as have friends of mine. These experiences are the exception, not the norm. Statistically, crime is low on transit systems, including in the cities mentioned itt. It's not perfect, but the problem is more about perception of safety than actual crime.

Only a one of the things that I and others described would even register in the crime statistics. Playing loud music, acting intimidating toward other passengers, having gang tattoos, stumbling drunk, arguing with the bus driver, are either not crimes or are seldom reported.

So true. I lived in Brooklyn NY for eight years and my quality of life went WAY up after getting a good car. It was expensive but damn was it useful.

My train usage went way down after that. I moved away recently and went back to the city for a week. I most definitely do not miss the subway. Exterior light rails are better.

What exactly are "exterior light rails"?

I assume he means above ground which doesn't really make sense because they mix with traffic.

> There's a reason why even in dense cities with great public transit and walkable neighborhoods, the rich choose to be driven everywhere.

I don't think that is true of every dense city with great public transit[1].

[1]: https://www.google.com/search?q=tube+london+picture+celebrit...

Also, if you have multiple kids and all the stuff associated with them (stroller, bags, etc), you're going to want a car.

What would you rather do - spend 45 minutes on public transit with two screaming kids and all your groceries, or drive your own car 15 minutes to the store?

You're taking the kid to the store either way, which seems like the hardest part. And I've noticed that my urban friends really trim down their kid-gear compared to my suburban friends -- city dwellers use a small stroller (or no stroller and a child carrier wrap) and a small bag with essentials, suburban dwellers use a stroller the size of a Mini Cooper (which they hauled around with a full sized SUV) with several bags of "essentials".

When I lived in the city, both of the grocery stores near me offered home delivery -- you drop off your bags at the front desk and schedule a delivery later this afternoon, so no need to carry them home or take them on transit.

But it was a dense enough city that you didn't take transit there, you'd just walk.

They had some kind of dial-in grocery shopping service as well that you could use to call in an order for delivery... but nowadays, online shopping seems to have solved the problem of shopping with children.

But if you live near a place that has grown up with high-density public transport use and pedestrian priority, the real question is why would you drive your own car 15 minutes to the store when 3 of them are within 15 minutes walk of your front door.

(in my case roughly 4 min, 11 min and 13 min respectively by foot according to google for my nearest 3 big grocery stores).

Trying to turn car based suburbia into a car free zone is admittedly an almost lost cause, but that's a bit of a misnomer.

The real argument is to establish the city-design as one that is not car centric, not to convert a car-centric design into a car-free zone.

In dense urban environments, taking a car means more traffic and a huge pain for parking. When I am going between SF and Oakland the train is usually faster and more convenient. Especially during peak commute times.

And if you really want to be able to park your car, you should support people taking the train. Otherwise there won't be much parking left for you if you really need it and it'll make your car transit experience suck more. :)

Only one kid, but in a rural area, and public transport is fine, better even. You don't need to fold up the pushchair to get it on the bus/train. The kid gets a good view out the windows, which he loves. Factor in the time to find a parking space, and door-to-door journey time is similar, even quicker. The one downside is frequency: our trains and buses only run once an hour, and when baby wants to go home, he wants to go home NOW.

Most modes of transportation have distinct advantages. For example: trains and busses give you freedoms that cars simply cannot. Ditto for cycling.

Besides, car culture tends to create an environment where the advantage is theirs alone. Cities that have good public transit or encourage active transportation tend to adapt to people's needs while still accommodating private vehicles.

> an appreciating asset

cities are quite resilient. i feel that apartments are more likely to get more expensive since the desirability of dense cities like nyc, london, tokyo, hongkong never seem to wane. but the suburbs and the rural areas, didn't these areas get hit the hardest in 2008? the 2008 GFC doesn't even show up on a HK property price chart.

> It's your space that you control

it is entirely possible my hangups about the suburbs are just as misplaced as this guy's concerns are about not having privacy in the city. i, for one, have never lived in a suburb.

The ubiquitous availability of smart phones gives public transit riders more freedom and control than was ever previously available. The ability to easily read news, listen to podcasts, watch movies, etc. makes bus and rail ride much more tolerable and arguably better than driving.

Unlike books?

I live (and own a little apartment) in inner city Melbourne, Australia.

Some kind chap tried to put together a combined metro/light rail map here: http://www.mappery.com/maps/Melbourne-Train-and-Tram-Map.png

I can't find a map that overlays the rapid or regular bus services on the same map, presumably because it would be a godforsaken near un-interpretable dense mess.

We own a car parking space under our building that I rent out to someone else for roughly $250 a month. Good for them, good for me.

I wouldn't ever fill a car trunk with groceries because a supermarket and several specialty stores are just around the corner if i need them, and meals and ingredients are delivered to my door each week.

I don't have to bother about the price of petrol, petrol stations, finding a park, walking from a park, servicing, registration or maintenance. I gain in health and fitness due to my walking, plus I meet my neighbours. When I do need to travel around, i catch one of the several trams all within 5 minutes walk. And when I do I get to read.

My community gets to fill in many of those areas that would be taken up by car parks with actual facilities and amenities. I have 5 libraries within half an hour walk of my front door. A university, acres of parkland and gardens, a public swimming pool, doctors, schools, several theaters, galleries, tennis courts, ovals, cricket nets, a couple of playgrounds, and several hundred cafes. We're also members of a car share, so in those odd times where we need/desire a car (which by my bank records, is about 4 times in the last year, and some of those were probably in moving/helping others move) we pick ones from the neighbourhood.

Property prices here are pretty good measures of desirability. And those prices are immensely higher the closer you get to the core of the historical city, or indeed the arteries and density of the public transport network.

Now don't get me wrong, I actually love rural living/driving as well. We have some older stuck-up neighbourhoods where wealthy people live with cars relatively close in, and the outer ring of the metropolis is pretty much car territory.

But the poorer you are here, the more likely you are to live further out, away from public transport, and the wealthy want to cram into the inner, older, historical suburbs built before the age of the automobile and serviced by the network.

And lets not also pretend that you haven't given up things...many things, as well as gained things, by preferencing to use an automobile, and choosing to live around others who also preference such.

Lets not also kid ourselves: one of the reasons some of the wealthy choose to be driven everywhere is because they have (real, justified or imagined) fear of mingling with the poor...

Rural needn't mean car-dependent. We're fortunate enough to (/chose deliberately to) live in a rural town, population 3000, with an excellent rail service (Charlbury, UK). The Scottish government recently reopened the rural Borders line and it's been a massive success. Heavy rail may not be practical or affordable everywhere, but buses should be - it just requires political will.

Why even allow cars in the cities? The air will be cleaner without them. Have parking spaces outside the center and then automatic electric shuttle trains to transport people in.

Walking and biking in the city center with lots of green areas.

No cars means clean air and safe traffic. Air pollution from cars is a silent killer.

>Have parking spaces outside the center and then automatic electric shuttle trains to transport people in.

I agree, and in fact I do this (park at BART in the East Bay and ride it into SF). The problem is, no one is advocating constructing these systems where they don't exist. They are advocating a direct ban (or prohibitively high tolls and parking scarcity) to prevent people who live outside the city from entering it at all. With maybe some handwaving about bicycles, or an assertion that walking 4 hours a day is good for you. Some of the same people are even advocating that we eliminate the existing parking at suburban light rail stations!

Because clearly what we need is even more pressure for even more people to pay astronomical rents.

The issue with things like raising pricing on existing parking infrastructure is that it doesn't fix the issue, it just pushes it down the line.

In otherwords, I still park in the city but I also get paid more to compensate for the costs of commuting, because it is still the best option available to me.

If they shifted the parking to the fringe of the CBD at various transport hubs and removed it entirely from the CBD then there would be more usable space for city inhabitants, uninhibited public transport and separated foot/bike traffic. All much better options than a car doing nothing on prime real estate for 8 hours a day.

I agree high quality park-n-ride from the edges is the way to do it. It's also hard to overstate the efficiency of parking smaller personal motor vehicles like ebikes, motorcycles, and scooters, which can do car-level distances comfortably (modulo freight and ice).

But given the income required to live in the city vs. in the surrounding area, I'm skeptical that we should be creating more playground for the well-heeled inhabitants of trendy neighborhoods at the expense of people who need to live car-sized distances away from the CBD (and transit hubs) to have decent homes at their income levels. Maybe if we thought the resultant construction could house at least as many new residents as the drivers it displaced.

> The problem is, no one is advocating this.

My city's (Prague's) administration actually supports this a lot, but since the city districts (and not the administration) actually hold power over what gets built in a specific district, and no district wants a big parking lot, the situation remains as bad as ever.

Or worse, bad compromises get through -- for instance park at the very edge of the city and then walk 10 minutes to a bus which takes another 15 minutes before you reach any subway station. A great political move to destroy the whole idea.

I wouldn't completely disallow cars (e.g. for the real locals) but I would make it less pleasant (e.g. more expensive) to drive your car through cities. When I visit Amsterdam I don't drive to the city center of Amsterdam, I drive to some train/bus station where I can park the car and get a ride into town that is included in the parking ticket. Parking in the city center is very expensive and it's a pain to drive.

So yes, transportation hubs!

Exactly what I hope will happen here. We are already starting to close down streets to make them walking only, and it's always so much more pleasant to do anything on those streets. Cities are ultimately for humans on foot. For me the priority should be for making better on foot experiences.

There is a mall in walkable distance so I go there even when it snows. At other times I purchase groceries online and there is a home delivery truck that delivers. I think the current delivery truck uses Diesel but it could become electric in the future.

I'm guessing it never snows where you live, and nobody ever needs to buy more than one bag of groceries at a time?

I live in a city (Seattle) and walk to the grocery store. I usually only buy one bag of groceries at a time. The grocery store is less than a 5 minute walk, so I don't need to make big trips and can make small trips often.

Similar to another poster, I live in Boston. We get a bit more than a meter (~41 inches I think) every year on average. Last year we got slammed with nearly 3 meters (about 9 feet) of snow.

Groceries? I walk. Have one option a 15-minute walk away, and two 25-minute walks away. I do 3 to 4 bags at a time, not a problem. I also have subway/bus literally across the street, and right next to highway for when driving to clients makes sense -- but usually can get to them via mass transit (subway and bus) so long as they're in certain areas within about 20 miles (32km) from where I live.

Still own a car, but it's only for fun, not necessity and I never use it for errands. If it wasn't for fun, I'd not bother with owning one.

not saying the parent poster's solution would 100% work, but as an anecdote:

I live in Boston. It snows here and I do often buy more than one bag of groceries at a time. Fortunately, I just walk two blocks down the street and go into one of the two grocery stores that are right there.

Compare where I grew up in southern NH: it snows there, too, but the nearest grocery store was a 20 minute drive, so of course I would drive there. Rural NH is not a city, though.

Snow is even more of a reason to get rid of cars. A car-less city with underground subways/metros and integrated residential/light commercial districts sounds like a dream. No more shovelling, no more plows, no more going outside during the cold wind! I would love to be able to go from my house to the grocery store and work and the movie theatre (or whatever else) without ever having to set foot outside. This is possible for some people in Toronto and a few other big cities (that I know of) but not the common case.

Remember downtown Minneapolis being like that for obvious reasons. I think a lot of people in the Minneapolis area have heated garages so essentially you can park in a garage downtown, walk around the skywalks between the downtown skyscrapers, and never have to set outside.

I was only there for the Superbowl and never actually walked one, so maybe it's not so convenient.

I lived 8 years above Arctic circle and never had a car. Cycling in summertime, walking in winter, 2 miles to the office, shops half-way.

What's the big deal?

I think it's easy to lose perspective of these luxuries that we now see as commodities. We've been marketed to that cars are status symbols of wealth, and that not owning a car means you're somehow a deviant, or too poor to own one - both of which are seen in a negative light.

The problem is that personal car ownership with our current technology does not scale up, when taking into account of environmental impact. Nor when you reflect on just how much public right of way we've given up to infrastructure for cars. Nor when you think of how many people die of automobile accidents. Nor or the impact cars have on living in social communities.

When it snows here, the roads become impassable but the trains keep running.

Speaking as someone who is from Vancouver, it is very hard for me to see it (or cities like it) as a good example. Congestion has skyrocketed there, and many people are wasting 5-10 hours a week in traffic delays because of infrastructure which does not match citizens' needs.

City planners have wreaked havoc on cities with their continual obsessions with fads; maybe they should focus on helping people get what they want instead of trying to change people.

Vancouver's suburbs are atrociously run. Rather than embrace the fact that they are some of the most desirable realestate in the world, they fight against intensification.

You have train stations next to million-dollar bungalows. That's madness. Build up.... But doing that raises the NIMBYs ire.

The challenge with intensification is that the benefits are to the city and the planet, but the downsides are local. City gets more property taxes with the same infrastructure, and a good node for transit. The world gets greener living. However, the neighbors get more traffic and cast shadows.

To me the solution is obvious: make paying off the neighbors part of the standard process.

> To me the solution is obvious: make paying off the neighbors part of the standard process.

I offer an alternative: the NIMBY's can keep their un-intensified environment, if they pay via taxes to fund the infrastructure that makes it possible to tie an intensified area elsewhere into the city transit infrastructure, and pay any necessary infrastructure to extend out to that intensified area (roads, utilities, datacomm, permitting, environmental studies, etc.). Currently the NIMBY's force an externality upon all other city residents by making the city grow outward (with costs increasing as the square of the linear distance from the city center) instead of upward (6X multiplier per square meter for high-rise skyscrapers over SFR's, don't know what the multiplier to add for expanding infrastructure).

So if the NIMBY's want to keep 100 hectares of SFR's as SFR's, no problem if they stump up the money to pay for the nearest 100 hectares that can be zoned for intensification, the rail extension to tie it to the city center, the roads to connect to it, etc. As long as the cost of the externality is captured and passed onto willing buyers, I don't see a problem with NIMBY's.

You: Hey NIMBYs, pay up.


You: There should be a law.

NIMBYs: Well, no elected official will pass such a law. If they do, we won't re-elect them.

You: I'll find enough YIMBYs to elect someone who will make you pay up.

NIMBYs: You'll find nasty greedy developers who want to bulldoze neighborhoods and kick Grandma out of her home? Go for it. We'll let the neighbors know all about it.

(edit: to be clear, I am a YIMBY and I agree with you in principle. But NIMBY rhetoric wins big in local politics, and I don't know enough effective YIMBY rhetoric to counter it.)

I've seen an interesting solution to the rhetoric you rightly point out that embeds the GP's solution into intensification: the NIMBY's are offered not just a unit that replaces their home, but an additional unit besides (perhaps a square meter-for-square meter exchange, rounded up to the nearest residence unit) for rental income, and are put up in a new temporary residence that the development costs cover (and thus the new residents pay for). As for local politics, YIMBYs always outnumber NIMBYs on a project-per-project basis, so instead of an all-encompassing ruling, I posit the YIMBYs put up each individual project's area for vote by the general population, possibly even as a slate of projects, by the general vote instead of representative vote. Taxing jurisdiction (municipality, county, state, *etc.) tells everyone: continue to let projects like this pass, and we can hold down taxes flat to the rate of inflation for the next N decades; let it fail, and they will double within X years (due to infrastructure costs increasing as the square of the distance from the city center).

Which is why, imho, "developers should be made to pay off the neighbors who will be negatively impacted by the intensification" is better than the above plan. It would turn the ambivalent into YIMBY and leave NIMBYism to the fringe curmudgeons.

But a land value tax as a partial replacement for property tax is also good.

So if what people want are car-based cities that work well, what should a city planner do? Take measures to limit growth? Massive taxes on new construction?

The city I grew up in had a population of around 27,000 people 30 years ago. I think it's roughly the same today. Unsurprisingly, traffic and parking work about as well today is it did when I was a teenager.

The Greater Vancouver Regional District is made up of many municipalities, so if only one limits growth, the others will probably absorb that additional population (causing increases in congestion).

Additional taxes on new construction would exacerbate any traffic problems by pushing people out to the suburbs (, especially with Vancouver's already high housing prices). I would argue for precisely the opposite: allow for much greater construction everywhere, with fewer restrictions. City planners' efforts to 'sculpt' a city usually involves restricting supply to force people to live where the planners want them to, which drives up prices and drives population to suburbs.

Luckily for me, the suburbs are exactly where I want to be.

You're thinking about housing construction and I was thinking more about commercial. If you limit business growth or make it very costly for new businesses to enter the area, then you will probably cut off massive population growth as well.

The cost of living goes up with popularity. Rents make sure you pay for the privilege of living in a popular place.

Car infrastructure like roads and parking doesn't scale so the only real alternative to congestion is rent - I.e congestion fees and more expensive parking.

If it was (say) $100 a day to enter a major city by car, and as much again to park, then congestion would be over. You might argue this is surrendering the roads to the 1% which it is, but it also quickly funds new infrastructure and public transport.

Less than 50% of households in NYC have a car. This is the thinking of people who want to live in the suburbs to have space then offload their car-centric lifestyle to people living in the city as they expect to drive within mere feet of their job.

>"Less than 50% of households in NYC have a car."

How is that relevant? NYC has its own issues, and is very far from Vancouver.

edit: comment above was originally only the eight words in my quote when I commented.

'“We could never do that in our city” – eight words I’ve heard many times all over the world.

It’s amazing how much energy goes into making excuses for why a city can’t get better.

Although I’ve heard great passion for better city-making here in Perth this week while working with the Heart Foundation, I’ve also heard some of those excuses, while working with stakeholders, politicians and State planning and transport staff.

“Perth is different,” I’ve been told, in various ways.

It’s true, Perth is different. Every city is. But you’re not THAT different. You’re really not.'

> It’s amazing how much energy goes into making excuses for why a city can’t get better.

At the end of the day there's one reason why most cities in the US won't have decent transit any time soon - that the people who would build the transit do so on the grounds that it is Virtuous and Glorious and Green. Beyond that, they make projections that everyone will ride it and that it'll reinvigorate the economy and reduce traffic. (And if you're against it that's probably because you're an evil Republican which means you probably voted for Trump which means you're probably a Nazi, but I digress.)

And then, instead, you get something that goes from nowhere to nowhere, and covers maybe 25% of its operating costs off ticket revenue... before the cost of capital expenditures.

And if you think this is exaggeration (including the Trump bits) try reading several articles about the Virginia Beach TIDE light rail project ... which, to sum it up in one number, gets roughly a $8000/rider/year subsidy from the city.

But the unionized public transport employees will vote for you and campaign for you and your causes forever.

The problem, like the author points out, is that you can build all the rail you want -- but you need to make sure that it goes to places dense enough to support it. When cities fail to do this, you get that ridiculousness.

BART's fare box recovery ratio is 75% and I believe that includes capex.

Almost every highway and road and most parking spaces have a revenue recovery ratio of 0%

I see your BART, and raise you Santa Clara VTA Rail.


> Almost every highway and road and most parking spaces have a revenue recovery ratio of 0%

Theoretically, that's what the fuel tax is for. At the federal level, the highway trust fund raised $35 billion in fuel tax and spend $39 billion on highways (and $8b on transit - the deficit here being covered by the general fund). If we wanted to be generous we'd say that's an 89% recovery ratio, which probably is totally unfair and ignores some important capex somewhere (recent "stimulus" spending, for example) but is substantially more than zero.

(State and municipal numbers are quite variable, I'm sure.)

  I see your BART, and
  raise you Santa Clara
  VTA Rail.
Right. Instead of joining BART, Santa Clara put that money into car centric expressways and the VTA system and then people use their poor transit planning to indict public transit systems that work.

  Theoretically, that's
  what the fuel tax is
Okay, I think we could say that. Except let's also take into account the following:

* That's federal spending on interstates only. State and local recovery ratios are lower. The road in front of your driveway is often the worst, it is an amazing outlay of public service to serve relatively few people.

* If you include fuel taxes as part of the recovery ratio for car infrastructure, you should include dedicated sales taxes and other funds as part of the recovery ratio for public transit infrastructure. (Remember, public infrastructure makes things better for car users too. Building an extra parking space helps one car, building a train helps everyone who rides that train and all the car users who no longer have to fight with those people for space on the road or for parking spaces.)

> Right. Instead of joining BART, Santa Clara put that money into car centric expressways and the VTA system and then people use their poor transit planning to indict public transit systems that work.

This is almost in line with my initial premise, that politicians putting together public transportation systems are the reason we can't have nice public transportation systems here in the US.

There is one reasonably good public transportation system (the NYC subway - much of it being privately built ages ago in a different sort of era) and several sorta-quasi-nice public transportation systems in the US. BART is one of the latter. We don't even make them like that anymore, though.

> * If you include fuel taxes as part of the recovery ratio for car infrastructure, you should include dedicated sales taxes and other funds as part of the recovery ratio for public transit infrastructure.

No way. Most gasoline and diesel that is sold is sold for the purpose of driving a vehicle on a public road, and it is roughly proportional to the use of that road. It could be closer to a fee-for-use provision if one added a separate tax on square-of-vehicle-axle-weight times distance - the real thing that wears down highways - but it is a lot more practical to enforce with a fuel tax and without computerized surveillance on all automobiles.

A sales tax on all transactions is completely different and drains unrelated economic activity to maintain and operate transport: the most common use of public transportation by volume is to commute to work, an activity that's pretty poorly connected with shopping at the store.

A dedicated fund covering a portion of taxpayer expenses does nothing to improve it, either (the money is fungible).

According to Wikipedia, it has ~5k riders per day, which is approx 2m per year.

Are you saying this 8mile light rail requires opex of $16bn, more than the entire NY subway system?

No, you're just counting every rider 400 times in an exercise where you are deliberately dense.

Who gets to define "better"?

The point is clearly that you might someday wake up and realize your behavior no longer matches the majority "citizen". If your city isn't like NYC right now it's only ever going to move in that direction.

>If your city isn't like NYC right now it's only ever going to move in that direction.

That's a hell of an assumption. I know people who live in NYC, making very good money, and they're all crammed into tiny apartments with multiple roommates because the congestion and rent are so ridiculous. That's fine for people in their early 20s, but do you really think these same people are still going to live in NYC once they get married and have kids? A small percent will buy a place in NYC, and the rest will move out to the suburbs.

If anything, I'd predict that small and walkable urban areas, interspersed inside large suburbs, are more likely to be the future growth areas.

No one making "very good money" (I assume >= $100k) needs to live with roommates in NYC. You can easily afford a 1br on that, and in a trendy neighborhood too, e.g. Williamsburg. And once you have a partner to move in with, you can easily afford a giant 1br or a 2br if you want that.

I know people with kids that live in NYC - it's perfectly affordable a bit further out into the boroughs and they all have the subway.

I also know a lot of people that had kids and moved to the burbs - but they all commute via public transport (either train or bus).

I guess my point is that anecdotes don't really mean anything?

I actually live in a city centre, a very walk-able area which is well served by public transit and bike lanes. This is not about me, this is about the thousands of people I've seen who are spending hours of their lives suffering in traffic.

What percentage of the population drives in Vancouver?

If only a smaller fraction of commuters are stuck in congestion the situation is probably working okay for everyone else.

It's getting bit dated but as of 2011, about 65% of metro Vancouver commutes by personal vehicle[1].


"Metro Vancouver" is not Vancouver, though. People there are the equivalent (from my NY perspective) of the people upstate, Jersey, and CT - they can have their cars if they want, but we shouldn't accommodate them here in Manhattan.

This is a complicated question because the (rich) population in the city center generally doesn't drive much, but the average resident in the (GVRD) area drives quite a bit. I don't think many people have even argued that the traffic situation is 'working okay'.

I don't think many people have even argued that the traffic situation is 'working okay'.

That isn't what I said. I implied that someone riding in a train probably doesn't care much about road congestion.

You asked "What percentage of the population drives in Vancouver?", and another commenter replied that it is about 65%, which means it is unlikely that most people see massive congestion as 'okay'.

> This is a complicated question because the (rich) population in the city center

This is a MYTH that must be ended someday. No, not only people living in most city centres are not rich, but they are even poorer than people living in the suburbs.

In my country, this the case for every single city except the capital.

I don't know Vancouver, but a 5 minute search of maps of densities and maps of income seem to confirm this again: centre, dense areas are the poorest.

And yet, on every thread (same in US forums or at my place) about transportation, transit, housing, bicycle(!), urbanisation, whatever that relates to cities, someone (or many) will come and say that people from the centre are rich and privileged and that the suburban people are poor and that they had no other choice than to move there to survive.

Truth is, except for a few slum-like suburbs, other suburbs are mostly populated by people who chose to move there to have a bit of a garden or to have bigger houses or to park their cars or to have dogs or to have a swimming pool, etc. and these people have a higher living standard.

Nope. Sorry, but lots of cities have very expensive housing in the center where rich people live. I will start with NYC, San Francisco, LA, London, Sydney, Boston, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Prague, Munich, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, Copenhagen...

My comment is accurate when applied specifically to Vancouver, where a condominium can easily cost >$1000/sqft; I am not sure what is happening in other cities.

Not that simple. Take a city like Chicago. There are areas where less than a mile separates the extremes of wealth and poverty. And they are in the city, maybe not dead center but certainly not in the 'burbs

This is part of the reason many European cities are so walkable and livable, they were designed for people rather than vehicles.

I think the problem is less how cities were designed and more how Americans wanted (and maybe still want) to live. Los Angeles is probably the epitome of the American city designed for the car, now suffering from some of the worst traffic on the planet. And, yet, because people are finally starting to demand walkability, it's becoming walkable at an awesomely fast pace. In just the last 4 years, the West Side seems to have gone 180. It's projected to be the 11th most walkable city in the U.S. in the near future [1]--keep in mind the sheer insane size of LA. And, that's despite having been clearly planned NOT to be walkable.

The will of the people is stronger than the plan.

1: http://time.com/money/2887232/the-futures-most-walkable-citi...

> how Americans wanted (and maybe still want) to live

In a free market economy, we should take home prices as an indication of how people want to live. The densest, most walkable city centers tend to have the most expensive homes. Manhattan being the extreme data point.

No, we shouldn't. In a free market economy with an equal distribution of wealth and income (which is unlikely to be a sustainable state), that would make some sense, but in a free market economy with a distribution of wealth and income similar to that of our real economy, prices are at best a wealth-weighted indication of preferences. And even then, you need to be careful about whether the variable you are looking at is really the demand driver.

> The densest, most walkable city centers tend to have the most expensive homes. Manhattan being the extreme data point.

Alternatively, places that are attractive places to live (e.g., because of climate and access to fresh water) or to locate trade centers (e.g., because of natural ports, navigable inland waterways, etc.) tend to be high demand places to live, driving both price and density. In this view, Manhattan isn't in demand because it's dense, it's dense because it's in demand.

That's fallacious reasoning. Price is determined by demand AND SUPPLY. There is way more housing capacity in suburbia than in urban centers, and it's much easier to build more suburban housing than it is to build more urban housing. It is completely possible that most people prefer suburbia, but that there is more demand per unit of available urban housing.

LA is pretty walkable, thats part of the reason its not very drivable. Limited road capacity. It actually wasn't even designed originally for the car, it had an extensive electric rail system.

I think a couple of things have helped their cities compared to the US. Their cities developed and grew before cars became locally mass-available and our move to the city (from farms) more or less coincided with the rise and availability of cars to consumers. Especially post-wwii. Plus, in suburban Europe, you see more cars. However, in cities, which developed before cars, they have lots of public transit with the requisite higher density housing.

"Suburban Europe" is sort of a tricky concept. In most countries, you have the outskirts of cities, and then you have the countryside with towns and farmland. You generally need to own a car in the latter areas, though you also typically get half-decent bus service.

Even in the UK I don't think there's anywhere that truly resembles American suburbia, with its vast sprawling acres of large houses and large yards where it's actually impossible to safely walk anywhere. It's a uniquely inefficient design.

True, in Europe as in advanced east Asian countries, the urban rural/agrarian transition is usually more abrupt. One side of the road is development the other is fields. However, Marseilles, for example [I imagine outer London and beyond has areas exhibiting suburban detached housing tracts] do have suburbs and if you want some mobility you need an estate sedan or the like to get things done.

There are some "suburbs" in the UK, but they're much more compact than American ones, and usually still have some local shops and public transport.

"Even in the UK I don't think there's anywhere that truly resembles American suburbia"

I once visited a very new housing development in Marbella (Southern Spain) that was identical to new housing developments in San Diego. Two car attached garages, everyone had cars. It was completely American. Eerie.

I think this is probably oversimplifying a bit. Most big north American cities also predate cars, even if not by much. By my understanding, many of those cities had public transportation systems in place that were outright dismantled in the drive to a car-centric urban design.

So I don't think it's a matter of never having had it. It seems like we have actually regressed.

It does simplify it a bit, but consider that the pop for US cities ramped up after the turn of the 20th c. (in 1900 it was approx. 70% rural 30% urban, by 1940 it was 55% urban vs 45% rural) So when they grew cars were becoming more ubiquitous. We also have different land-use regs which affect how land can be used.

Mass transit has to be understood in terms of how it allows spread. Buses allow people to commute rather than walk. Trolleys, cars, horses and subways do the same. Some of those trolley lines were put in place to make the new developments attractive to people who would have to work in the city center. As cars become more available fewer people opted for trolleys and they got pulled (some people believe the GM-LA deal for buses lead to the demise of all trolleys, but I think that's more wishful thinking. However, trolleys then, as today, are relatively expensive to run and investors are better off making money elsewhere.

A recent video I found to be pretty interesting covering this topic among others regarding city density and comparisons between Europe and the US: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQSxPzafO_k

I have an idea: stop making people commute to work. Half of the folk who hop in their cars every morning to spend two hours in traffic have no business going anywhere - their line of work doesn't require them to be in any specific place.


Here's the 2016 update of the "Walkscore": https://www.walkscore.com/cities-and-neighborhoods/

1. NYC

2. San Francisco

3. Boston


7. Washington DC

This list makes a lot more sense than the 2014 list.

To me, SF does not seem particularly walkable, bike friendly, nor transit friendly (it is ranked #2 for all). It isn't terrible, but #2 in the nation?

I think that might speak more to the dismal state of cities in the rest of the country, rather than SF being particularly good.

My city, Indianapolis, is in the bottom 10 for all three scores. Not surprising, its in the 5th largest US capital by land [1]. Owning a car is a must. The city has great highways, but you have to use them to get anywhere. Public transit outside of main thorough fares is nonexistent, there is a single major bike path, and good luck trying to walk to a grocery store [2].

I live in the downtown area, which is fairly walkable, but its equivalent to a single neighborhood in a larger city. To get another nonresidential neighborhood, you have to drive 3-5 miles.

People keep telling me Indianapolis is going to blow up, that is just on the brink of making it big time. That is only because land is so cheap. And land is only so cheap, because its so spread out. But that means the city is essentially suburbs with a few high density hubs.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_capitals_in_the_United... 2. http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/indianapolis-ranks-worst-...

I think the reason many people refuse use public transit, me included, is because it is costly, the service sucks, and it takes twice as long to get anywhere. The foul smell and filthy conditions that too often accompany the public transportation experience aren't good selling-points either.

Where I currently live, the high-speed commuter trains, which only stop at a handful of hubs, come every 30 minutes during the morning and evening rushes, and then once an hour outside of those times. Even then, sometimes the train goes all the way to my destination, but other times, it stops and goes out of service half-way there, so I end up having to wait for 30 minutes for the next train.

Regular trains, that stop at every station, arrive every 15 minutes, and are NOT coordinated, meaning that instead of being able to transfer by jumping off one train and walking across the platform to get on another, or waiting just a minute or two, I end up standing around for 12 minutes for the transfer train to arrive.

In my case, I can drive to work in 40 to 50 minutes in heavy traffic, or I can take the train and get there in an hour and a half each way.

Furthermore, rail passes are a joke where I live. They don't sell a pass for just the commuter train, or just between two commuting points. Instead, you have to buy the premium pass, which includes bus, train, and commuter rail services to everywhere the transit authority goes. I don't need that! A monthly commuter rail pass costs $198.00. I drive a Toyota Avalon Hybrid, and a rail pass ends up costing me about $100 more a month that I spend on gas.

If we want to make public transit attractive, it has to be cheaper and faster than driving, otherwise nobody with an ounce of economic sense will do it. I lived in Japan for a number of years, and the train system there is one of the best in the world. It is cheaper and faster to use the trains there, so most people do. I never wanted to own a car while I lived in Japan. In their society, especially in big cities, it is cars that don't make economic sense. This is what must take place for a public transit society to exist in America, in my opinion. We can't provide an abysmal experience for riders, and expect anything to change.

> If we want to make public transit attractive, it has to be cheaper and faster than driving, otherwise nobody with an ounce of economic sense will do it.

Hell, I would take either one of those--cheaper OR faster. Where I live and work, public transit is neither of those.

Posted this on an Uber tread the other day:

I live in New York, frequently travel to suburbs around the country and world, and have not missed for a second the driver's license I gave up almost 5 years ago.

It's not always seamless, but neither is driving. A shockingly good trade, already, and one that will only get better as cars drive themselves.

Although taking Uber isn't any different than having your own car -- as far as highways being over-capacity.

Uber may save on parking density, but not traffic density.


(Maybe your argument is that you normally walk/bike/train, and use Uber for rare special situations?)

Although not having a car makes one more likely to use public transit, even if you take uber most of the time.

Self driving buses will be smaller, more flexible, and less of a hindrance to traffic than current buses, because there will be no need to amortize the cost of a driver over so many passengers.

Self driving cars will reduce the cost of Uber-like services as well, and lower the cost of tunneling (self driving cars will mean higher capacity and smaller shoulders and lanes, and electric cars will mean less ventilation required). Going underground is the best way to increase travel speeds and reduce friction between pedestrians and vehicles. Cities should look more like Venice.

Venice is sinking and floods regularly, by the way.

The car of the future fixes many of the problems, and it fits right into existing infrastructure. Think autonomous electric single/dual occupant taxis (2+ per lane).

We are still a ways off, but this is where things are headed.

We might not need the parking, but the roads will be useful.

This piece is centered on congestion and moving from a place to another, but the discussion on how to manage cars in a city extend beyond that 'moving' part.

Roads are also the target of a lot of rethinking, and the model where whole blocks of the city are completely closed to motorized circulation got traction in a few big cities already.

If I were making decisions in a city that was currently car-centric, I would wait until the effects of self-driving cars are better understood before making dramatic changes.

If we get fleets of on-demand self driving cars in cities that are currently car-centric, many of the disadvantages of car transportation will be ameliorated. A 45 minute commute by car is no fun, but when the car is able to drive itself and you've got high speed wireless data access, it probably won't be so bad.

If a self-driving car makes driving more palatable, people will buy homes behind even longer commutes, and you get even more traffic (more miles driven per day). The throughput capacity of a road (cars per hour) will not improve much, so they may even make congestion worse.

I think it's too early to be sure of the effects.

A widely available fleet of self-driving cars may help the last-mile problem with public transportation (how do you get from, say, the subway station to your workplace or from the subway station to your house). If this makes public transportation easier, this may decrease miles driven per day.

Will self-driving cars reduce the accident rate, and the congestion that results from traffic slowdowns near accidents?

Will self-driving cars make better use of less obvious travel routes and avoid bottlenecks in the road network?

Yes, that's also a common problem with infrastructures (be they road or public transit): each time you spend millions (or billions) building/improving them, people go farther, keeping more or less the same commuting time (and keeping complaining about it), thus you then have 2 new problems instead of 1: the congestion happens farther on areas/lines you haven't treated yet, and soon it also accumulates on the sections you have just treated because new traffic from remote places ends up gathering there, making them as congested as they were before you spent m/billions on them...

That's my concern too. In LA and DC there are plenty of people who have 90 minutes commute each way. With autonomous cars this is much less painful so people may move even further away from work.

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