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Do we really need mass transit to limit our dependence on cars?

Do we really need mass transit to limit our dependence on cars?
Minnesota Department of Transportation
Many U.S. cities, including ours, have spread themselves so wide and so thin that for years, city planners figured that roads and freeways were the only cost-efficient form of transportation.

The notion that we need more public transit starts with a premise that most of us can embrace. We, meaning human beings — and particularly those in developed countries — are messing up the atmosphere.

How? Well, in lots of ways, but according to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, the cars and trucks we drive are responsible for anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of the air pollution in urban areas. And, even if you think that automobile transportation is an American birthright guaranteed by God, you're no doubt aware of the unhealthy effects of the hydrocarbons and other junk that we're taking in — and you probably can get behind the idea that maybe pollution would decrease if we drove less.

Mass transit, however, needs a critical mass of customers to make sense. You wouldn't build a subway system across the Gobi desert because only the odd nomad would be around to use it. Similarly, many U.S. cities, including ours, while hardly deserts, have spread themselves so wide and so thin that for years, city planners figured that roads and freeways were the only cost-efficient form of transportation.  

Ultimately, however, as the increasing number of cars boosted pollution, congestion and commuting times, planners came up with a kind of retrofit: transit would become cost effective if you encouraged high-density development around it. The strategy, called, TOD or transit-oriented development, when translated from plannerese,  means building up housing, offices and retail outlets within a half-mile or so of a rail stop, thus creating a walkable neighborhood with lots of pedestrian amenities. All that would encourage people to walk, bicycle and use transit instead of driving. Air would get cleaner, dependence on foreign oil would drop, and a thousand flowers would bloom.

No fewer than a jillion U.S. communities either have or are trying to ramp up TOD around the transit they already have or, in the case of the Twin Cities, are building (and hope to build as soon as we can scratch up the billions of dollars we need).

But here's the crucial question: Does TOD really decrease driving?

Studies have come down on both sides of the issue. The latest, from Daniel G. Chatman, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, made a pretty thorough investigation of the matter and concluded that people living in TOD areas did drive less, but — and here's the surprise — not because of the availability of transit.

Households surveyed

Makes no sense, you say? Well, read on. Chatman surveyed a couple of thousand households living — some in new TOD developments and some in older housing — within two miles of 10 rail stations in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, including Trenton, South Amboy, Westfield and South Orange (which have population densities similar to Minneapolis, 3,000 to 8,000 people a square mile). He asked them about the type of housing they lived in, their access to parking, their work and non-work travel patterns, their demographics and reasons for choosing their neighborhoods. He added parking data collected from a field survey and then figured how each of the factors correlated with auto use.

What he concluded from all this was that it wasn't so much the availability of transit that made people use cars less, but density itself. Higher density means "lower on- and off-street parking availability, better bus service and more jobs, stores and people within walking distance."

People who lived in the newer housing, usually made up of small rental units, tended to use cars less than everybody else, possibly, he suggests, because they are younger and have lower incomes. Most crucial seems to be lousy parking, and as a survivor of alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations in New York City, I can attest that nothing encourages use of mass transit more than such auto-related misery.

Instead of making multi-billion dollar investments in rail transit, Chatman argues, we may be able to reduce energy use and pollution just as much by creating incentives for higher-density mixed-use developments (incorporating housing, retail and offices) in certain areas while strictly limiting parking. Problem is, the local inconveniences of greater congestion and less parking would probably tick off neighbors and their elected representatives. Working all that out, he says,"is the planning puzzle that deserves our focused attention. The pursuit of rail-oriented development may be a distraction."

As I was wading through Chatman's multi-variate regression analyses (OK, I mostly skimmed them), I happened to recall that I'd recently read another study — this one local — that teases out information complementing his findings.

The purpose of this one was to find out how much transit matters to employers and developers when they decide where to locate a project or business. To that end, Yingling Fan, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Andrew Guthrie, a research fellow, conducted a series of open-ended interviews with 24 developers, 16 corporados and three commercial real-estate brokers.

The answer researchers got: transit — not so much.  

Employers, for example, liked the idea of being near a rail or bus line — in theory, at least. They are aware that members of the younger millennial generation (born after 1982) prefer urban living and transit access. Attracting them would be easier for businesses locating near transit. But employers also want to retain current workers, many of whom already commute by car. If they moved their business to a denser area where parking was less available, those older employees might ditch them for the competition. 

About a third of the 24 developers interviewed said they considered mass transit an important factor in location. But if the site proved more expensive than otherwise, or if there would be more red tape involved than with another location, they weren't interested. And apparently red tape abounds. Developers complained in particular of zoning codes that allowed only a single-use, high-minimum parking requirements and low-maximum densities.

List of recommendations

Yingling and Guthrie issued a long list of recommendations that might help nudge developers and employers toward TOD areas, including tax abatements. Local governments have already ramped up efforts — a bit — to create high-density nodes. A couple of years ago, Minneapolis hired a director of transit-oriented development, and St. Paul is now looking for one — though it's also looking for foundation grants to fund the position. The Met Council awards grants to transit-oriented projects to clean up polluted land and aid in assembling land, but the total available is only $8 million.

Minneapolis has already changed zoning around the Blue LRT line (that's the one running down Hiawatha) to allow higher-density housing, as many as 100 units per acre, without special permission and mixed-use buildings. Among other things, the new regulation requires less off-street parking than in other parts of the city, more pedestrian-oriented design (windows on the street, for example) and prohibits stand-alone fast-food joints. Since 2001, 1,466 units of housing have been added to the immediate area, with another 1,000 or so in the talking-about-it stage. 

Note: The last paragraph of this version reflects newer information on zoning.

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Comments (41)

The difference

The analysis is nice. It can tease out the details. But it doesn't look at the whole picture. The thing of it is, at least in the Twin Cities, there is no holistic approach. Look at what the developers say. Also, look at what they do. Check out Maple Grove. Nice, big transit station. Nice walkable shopping area immediately adjacent the transit station. No houses, few local bus options, limited hours. Essentially, it's an outdoor mall with a park and ride and street parking because no one actually lives close enough to walk. And even if they did, their ability to get anywhere else, say Downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, is restricted to very strict business hours. Work a bit late? Oops. Get thee to a cab. Or drive. Now, that doesn't mean that the MG transit station is empty. But it certainly could be a lot more effective than it is if it was designed with actual life in mind. Instead, you not only have to drive to the transit station and/or shopping, but if you work longer hours, there's no sense in even taking advantage of public transit. Lose/lose. Granted, it's a bit of a "build it and they will come" type situation. But, alas, it is what it is.

Good article

I'm glad that you noted the role of vehicle exhaust and air pollution. I frequently tell people that vehicle emissions are the single largest source of air pollution in the state, and they are often surprised to hear this.

Jevons' paradox

The more we conserve, the more we consume:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

The car-as-default option is

The car-as-default option is so ingrained in most Americans' lives that most really don't even think about the equation. As someone who doesn't own a car but will occasionally borrow one, I think most regular drivers over-estimate the hassle of being a public transit user. It's the occasional inconvenience of being three minutes late on a bus because the driver had to set up a wheelchair-bound passenger, versus the near-constant stress of circling poorly-designed parking lots, dodging other drivers, and so on.

Of course not everyone lives in a place where high-frequency transit is possible, but that said, I can't even imagine what it would be like to sit in traffic for 45 minutes each way, every working day of my life, let alone need to get in a car to buy a stick of gum. And there's something to be said for living somewhere where your kids can have some automony pre-driver's license age, instead of having a parent serve as chauffeur until they're in high school.

There are some great comments

There are some great comments to this article and I agree that artificially creating auto problems is the wrong approach. Providing adequate transit is the better option, giving people convenient options.

I foolishly bought my house in a neighborhood that I didn't think could change much. It was close to every type of retail and restaurant that I wanted, so I could walk for groceries, pet supplies, craft supplies, and dining out. It was close to major bus lines. It was also close to a freeway, which I truly only used when I visited family out of state. I hate to drive and I thought that I landed in Heaven with a house that was within my budget and in a location where I didn't have to drive.

However, as Metro Transit cuts are made due to paying off light rail and from legislative cuts, the frequency of buses in the Midway of St Paul continue to get worse as does the available retail. The 53 is hardly operational, the 94 will be reduced and the Midway stop eliminated, the 144 eliminated, the 16 likely reduced to every 30 minutes.

Cuts like these do inconvenience people and create more of a need to drive. While I have no problem awaking 45 minutes earlier to catch the 21 to work in Minneapolis, most people I know would find the extra 45 minutes valuable to spend with family, sleep, walk the dog, etc. if I drove to work from my location, I would sleep an extra 45 minutes. I live and work in a very urban area. It shouldn't be that bad.

And while the commute home on weekdays via car or bus is exactly the same amount of time (about 40 minutes), if I work on weekends and take the bus, I still wake 45 minutes earlier to take a 20 minute bus ride to get there and another 40 minutes to get home when the car commute time is only 10 minutes each way. That's if I time things right for leaving work...weekend bus service is worse than weekday service.

So, no, I don't think people over estimate the inconvience of the bus. It was never great to begin with, and it is only getting worse. Someday, maybe our focus will actually be on transporting people, but we are a long way from it, even in the urban areas.

They built an absurdity

I would like to add a visual to what Rachel Kahler described. Use Google Maps satellite view and zoom into the “Maple Grove Transit Station”. Then zoom out a bit and take in the bigger picture of the area.

There are spokes of walkable shops, but each is surrounded and separated by acres of asphalt parking lots and divided highways. There are trails and sidewalks, but the car is clearly king because a pedestrians must cross five or even seven lanes at the intersections.

I’ve always considered this area the absurd extreme that results from having enough money to build everything you say you want –while completely missing the point.

The retail areas try very hard to look like lively walkable streets, but you need to a car to get from one to the other.

Don't be stupid.

It would be stupid to build high density/low parking space housing without transit, you have to build them together, or they have to be coordinated. Business people are no kind of gurus, they don't care how they're employees get to work. Developers left to their own devices give you sprawl and oversized projects. And it's not just parking where you live, it's parking where you go. Free parking at the mall means you drive to the mall. Expensive parking downtown means you look for transit options hence the popularity of the Hiawatha line. Just because you have a car doesn't mean you need or want to drive it. I'm guessing most transit users and bikers in the twin cities actually own cars.

I think discussions like this really emphasize just how auto-centric our culture is. You don't build transit around cars, you build transit around people. You don't build transit to get cars off the road, you build transit so people can get around. Most of the big transit systems in the world pre-dated the automobile. We would still have street cars if we'd decided to subsidize them like we eventually did with buses. We have this weird expectation that somehow we're building transit to benefit the people who don't use it, or that transit makes no sense unless it benefits the people who don't use it. It's weird.

Car Owners

"I'm guessing most transit users and bikers in the twin cities actually own cars."

Speaking personally, I do indeed have a car. People who have been reading MinnPost articles in recent weeks know that I've parked the car for commuting purposes and have gone strictly with the bike and bus. I love the convenience of the car, but lately it's been taking me more time to drive home than it does to bike. Couple that with the fact that Minneapolis is jacking the parking rates here at work and it was an easy decision to make.

I also work for a nonprofit, which is another way of saying I don't make a lot of money. Biking and a bus pass save me about $2000 per year over driving. And that's assuming that gas prices don't get jacked over four bucks a gallon again.

Quite frankly, I wouldn't have even considered the biking option if the metro area didn't have amenities like the Midtown Greenway and the Cedar Lake trail. Build it and they will come? I certainly did indeed.

Me too, I own 3 of 'em

Have a Chevy Astro (8-passengers, once used for kids' car pools), Saturn (America's "New Car Company," remember?) and a Prius. Rode a bike 7 miles to work downtown today. Usually ride a bus. Pay for downtown ramp parking about three times a year. Bus transit can take me as little as 12 minutes from start to finish, with an average of less than one block to and from the stops at each end.

Car Centric

One of the points missed here is that the article assumes most people can and want to drive. It's briefly mentioned that the post 1982 kids can't afford a car or don't want the additional expense. But there are a lot more categories to add to that mix. Some are too young to drive yet, too elderly to drive, don't have the eyesight, or are from out of town or out of country and don't want the hassle of driving in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar driving laws. i.e. tourists.

Another implication I got from the article is that if you build dens neighborhoods, then mass transit will become a necessity because parking is such a pain in the rear. Personally I think the goal would be to ease parking and driving problems by implementing mass transit rather than deliberately create a cluster truck (pardon the pun) by making parking near impossible. Urban planning should ease the daily grind of people's lives, not deliberately make it worse.

Major changes

need to be made for any real impact on reducing transportation energy use. Even though gas prices have steadily risen, car ownership costs anywhere between $6-10k per year, and demographics are changing slowly to prefer more walkable areas to live/work, the ingrained desire for transportation is still the personal automobile. There are many factors involved, but the reality is that people perceive the convenience/comfort, flexibility, and (perceived) time savings of a vehicle as being worth the marginal cost of use (basically gas price, the only thing they see increase the more they drive) vs walking, biking, or taking transit everywhere.

But this is only because none of us are paying a true market price for the decisions we make on how to get around, where to live, etc. Cap and trade and flat out carbon prices continue to be shot down despite being the only viable market way to capture the future costs of vehicle pollution on our health and environment. The same carbon taxes would make larger living (heating/cooling houses, mowing lawns, etc) far less affordable. Many assume their gas tax and motor vehicle registration covers the capital and maintenance cost of roads they drive on (which they don't). We subsidize our car storage (parking) directly (municipal parking garages and on-street parking charging $0 or below market rates) and indirectly (private businesses including the cost of building/maintaining their parking in to the price of their goods or housing prices) to the point that 99% of car trips taken park for "free." We continue to force this car-storage mania with parking minimums on new development and absurd moves like earmarking $100 million of the $585M state aid to the Mayo expansion in Rochester to a parking garage. In fact, we've so religiously devoted ourselves to providing car storage everywhere with ultra-wide streets that we can't even consume any more of it at a price of $0 (a quick drive down any 30' wide suburban street or even most streets in South Minneapolis will show you how much we've spent on ensuring parking is abundant and 'free' everywhere we go). Kudos to Minneapolis for mostly ridding their codes of minimums in downtown district zoning areas, but this should be the norm everywhere!

The hierarchy of transportation for getting around should be: walk -> bike -> transit -> auto, with market prices on each affecting mode choice based on distance, time and convenience in weather. However, we continue to codify areas that won't support this hierarchy by building over-wide streets that immediately increase the distance from point A to B (and oftentimes physically prevent people from walking). We limit lot coverage, height, setbacks, etc. We separate uses with our zoning policies such that the nearest convenience store, grocery store, school, etc is often too far a walk to be actually convenient. I could go on.

These ways that we've subsidized the use of cars and codified their necessity in to our places make them the natural choice for getting around. That's why TOD fails - it still frames the discussion of development around the transit instead of the people themselves. Narrow the streets (they'll be safer, too), get rid of parking minimums, charge market prices for parking/road use/pollution, change zoning codes, and I guarantee the market will respond with development. In fact, it might even happen before you build the transit lines, and then you have pockets of high-value places that would support transit ridership on their own.

Urban Density

One of the things I don't understand about studies like this is the claim that we don't have the urban density necessary to support rail transport. Yet a hundred years ago we had an extensive trolley system stretching from White Bear Lake in the east to Lake Minnetonka in the west, all with an population that's half what it is now. Granted, cars were only starting to get market penetration back then and now they take up a much greater portion of our transportation needs. But the claim alone that we don't have the population density today for mass transit seems a little spurious to me.

Re: Urban Density

Actually, all this talk of TOD is nothing new. It happened right here in the twin cities a century ago. Street car lines from the central cities extended to Hastings, White Bear Lake, Anoka and Lake Minnetonka back in the hey day of transit development. If you look at where these line ran, you can still see their finger prints even today - corridors developed prior to WWII around the areas serviced by the street cars. Public transit serviced the very dense central cities (Minneapolis had 500,000+ residents and a much higher percentage of the total population of Hennepin county than it does today) and significant number of people coming to Minnesota to vacation at the hotels located on the lakes. TOD happened around the street cars stops on these routes to the far flung corners of the metro area.

What happened after the war was the "filling in" of the spaces in between these spokes. This is where the low density development of the last 70 years has occurred, not to mention the population shrinkage of the central cities which hollowed out the dense inner city areas.

Lots of good points

…in the comments. What I took away from Jane Jacobs’ writings is that “variety,” not necessarily transit, is what makes cities work. In that context, I find it very hard to argue with Todd Hintz’ second paragraph. Mixed-use neighborhoods, where people can walk to restaurants, shopping and other consumer services, make transit — in any form except the pedestrian — less necessary.

My own experience, when I lived in an area served by meaningful mass transit, was that I drove less to some destinations, but continued to drive to others. Paul Udstrand is on target in this regard. When I lived in St. Louis, I never drove downtown, but always took light rail if there was a musical event or a Cardinals game for which I had tickets. When I lived in Denver, I never drove downtown, but always took the express bus (this year, light rail will take the place of the bus, but it wasn’t available when I lived there) to a Rockies game or a theater performance at the Denver Center. I’ve driven to downtown Minneapolis for MinnPost events, and to the Guthrie, but that’s because it becomes a 2+-hour journey, each way, if I rely on Metro Transit buses. For Twins games, I drive to the Fridley station and ride Northstar to Target Field. Even if someone paid for my parking, I’d never, ever drive to a Twins game.

Rachel and EG Gilbert are spot-on about Maple Grove. When I’d first arrived as a resident, and was beginning to explore the area a bit, I made a field trip out there and took numerous photos of the Maple Grove “Transit Station,” not to mention the enormous outdoor mall surrounding it, and stretching for more than a mile on the north side of I-694. There must be at least a dozen shopping “nodes,” but it’s not only exhausting, it’s dangerous if you’re a pedestrian, as Gilbert pointed out. The traffic around “The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes” is not low-speed, and crossing one of the main thoroughfares is definitely a risky proposition. While the attempt has been made, perhaps too obviously, to make it appear to be a “village,” the fact is, as Rachel pointed out, no one actually lives there, and all that’s necessary to prove the validity of Nick Magrino’s point about the supremacy of the automobile is to simply stand outside and watch. You have to stand, of course, because the development provides few pedestrian amenities like places to sit down that aren’t inside a store or restaurant.

My own mantra as a planning commissioner was “Mixed Use, Mixed Income.” What I find missing from most of the grand plans devised for fiscally-starved urban areas is any — and I do mean ANY — sort of provision for those of modest means (waiters, waitresses, other service workers, billing clerks, hospitality workers in hotels, etc.) to either use the glorious new transit system that’s being planned, or to house them near enough to their jobs that they might realistically plan to walk to work, the grocery, etc. No one builds condos that are NOT “luxury,” and the same seems to apply to apartments, especially if those condos and apartments are near the new transit system. The people who NEED mass transit the most are often erased from the picture, and it becomes an amenity for the young and relatively affluent. To the degree that such snobbery actually becomes part of the built environment, new development becomes a curse rather than a blessing, and the same snobbery makes sprawl very nearly inevitable.

I’ve found public transit to be more efficient and more effective at meeting my own personal transportation needs in St. Louis and in Denver than in the Twin Cities. As I’ve repeated often, my neighborhood in Minneapolis has almost none of the amenities that are supposed to make city life tolerable. There’s no retail at all, of any kind, and geographically, it’s the equivalent of northwest Arizona, cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. In my case, it’s the Humboldt rail yard that very effectively separates my neighborhood from the rest of the city.

One more thing that Gilbert forgot to mention, but has probably noticed, is that, once inside one of the retail nodes at Maple Grove, there are no sidewalks. True, some of the main streets have sidewalks, rarely used next to 50 mph traffic, but inside each of the retail areas, the only sidewalks that exist are from one storefront to another. There are no sidewalks a pedestrian might use to go from one node to another. It’s assumed, as it’s always assumed, and as Nick Magrino pointed out, that we’re all going to drive.

Still chuckling after the thought of my

90 year old mother biking or walking to her doctor appointment 3 miles from her residence. Just where does she put her walker on the bike? Or for that matter on a transit option.

But that vision aside. I think Mr. Hintz has a good point. Transportation is both responsive and a driver of development. As he stated White Bear Lake (actually Wildwood) and Lake Minnetonka (I believe Excelsior) were at the end of the line for the street cars. And those street cars were frequently used. The ends of the routes each had attractions to increase usage. Much like the Northern Lights Express to Duluth stopping at Hinckley would.

Interestingly enough when I asked my parents what they each did after the street cars were removed the answer was "car pool" neither of them transitioned to buses. So the bus transit didn't even cover the street car coverage.

If I had an option to take a train - subway - light rail from White Bear Lake or Hugo - where there is an abandoned rail way bed to Minneapolis I would. Currently there is a rail and all it needs is a passenger train, however instead the plan is to pull the rail and pave it for a bike trail. Now that is perhaps the dumbest plan I have heard in a long time. I suspect that use as a transit line actually might provide more ridership for commuters than a bike trail. Plan for recreation and plan for transit are in two different legislative committees and probably two different departments in Met Council and they seem to be asleep. So the tracks get pulled and the trail goes in to be replaced by the tracks again say 10 years from now. That is both irrational and wasteful.

But that may just be exaserbated by the fact that not all suburbs want transit. It just brings poor people to the neighborhood, and if you don't think that's true sit in on some city council meetings and see how many of the issues involve protecting property values. Having a car as a necessity set's an income threshold for residents, which can translate into higher property values. Therefore Transit =Poor = lower local government revenue. It is not in a suburbs financial best interest to diversify housing or transportation toward lower income residents.

I would sometimes like to see transit discussed from a first and second tier suburbs perspective not a urbofile's perspective.

Yes and no...

Right. My parents in their 80s need to use the car (and thankfully can still operate one) to get to the Dr.

But -- how many tiers of suburbs are we going to have before we end that retreat from urbo? My g-gparents lived in a house, now part of the Seward Cafe parking lot of Franklin Av, in the 1920s. My grandparents on both sides lived in the 5000s by the airport c. 1930s-90s. I grew up in Bloomington in the 50's, and my siblings range from an inner core of Savage and Roseville to an outer core of Webster and Monticello. I'm back in the city proper. What's next, Iowa and Manitoba?

Respectfully,

it's just as ludicrous to have a vision of 90 year olds with poor eyesight driving around. I don't think many areas of the world deemed 'highly walkable' would have a doctor's office more than half a mile away, certainly not 3 miles. Even in relatively low-density SE Minneapolis between 35W and Hiawatha you can't go more than a 5 block radius without hitting a doctor or clinic.

Going to a city council meeting and hearing people oppose projets doesn't mean transit brings property values down. In fact, during the recession and since, housing near transit and in walkable areas held value higher than the opposite. Higher density developments (particularly mixed-use) brings in more property tax revenue per acre than the opposite. Meaning that from a city's perspective, the amount of roads and pipes to build and maintain costs a lot less per person than third-acre suburban lot developments do. This seems like common sense, but we've convinced ourselves that wealthy owners of large homes paying what seems like a high property tax must be best for a city's bottom line. Ignoring that when all the maintenance comes due on roads, schools, pipes, water treatment facilities, etc the city can no longer afford it if land for new growth has run out (exactly why the once shiny and wonderful inner and second-ring suburbs have gone in to decline since the 60s-70s). So no, actually, it's not in the city's best interest to focus only on one type of housing and business development type simply because the people that live in them can afford a car. I would also ask, what do we do about people who can't afford a car? Are low-income people so inherently bad that cities feel the need to actively block them from access to living in their borders?

So you are saying she should move out of the community

she has lived in all her life where all her friends live and move to Minneapolis so she can walk to the doctor? What altered reality are you living in. I think if the doctor and the state says she can drive and she passes her test at Courage Center she can drive.

You can talk until your blue in the face Mr. Cecchini but perception is reality. Cities are not going to embracing non property owning renters as a good deal for a city. We encourage home ownership because it theoretically leads to stability and connection to a community that renting does not. Having people invested in their community is what builds strong community. With categorical exceptions - senior high rises - elite rental properties and racially preferred properties (think Little Earth) people don't necessarily become invested if they rent.

You keep trying to squeeze the "I don't like urban areas" folks into an urban area model that most people don't prefer.

The majority of people in the metro area do not live in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul . They don't want to. They want to raise their kids in schools that are safe and score better on tests, where taxes are lower (check out the per capita tax rate in Minneapolis and St. Paul compared to the suburbs and then tell me that taxes are lower with density - not so much) I have posted that data and the source for it here before. Your stated preference fits for people with no kids who like to do urban type things. If you don't like music, if you don't like live performance, if you prefer air that isn't brown, if you don't need constant contact and if you don't like relentless noise then there is no reason to live in a city.

No,

I'm saying the community she lived in her whole life and resulting lifestyle are what has put us on the path to environmental destruction and municipal insolvency, and that had we not dabbled with our suburban experiment for 60 years she would already be within walking/transit distance of many doctors, her friends, and everything else. You posited a ludicrous expectation that old people who can barely walk would be forced to walk 3 miles to a doctor, I posted an equally ludicrous expectation that we keep building places the way we do, forcing seniors who can't or don't feel comfortable driving to do so or rely on others to take them where they need to go.

Perception will only cease becoming reality when people start looking at facts. You posited that it's a bad deal for the city, financially, to "allow" transit because with it comes poor people. I can show that walkable areas with access to transit have held values across the US and gained more since the housing collapse than not. Homeowning certainly has merits in a correlation to stronger community (voter turnout, community engagement, etc). Stability in place is also correlated with better high school graduation rates. However, none of these things explicitly limit renters from doing the same. Furthermore, the negative side effects (particularly for lower-income families) of homeownership can be drastic. For many the opportunity cost of the money invested in a home (owning, maintaining, dealing with emergency funds for repairs) could be better utilized elsewhere. Again, for many, their home is by far their single biggest capital investment - no diversification in assets can be disastrous for long-term savings (how many underwater mortgagees are there today?). While stability has benefits, it has also shown correlations to labor mobility - homeowners are more likely to remain unemployed because high transaction costs (and risk of even being able to sell) limit their ability to move for jobs. This also limits economic opportunity in the meantime (moving at will for a new job). The same civic engagement also has negative consequences - people with perhaps too much stake in their city/neighborhood limit development (housing, business, etc) that ends up driving economic activity elsewhere and/or driving up housing prices (which is bad for everyone as more individual cost is sunk to housing instead of other consumption). Saying homeownership is unquestionably a good thing for economic stability and civic pride also ignores inter-country data on HO rates (Switzerland, Germany, Norway all have relatively low home owner rates but are very wealthy and stable, while countries on the other end like Bulgaria, Spain, Lithuania, and others have high rates yet low economic output, higher crime, etc). Finally, is it possible that many of the civic pride/engagement/stability arguments in America are a self-fulfilling prophecy? FDR began enacting home owner incentives which helped push rates from the 40% range up to 60-65% in a short matter, stating that having a personal stake in one's community will lead to economic prosperity (my point is to ask if this is an undeniable truth or something we all believe and therefore our actions result in the shared belief). The point is NOT that homeownership is bad, it's that we shouldn't be incentivizing it because there are unintended, unforeseen consequences in dabbling in a market that is fully capable of responding to living preferences on its own. From a philosophical standpoint, I lost you when it was the local government's job to not embrace a certain person or business simply because they're poor, renters, etc.

Cities are congested, polluted, etc largely because others decided to move away yet still take advantage of the amenities (jobs, parks, entertainment, etc) provided by that very city. Schools in cities can be every bit as good as suburbs (take a look at the #1 school in MN according to Washington Post) - and again I believe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy as those with means and time live in an area and thus their schools must be the difference. Taxes are lower in the suburbs, truth - which is why the municipalities eventually go broke servicing low-productivity areas (the property taxes do not cover multiple lifecycles of infrastructure, schools, etc). Furthermore, the reason that people have been able to lead cost-effective suburban lives is, as I noted above, because they are not paying the true cost of their high energy demand lifestyles. If people were forced to pay a tax rate for each ton of carbon they consumed driving, heating their houses, etc, that adequately covers the social cost of their pollution, most (not all) would not have chosen to live said lifestyle. That's my point. The approach of a carbon tax coupled with deregulation of our built environment (housing, businesses, free/subsidized parking, etc) and changing suburban property taxes to reflect the true cost of services provided would not FORCE any "I don't like urban areas" folks anywhere. It would make them choose a lifestyle based on its true price.

But you're right, I'm probably screaming til I'm blue in my face because I'm just crazy. Global temperatures aren't on the rise, natural disasters and floods aren't happening at alarming rates, our first ring suburbs didn't go broke 30 years ago with the second tier ones following suit now, America's carbon output per person isn't vastly higher than other places in the world with more compact development patterns, etc. There's just no evidence to support anything I'm saying.

I would say we could all agree on the problems

I don't know that anyone here is disputing the reality of climate change, we disagree on your prescriptions for solving the problem. You have to realize that the solutions you suggest will put those of us who don't share your vision on the defensive as they amount to a direct assault on our way of life, whether you find it acceptable or not. It seems to me that instead of positing the polar opposite extreme, you might find more acceptance for a somewhat less drastic approach that may not cause immediate economic pain for millions of non urban residents. I do commend you on your consistency and clarity of purpose. Action is necessary, regardless whether we agree on its shape or not.

We know

how to build places that use less energy. We can do it right now, we lack the political will. On the other side of the coin, we have yet to see real breakthroughs in creating energy out of thin air (or at least without environmental consequences), the ability to transport one person to another location instantly, or any other prescriptions for the problem statement. We are gambling that at some point in the very near future we will come up with a solution to simply continue our way of life.

I remain unconvinced there will be massive 'economic pain' by switching our way of life as a whole - for comparison, most industrialized European countries with the exact development pattern I'm describing are doing very well. The pain you're worried about is merely "suffering" by with slight downgrades in convenience (driving a car vs walking/biking/transit), personal space, etc. And whatever economic or personal suffering we would endure is far less painful than a future 50 years down the road without changes today. Further, to call my prescription 'polar opposite' is, well, a little extreme. I'm suggesting we change our lifestyle to more mirror one that is lived by hundreds of millions of people in Europe who enjoy pretty much all the conveniences of modern life at less than half the CO2 per capita. That would be a great start, I think.

Finally!

Someone else who wants to get rid of the mortgage interest exemption! Right on.

I wouldn't exactly classify Webster as an exurb.

Point being, whilst all this talk of urban renewal is grand, try to keep in mind you only speak for yourself. Personally, I would bulldoze all the urban cores and we'd all live in small towns like the one in which I was raised. Transit issue solved! (Just slightly tongue in cheek of course). You speak in terms of inevitability, with regards to urban density, negating the fact that there are many (myself included) whom you couldn't pay to live in the claustrophobic crush of humanity you describe. Bear in mind, there are many differing views on quality of life, developing the city, and the metropolitan area as a whole to cater to only one, might prove short sighted should tastes change in the future. I'm all for transit options, how about including those of us who don't necessarily view life in a luxury condo overlooking a sterilized scene of urban gentrification as ideal.

I don't think

the supporters of better development patterns want to force anyone to live a certain way. I think the idea is that we pull out all the land-use limitations, parking minimums, etc that have ensured a non-claustrophobic utopia in post-WWII development at the expense of our cities' financial health (see: StrongTowns.org), our environment etc. The notion that you couldn't be paid to live cheek to jowl ignores all the ways the suburban, exurban, and even former 'small town' (with suburban sub-developments surrounding them) places do not pay what they should for their chosen lifestyle (Yes, carbon output has a real cost to our society and will continue to cost us all money down the line. Not paying for it now means we pass this buck on to the future).

I don't think anyone is suggesting we drop 30 story luxury condos in downtown New Ulm and force everyone to live in them. However, if you want to see what 'suburbs' look like in Europe, look up Aschaffenburg, Germany. A city of 68,000 with a great, walkable core, a mix of housing and uses as you travel outward that quickly turns in to open spaces. Narrow streets don't give away public dollars and space to people who happen to choose to use cars to get around. That doesn't mean cars aren't allowed, in fact, the whole area has excellent access to a high capacity road network. But in town things move slowly and safely. A train station in town gives frequent (hourly) access to the major nearby cities (Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Essen, Wurzburg, Munich, with multiple trains per hour heading to nearby Frankfurt en route to other destinations). Local transit (buses) get you to places if you can't walk there, though within town you're rarely more than 15 minutes from the center by foot.

If you choose to live further out, that's great! When you need groceries, supplies, want to eat out, etc you pay market rates for parking to do so. All this transit makes perfect sense because no one in Germany felt the need to tell each other how much of a setback they need for their house, how many parking spaces buildings need, etc. Simple. Places were developed, and when they got too big geographically for people to do 100% of travel by foot, they added a local transit network. The city being big enough meant it made sense to connect it to other middle and larger sized cities by rail. They didn't need TOD, the transit supported the already successful places. Saying we need to throw money (give incentives) to developers ignores the fact that they'll do it on their own if we don't collectively limit them and when we get wise about what our society needs to do to prevent further climate change, the market will be more demanding of places that would be transit-supportive.

But surely you don't intend

To force economic segregation. When I hear you say, "pay market rates" for lifestyle choices, I know you mean well, environmentally speaking, but all I hear is " the wealthy will live where they choose, as they can afford it, while the poor live where its designed for them to live". I think you put the cart before the horse in that the example you cite, Germany, is eons ahead of where we are in terms of economic equality and safeguards for the poor.Its far less likely that the poor will be isolated and concentrated by their urban planning as a result. We need to work within the bounds of our system as it is not how we wish it should be. What I see as the end result of the process you describe is an even greater stratification within the metro, ridiculously wealthy suburbs with even lower densities than currently, a few "Uptownized" urban corridors where the well heeled urbanites dwell, and large swaths of decay for the rest of us, where profitability is slim for any businesses that choose to open, since the housing costs for the poor who live there are driven up by extravagance in other areas of the city leaving little extra to spend. Basically, what the metro looks like today from a socioeconomic standpoint, then injected with steroids. While it may be great from a carbon perspective, it sounds miserable from a "having to live there" perspective.

How is that any different

than subdevelopments where your income clearly determines if you're "in" or "out"? "Houses from $300-400k here!" = "If you make just this amount, you can live here." Under today's processes people with means can still segregate themselves from people of income they don't want near them - neighborhoods blocking new developments just an example. Allowing the market to respond to housing needs will segregate people far less than they are today, where people without the means to afford owning a car (or who do but at great expense to their money leftover for other needs and consumption) are already segregated from the things they need to do (jobs, daycare, etc). Read the Brookings report showing that poverty is increasingly being concentrated in the suburbs, which has horrible implications as these municipalities cannot afford the sprawl they've allowed, gas prices continue to rise, etc. In a "traditional development" pattern that responds to housing and business needs from a market perspective, the liklihood that people of lower means can still access basic necessities by foot or bike is far higher, and due to the development pattern naturally supporting transit, it would make perfect sense to have each node (whether that's a neighborhood of 500, a city of 5,000, or a region of 5 million filled with all sorts of smaller nodes of businesses and residents) to be connected to each other to increase worker opportunity and business' potential customer base. My example of the town in Germany has little to do with their social safety nets and much more to do with how their places affect their living choices and equity in access.

More desirable places will always cost more money, yes. Being near Lake Calhoun is more valuable than being half a mile from it. But we've actually pushed more people further from amenities like these (and arguably more important ones like jobs) by limiting density (all the ways I've described), which limits housing supply near desirable areas. Not building more units per acre (in a responsible way) as population and demand for it grows increases the price in that location, which also increases the price the next block over, and so on. This has a far more segregating effect than what I've proposed, in my opinion.

Also

What would be your position on this topic if the emissions issue is addressed, say by transition to a hydrogen model for automotive transport with the hydrogen derived from sustainable sources. Would you still want to end the car culture, if so, why? How about if we were able to get home utilities, heat, power, water onto a sustainable base, would you still want the big suburban palaces abandoned? I should think that if the issue at hand is a solely environmental one, there are other means to address it than radically redesigning our cities. If at its core it simply a matter of personal preference, it should not be put into implementation as public policy.

Well,

Those are all huge "ifs." Let's assume both could happen. This solution doesn't address the loss of natural vegetation, farmland, etc. It doesn't address the financial viability of our places (I assume there would still be unproductive roads laid, pipes in the ground, etc etc). It doesn't address the economic segregation issues I responded with. On a broader scale, it doesn't address issues in our society of depression and obesity (both strongly correlated with commute times), isolation (an often under-discussed topic), the crazy amount of injuries and deaths associated with the amount of driving we do on the roads we have. Although yes, it would certainly be better from an environmental perspective.

That being said, I think we're all still waiting for the breakthrough that will give us all zero emission (net, back to the source of production) energy to fuel all the things we do. Water, wind, solar are great and becoming cost competitive with larger utility sources, but can anyone predict the implications to the global ecology if these sources were scaled to meet the 100% of the energy usage of America? As developing nations scale up this number grows even more. Furthermore, make something cheaper or more accessible by efficiency and we'll just use more of it (Jevons Paradox). Throwing out the idea that a simple, sustainable way to produce energy without emissions will solve all our problems is not the (only) answer. This isn't stemming from a personal preference for city life, but from reality of the world we live in. We're all continuing our habits hoping someone comes up with a silver bullet to create emission-less energy.

Car Culture

I can't speak for anyone else, but my goal isn't to end the car culture, but rather end its dominance in urban planning. In my opinion we need more equity between cars and other forms of transportation, namely buses, trains, biking, and walking. If all you do is build roads, highways, and yet more roads, then it makes it hard for someone using an alternative form of transportation to get around. Case in point: the posts farther up on this page detailing the Maple Grove retail center where people have no alternative but to drive from one node to another.

Even with a transition from gasoline to hydrogen or electricity, building more and wider roads is still a mode that's hit the law of diminishing returns. More vehicles on the roads means more congestion and the car centric solution to that is to build wider highways. That in turn though necessitates bigger on/off ramps, bigger feeder roads, and more massive bridges, all of which gobble up more real estate that could be better used for homes and businesses. This is particularly problematic in developed areas where you have to tear down existing buildings in order to make a bigger road. That just drives up the cost of the highway as they have to buy the property. And it erodes the property tax base as it not only takes revenue generating property and converts it into roadways, but it also drives down the property value of the remaining homes.

No one wants to live next to a four lane divided highway, let alone a ten lane one.

My position is we need ALL forms of transportation in play, from cars to buses, bikes, walking, trains, planes, and ships. Each serves a valuable purpose in its own right and to take it out of the mix makes the rest of the system that much harder to use and maintain. An earlier poster was laughing about how silly it is to expect his mother to take a train or bus three miles to her doctor's appointment. By the same token, it's silly to expect someone who's infirm to drive the same distance. Nor would you want to bike from here to Dallas. Or drive your car to Europe.

Each mode has its own place in the mix and we all suffer if one of them is missing.

And again!

Someone else who believes that we need to pay down our debt . "Not paying for it now means we pass this buck on to the future"

Debt

Paying down the debt is something that's best done in good economic times when people and businesses can afford it. Right now would be a bad time to take that tact as the majority of people are still struggling to get a foothold in the recovering economy.

Way off track Tom

Tom,

Your comments are riddled with misconceptions.

No one is pretending to speak for anyone else so your initial observation is a mundane one pretending to be insightful.

Cities exist for a lot of reasons, they are not just repositories for the poor. Modern capitalist economies would be impossible without cities. More than likely Webster MN wouldn't exist if the Twin Cities didn't exist. Without the TC's and Duluth MN would look like Wyoming or the Dakotas. "Great" you say, "give me Wyoming any day" I would note however that you live in Webster, and I'd bet $5 that your livelihood is somehow tied to the Twin Cities. But maybe not.

All this business about economic segregation is silly. People don't live in cities because they're poor, they live there because that's where the jobs are. What's the biggest employer in Webster? The wealthy don't live in Webster, they live in Edina and Minnestrista. The other reason people live in cities is because they like to for a variety of reasons. Where are the poor in Webster by the way? Talk about segregation, the whole fricken town is segregated from the poor.

Transit is not for the poor, everyone uses transit. You ride a NY subway and you'll be sitting next high paid executives as well as sales clerks. The super wealthy may avoid transit but that doesn't mean it's designed or reserved for the poor.

High density housing is not for the poor, Ranging from $3 million to $400 thousand many of the condos and townhomes in MPLS and St. Paul cost more than the median home in Webster ($350K). If anything the problem with all our new higher density housing is that it's not affordable housing.

Finally, no one is talking about bulldozing your home, so why are you talking about bulldozing our homes? Just because we're talking about making OUR community more liveable doesn't mean we're planning an assault on YOUR community. I'm glad you're happy with your home, and I'm glad you found a place where you want to live, but it's not for everyone.

hmm

Take a joke perhaps? Oh and my name is Matt, as detailed in my well, name. Too much to respond to, but the notion of small towns existing only as a result of cities is the most glaring silliness. Also never claimed to live in Webster, though it does have a nice vintage bowling alley, but the only connection most folks there have with the metro would be in those folks visiting the cabin to escape the city for a spell. Outside of this the local economy consists of timber, the casino up at Danbury and a couple of grocery stores. Not exactly metro dependent.

The existence of the small town

Small towns don't exist because of big towns. However, as population increases, they often /continue/ to exist because of them. I, too, grew up in a small town. It has 1 bar, 1 post office, a grain elevator, and 3 churches. These employers exist because of the town, which was established late in the 19th century. However, the vast majority of the people in town are not employed because of the bar, the post office, the grain elevator or the churches. They are employed outside of town--some by local farmers, but most at locations larger and further away than you can regularly walk to. Some are employed by the next town over, which is about 10 miles away and is more than 10 times larger. And still, the people in that town are not entirely employed there, either. Many of them are employed in the next larger town, which is another 20 miles away and is more than 200 times larger than my little town. Without that largest town, the medium town might still exist, but certainly, the little one would not--at least not at the same tiny level it does now. And even now, it's getting smaller and smaller, probably because it's too expensive to keep feeding gasoline into cars to get to the jobs 10-30 (or more) miles away.

And even Webster, MN, where the economy consists of timber and casinos (and a bowling alley)--without a larger center of population, those commodities probably wouldn't employ very many people, either. Far more houses are being built with that lumber in population centers than in the podunks. And the money spent at the casino comes from where? Probably, in part, the lumber industry jobs. But also, those people who can be lured from elsewhere bring in some cash to employ local people. Without the metro (and not just MSP), how many of those jobs would still exist?

On the "food chain" as it currently sits

You are correct. I was not attempting to imply that the activities of major metropolitan areas has NO effect on small town life, I was simply trying to refute what was in my mind a somewhat arrogant attitude that cities are the only places that count. Having grown up in small town you should at the very least understand my point of view. That being said, while it might not currently be the case, there is no reason that we as a society MUST congregate in ever larger municipalities, that jobs may only exist in cities. That is a conscious choice, the consequences of which have been beaten to death in this thread. While as Alex and others have stated, there are models of urbanization in Europe and elsewhere that reinforce this model in more sustainable ways, I would simply prefer that urbanization as a whole be rethought, in favor of perhaps something less monolithic and well, urban. It would seem to me that walking to your job in a small town would be just as carbon neutral as walking to one in a major metropolis, hey if you treat me right I may even let you throw up a luxury condo.

This was exactly my point

Maybe I miscommunicated or wasn't clear in my intention. I don't think the world needs to be congregated in to fewer and larger cities ( aka #2 on this list: http://www.cracked.com/article_18947_the-6-most-insane-cities-ever-plann... ). That would be crazy, and certainly people's preference for proximity to open spaces or a given lifestyle matter. Small towns were once very walkable. The development pattern of Small Town USA with a main street and gradually decreasing development of lower utility (main street commercial mixed use -> higher density residential -> lower density residential as you move away from the center of town) is exactly what I describe (in a big city it's just taken to an extreme with the center now being a mix of high-rise offices, condos, etc with hopefully ground-level activity like retail). We lost our way when small towns, big towns, and big cities started designing places with the auto as the only means of getting around, with the wide (unsafe) streets, codified parking and setbacks (increasing walking distances from destination to destination), etc.

Illustrating the German town of Aschaffenburg was to show was a municipality of 60,000 looks like vs a Lakeville or Maple Grove. Certainly, if you look at the map and travel 2, 4, 6 miles outward from A-burg, there exist smaller villages/hamlets that provide people who want proximity to the hills, air, a little more personal space, etc the opportunity to do so. These people do so knowing they will need to own a car to get to more destinations than a local tavern (aka they're now further from the jobs that actually want to be where the people are because interactions and access to abundant human capital is what employers want), and that parking the car is a little difficult and certainly costs market prices. Their choice to drive instead of live closer in is not facilitated by overly wide freeways that don't pay for themselves - they drive on skinny country roads at slower speeds to get in to town (or town to city, whatever place they're in).

All I'm proposing we do is eliminate the barriers to a free-market urban landscape (whether that's Webster or Minneapolis, MN), put in place market pricing for carbon and parking to reveal true cost of use, and stop the institutional anti-pedestrian scale of our built environment.

I'll nit-pick just a little

No one said that small towns don't matter, this just happens to be an article about urban transportation, the name of the series is after all: "Cityscape." And actually, no one said cities create small towns, what I said was that Webster likely would not exist were it not for the Twin Cities. I say that if you live in Webser, your livelihood likely depends on the Twin Cities. In fact a quick look at the census data on Webster shows that nearly 90% of the people living in Webster commute to work by auto mobile. That means that 90% of the population in Webster works in the metro area. Does that make it an exoburb?

http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview....

That doesn't leave a lot of people to work the lumber in Webster. So what if Webster was a farm town instead of a lumber town? Look: to whome are you going to sell your lumber, wheat, corn, soy beans etc? Other people in Webster? Without the lumber and stock yards, grain and lumber exchanges, mills, and rail and river transport hubs etc. in the Twin Cities how does would a lumber jack in Webster or a farmer in Dassel make a living? This is what I meant when I said cities exist for a lot of very good reason, it's not a choice, it's an intelligent choice. And yeah, without rural production the cities wouldn't have much reason for being either. If you want to rid of cites, you need to get rid of surplus crop and lumber production, otherwise you need cities and population centers to distribute the harvest efficiently.

Hey I get a little tired of urbanists ragging on suburbs, I live in a suburb (St. Louis Park). But I don't deny the advantages and problems associated with living elsewhere.

Food chain

I'm not saying that small towns should be dozed because they wouldn't exist without large towns. However, I was pointing out that there are probably a grand total of 12 people who could actually walk to work in my little town (and I bet they don't). Despite the fact that I could (and did many, many times) walk from end to end with little trouble, no amount of walking would lead to my place of employment. The jobs are elsewhere. Why? It hasn't always been that way. This little town had a Waldorf hotel (yes, it did--it's still there but hasn't been in business for many years and won't exist physically in the not distant future), an opera house, a very large school, a gas station, and many other businesses once. It no longer does due to a combination of factors, but the biggest factor is a reduced reliance on the railroad. A HUGE loss for mass transit to small towns. Nowadays, it's so easy to get to the nearest town 10 miles away by car. Or even the bigger one 30 miles away. No longer does the train bring groups of people to stay at the fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere or to watch an opera (or later, Lawrence Welk) at the opera house. Our reliance on the car has reduced not only the employment in those small towns, thus making it impossible to walk to our work, but reduced the vibrancy. I don't see that trend reversing until we reduce the reliance on cars again. If I could easily take a train to my hometown instead of driving the 5 or so hours to visit, I visit more often than I do now. It's even possible others would, too. It's possible that people living in that small town would take a train once in a while to either the Twin Cities or to the big town 30 miles away rather than the every day trip to their job 10 or 30 miles away, thus giving a reason to have more businesses in the tiny town. Or perhaps not. Regardless, we're not going to go there without pushing for less reliance on the car and more availability of mass transit.

Hmm

Maybe I've been inhaling too much hydrogen.

Not to nitpick

But I kind of think we're in agreement regarding the poor. At least that's the point I was attempting to make so it seems as if we are.

There's a false premise here

There's a false premise here which is that public transit needs high densities in order to thrive. If there were no competition from cars you could have rapid transit (5 minute headways) at suburban densities (1/4 acre lots).

Streetcar suburbs were not much denser than the suburbs we have today - 6 to 8 units per acre compared to 4 or 5, yet they were safer, quieter, cleaner, greener, more attractive, more convenient, more affordable, and healthier.

Cars might have made sense at a time when few people drove a car and most walked or used public transit, but we are long past that point.