For this sentimental season, I thought I'd post the first epilogue that I wrote for Human Transit. It got mixed reviews. Friends in architecture and urban policy loved it, while my friends from the literature world, who have a keen eye for literary truth, panned it with great affection. Fortunately, my editor at Island was of the latter group, so the book came to have the epilogue it has, rather than this one. (I also tried this as the basis of the epilogue, to similar reviews.)
All that is for the best. This thing is sentimental, as befits the season. Read it when you want a sentimental read, as we all do now and then.
If you don't know what I mean by "plumber," you'll figure it out from context. (It means you haven't read the book!)
Happy holidays. [And don't forget: early bird registration for my Washington DC short course (1/17-18) closes 12/28. Registration opens Wednesday for the Portland OR session on Feb 7-8. Hope to see you there.]
What if we learned to listen to our plumber? Suppose that every time we were confronted
with a hard choice between different things that we value – a choice that’s
geometrically unavoidable – we took a deep breath, and chose? We would need to make these choices as
individuals, but also as communities, urban areas, and nations. If we did, what might be possible by the
middle of this century?
Helen has just turned 75, but she’s lived many lives and
plans to live a few more. Raised in a
mining town in the Australian tropics, she's worked all over the world as a
missionary and foreign aid worker. She
married twice and raised three children, all of them as self-reliant as she
is. When she was widowed in her
mid-sixties, she moved to a small island in Indonesia to start a new
school. It was a struggle to convince
her to retire at 72, and come home to Australia.
She returned to a big house on a quarter-acre block in
Theodore, a distant suburb of the Australian capital, Canberra. It was the house she’d grown up in, and she
assumed she’d live out her life there, just as her mother did. But just after she turned 74, she nearly had
a bad accident while driving. Looking
back on it, she realized that she couldn’t react fast enough anymore, and that
it was only a matter of luck that she hadn’t killed someone.
So she sold her car, and let her license expire. Now, her house in Theodore was a prison. To get anywhere, she faced a 500m walk to a
bus stop, and then a bus only every half hour, none in the evening.
Back in 2015 her mother had dealt with the same problem, in
the same house. For a decade her mother
wrote letters and went to meetings to complain about how far she had to walk
from her cul-de-sac house to a bus stop, how infrequently the buses ran, and
how unfair that was. Whenever Helen
visited her mother in those days, she heard all about this campaign, its
frustrations and small victories.
As it happened, Helen had been dating a transit planner at
the time. One night, over drinks, he
talked her through the geometry proving that her mother’s cause was hopeless. He showed why very low-density
suburbs with lots of pedestrian barriers could never generate enough ridership to
support extensive transit service, even if the politicians were inclined to
The problem wasn’t the bus
company’s failure to innovate, as her mother claimed. At one point he put it starkly: "If you want to know what quality of transit to expect, ask this question about your neighborhood: 'How far would transit have to go to serve 1000 people?'" Of course, in the labyrinth of Theodore the answer was several kilometers, while in Canberra's inner city it was just a few blocks.The problem was sheer geometry. It made sense.
So Helen looked at her options, and noticed that a place
called Ainslie Village had just been redeveloped as a retirement complex. Formerly, it had been a cluster of temporary housing for the homeless located on a hillside cul-de-sac that precluded public transport. Now, however, it would now extend down to a nearby main street, Limestone Avenue, and would include a mixture of towers and small cabin-like units. The towers were cleverly
arranged so that people could use their elevators to climb the hillside to the
upper parts of the village, though of course many seniors preferred the exercise of
climbing the hill.
The frequent transit line in front of Ainslie Village was the direct link between the city and the airport. Helen liked this feature. She still wanted to go overseas a couple of
times a year, and to welcome visits from the friends she’d made all over the
But what also sold Helen on New Ainslie Village was the back
side, where it faced a nature reserve.
She could walk just a few hundred meters and feel immersed in the native
woodland. At night the kangaroos would come down around the village to
graze, just as they did in Theodore; Helen had always found tranquility in the patient curiosity with which kangaroos gaze at humans.
Helen seems to have achieved the dream that’s motivated so
much suburban development, the desire to be in the city and the country at the
same time. But it wasn't just good
fortune. It was her own willingness to
look at her choices, understand their consequences, and choose.
Mia, 35, lives with her two children and her mother in a
mobile home on the east edge of Las Vegas.
She manages the housekeeping department for a hotel-casino, and after
saving for years, she finally put back enough money to buy a mobile home.
She grew up just a mile from here. Her mother lost her house to foreclosure in
the Crash of 2008 and had to move the family into a small apartment. In 2010 their old car finally broke down for
good, and there was no money to replace it.
So she and her mother walked to the bus stop most days, and those walks
are one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.
The stop for buses into the city was right outside her bedroom
window, but there was a long, high wall blocking the way, built by a
well-meaning developer who thought that even though they couldn’t afford a
detached home, they’d still appreciate the feeling of a “gated community.” Thanks to the wall, she and her mother had to
walk for ¼ mile through the streets of their development, then through the
so-called “gate,” and then ¼ mile back along the fast boulevard to the bus
The boulevard was built for speed, so the lanes were wide
and the sidewalk was narrow. Her mother
would try to talk with her as they walked, but every time a car flew past they
had to pause, their lives interrupted.
Soon, Mia learned to hold her breath briefly in those moments, so she
wouldn’t get a lung full of exhaust.
Even so, it was dusty and hot in the summer, while in winter rains
they’d be drenched by the mud kicked up by passing cars. On this narrow sidewalk between the traffic
and the wall there was nowhere to escape it.
Of course, that got them only to the stop for buses to the
city. Coming home, the bus would drop
them on the opposite side of the boulevard.
There was no safe place to cross anywhere near the bus stop, so they
simply had to run for it. Trying to dash
across the fast lanes, they felt like criminals, as though simply living their
lives was illegal.
So when Mia was able to buy her own mobile home, she looked
hard for one that would be better than that.
Realtors still pointed her toward “gated communities” of mobile
homes. Things had improved in these communities
since she was a child; some of them now had little mini-bus services that wound
their way through the twisting streets, so there was an alternative to walking
out to the fast boulevard. A realtor
gave her a big pitch about how great these little buses were, with pictures of
the plush interior and the cute paint scheme, but she just asked to see the
timetable. Sure enough, they were too
slow and infrequent to be useful to her.
She needed to be close to a frequent
transit stop, and it had to be safe to cross the street right at the stop, so
that she could get to the stops on both sides.
Obviously, she also wanted places she and her children could
walk to, not just the little playground of their mobile home park but also a
larger park nearby and a grocery store.
She liked the location of the grocery store next to the bus stop, so
that she could buy fresh food for dinner on her commute home. That’s why she chose this mobile home park
over a number of others.
She also made sure that the bus line is likely to be there
for a while. She still remembers
hearing, as a child, that she couldn’t go to see her best friend on Sundays
anymore, because their Sunday bus service had been cut. Fortunately, since then, the transit agency
has identified certain lines as its “core frequent network,” where they, and
the city governments, want to encourage the most intensive ridership. That’s part of why her mobile home park, and
the grocery store at her bus stop, were built where they are. The Las Vegas economy is still prone to big
crashes, so the transit system has to cut service now and then, but she knows
that while there are no guarantees in life, the service she relies on is likely
to survive, because so many people ride it.
Mia’s life may never be as secure as she’d like, but she’s
found a place that she can afford, where her children can grow up safely
getting around on bicycles, and where her mobility feels as permanent and
reliable as anything can be in this fast-changing city of illusions.
Kurt, 45, loves his cars.
He has two, both four-wheel drive, and his wife has another. As a realtor, he likes his hybrid jeep for
getting around to the suburban homes he sells, but he also has a big, rough,
high-riding thing he calls Monster. He
talks about it as though it were his dog, and he takes a rebellious pride in
its dreadful fuel-efficiency and 1990s styling.
Monster is his best friend when he gets up into the Rockies, especially
Three years ago, Kurt took a year off work to build a house
with his wife and two teenage sons. It’s on an acre of pine trees on a gravel
road five miles from the nearest town, 40 miles from downtown Denver. He feels a surge of pride every time he comes
home to it. Now and then, his eye will
fall on a particular joint or beam and he’ll remember the day they set it in
place, and how good that felt. Just as
important, he feels that the project solidified them as a family, and helped
his boys learn focus and discipline.
There’s no transit anywhere nearby, but he wouldn’t expect
there to be. It was a hassle until his
boys got drivers licenses; they always needed rides to the nearest bus stop,
five miles away, or even to the nearest rapid transit station, 30 miles
away. But as they turned 16, he bought
hybrid motorbikes for them. Now they’re
fine on their own.
Kurt’s life is not as expensive as it looks, at least not as
measured in dollars. Even with fuel at
$10/gallon, the hybrid jeep is an efficient way to get around. His workday involves many short trips in
low-density suburbs (a market that transit could never serve well) so the
jeep’s fuel is just part of the cost of doing business. He spends a fortune on fuel for his weekend
trips with Monster, but this is the family’s main recreational expense, and he’s
budgeted for it. As for his house, it
would have been expensive to buy. But by
building it himself, he saved at least as much as he lost in salary during the
year off. So he feels he came out
Kurt hates the city.
He drives his jeep into Denver now and then to visit his mother, who
lives in a tower downtown. She loves it
there, but when they sit in the coffeeshop downstairs from her apartment, he’s
always a little on edge with all the random bustle of strangers. He also hates parking there, all that
pointless circling in concrete parking structures. His mother keeps telling him he could park at
a light rail station and take the train in.
It doesn’t sound like fun to him, but his wife doesn’t mind doing
it. Maybe he’ll try it sometime.
But really, he’d rather be driving Monster into the Rockies,
with his boys, and some fishing rods, and the sky.
Helen, Mia, and Kurt are different people with different
goals, situations, and resources — but all are citizens of free democracies in
the mid-21st Century, societies built on the notion that adults
should make free choices and accept their consequences.
Kurt doesn’t expect the approval of transit experts like me,
but I have no quarrel with him. Like
Helen and Mia, Kurt chose his living situation with a full awareness of what it
would mean for transportation, as well as for other aspects of his family's
life. His choice imposes some burdens on
the environment, but he pays prices – at the pump, certainly, but mostly in
inconvenience – that capture the cost of those burdens. He has no reason to feel guilty about his
At times, as the 21st century unrolled, it seemed that
freedom without guilt was a dying dream.
The crises bearing down on humanity seemed to be dragging everyone into
embittered dependence on strangers. So
many problems needed complex solutions requiring lots of government action, while
big corporations perfected the art of evading responsibility for their behavior. Perhaps most depressing, it was becoming
clear that no matter how free a citizen tried to be, how much responsibility
she took for her own life, you could still run numbers that showed she was
somehow subsidized, freeloading. It made
But that last insight was the way out. Eventually, a critical mass of people
got stopped getting angry when they were
told they were being subsidized, and started asking “okay, how much?”
The movement started in transportation, in cities. People started figuring out that by sitting
in traffic instead of getting where they were going, they were paying time to save money. Why, they asked? After all, money may not be abundant, but
it’s a renewable resource. Time is the
least renewable resource of all.
So people started demanding the right to pay money to save time. It started in the early 2000s with the London
and Singapore congestion charges, and gradually spread to the idea that parking
costs should rise and fall with demand, so that there would always be a free
space, and you’d never drive in circles forever looking for one. On the freeways, high-occupancy toll (HOT)
lanes offered a faster ride at a higher price, calibrating the price carefully
so that the traffic in the lane never got so heavy as to obstruct the buses
using it. Those buses were important,
because they ensured that everyone had the freedom to move quickly along the
highway, even if they didn’t want to pay the toll.
There was plenty of blowback. Less wealthy people feared that they’d be left
with abandoned infrastructure, much as, in the late 20th century,
they had been left with substandard schools.
Governments responded with market interventions to ensure that the
housing market responded to low-income needs, not just through subsidies but
also through good urban design. For
example, Las Vegas did the work of “sprawl repair” so that Mia could find a house
she can afford that wouldn’t force her to depend on a car. “Affordable housing” gave way to “affordable
living.” Governments and lenders no
longer encourage poorer people to live in places where the housing is cheap
because mobility is poor, and where they’ll feel trapped into owning a car that
they can’t afford. Instead, the whole
mix of housing and transportation costs is considered before a home is deemed
There were fights and compromises. But over time, enough people realized that accurate
pricing was the only fair way to achieve both sustainability and freedom.
So the price of scarce things was allowed to rise. Fuel got more expensive as oil supplies
declined, which motivated the development of cleaner car technologies.
Still, no innovation could change the scarcity of road space
in cities, because that was a geometry problem.
Humanity had tried a supply-side solution, by building more sprawling
cities, and had found that this just doesn't work. By building more road space they had just
motivated people to drive further. Some
still imagined that we could escape into the third dimension, via flying cars,
but most people understood at once that it’s scary enough to have car accidents
on the roads, without worrying about them happening over your head.
Once all this became widely obvious, things changed
fast. Work continued on big, expensive
rapid transit lines, but work began, urgently, on transit options that could be
developed faster and could spread quickly across big cities. The Los Angeles Metro Rapid buses had been
one such experiment, and though they became overextended and had to be cut back
for a while, they helped usher in an era of innovation in street-running
transit options and were now considered essential features of the boulevards
that they plied.
Now, with more consensus, tools could be deployed to match
the scale of the problem. Suddenly,
on-street transit lanes became common – in fact, they became the most reliable
way to travel in many parts of big cities.
As more people cared about the quality of transit vehicles, those
vehicles got better. Bus and light rail
technologies converged on a long, sleek, high capacity vehicle that could slide
efficiently along a transit lane, carrying people beyond their walking distance
without ever making them felt that they’d left the street.
All this became possible, in part, because people started
measuring their own mobility, and making choices that would improve it. With tools inspired by the WalkScore.com and
Mapnificent.net travel time maps from back in 2010, people began to see where
they could get to easily, and where they couldn’t, and if they couldn’t, they
As this happened, many people lost interest in symbols of
mobility, such as rails in the street that symbolize permanence and
airplane-like noses on streetcars that symbolize speed. Instead, they began insisting that cities
spend transit money on creating actual mobility – projects that would reduce
their travel time to their jobs, their friends, and all the riches of the city. Others continued to prefer to focus on the style,
feel, and sense of fun in a transit service.
So there was a debate about those things, and compromises that suited
the culture of each community.
These clear and bracing debates transformed the housing
market, but not as much as some people feared.
Density is rising along major transit lines, for people who want high
mobility, but away from those lines you can still get a little bungalow, or a
big house with a pool on a quarter-acre, or even a house like Kurt’s in the
woods, if you’re willing to accept the costs that come with each choice. You can also get many things in between, like
the transit-friendly mobile home where Mia lives. Mia is what some transportation textbooks
would call a captive rider, but she’s
shown that even if you’re poor, your choices matter.
At every stage in this process, communities had to work,
through government, on understanding their real choices. Patiently, over and over, they were asked the
same kind of question: “Do you want more of this, or more of that? You have to choose.” Planning professionals started focusing on
making these “plumber’s questions” visible, so that everyone could see they
were unavoidable, instead of letting them hide inside other debates. Elected officials began to accept that they
were paid to make these hard choices, after honest conversations with their
The conversations were hard.
People wanted to hide from them.
But they had to happen. The
choices had to be made, so they were. As
a result, Helen, Mia, and Kurt are all free to make their own choices, and to
bestow that same freedom on their children.