Mobility

Email of the week: on Robert Steuteville’s defense of slower-than-walking transit

I don't have time to respond to everything that gets published on transit, but Robert Steuteville's must-read piece today on the Congress for the New Urbanism blog, which explains why we should invest in transit that's slower than walking*, certainly deserves a response.   

Fortunately, sometimes an email does it for me.  From Marc Szarkowski:

Hi Jarrett,

Perhaps you've already noticed this piece and are already penning a response (even though several already exist on your blog!). It seems to be another example of the "urban designers are from Mars, transportation planners are from Venus" phenomenon you described some time ago.

I admire and respect Robert, and I think his "place mobility" concept is quite sensible. Indeed, one can argue that the first and most powerful rung on the transportation "efficiency" ladder is to ensure that destinations are within walking/bicycling distance wherever possible, obviating the need for cars and transit in the first place, in turn freeing up the latter two for long-distance travel. But after the "place mobility" concept, I think the article begins to fall apart.

It seems to me that it's easy to romanticize slow transit if you don't have to rely on it all the time. With all due respect, I get the impression that many "streetcar tourists" use transit only occasionally when visiting a new city, or perhaps to go to a ball game, but for little else. And I get it: if much of your day-to-day travel is characterized by routinized, featureless car trips between work, shopping, meetings, and whatnot, I can see the allure in taking a break to relax and 'go slow,' as it were.

But the romantic impulse towards slow transit wears away quickly if you have no choice but to rely on it all the time! I don't have a car, so I rely on buses that travelexcruciatingly slowly, wasting much of my time. (I have, for example, learned to pad an hour between meetings and appointments in different parts of town, simply because the mixed-traffic transit takes so long to get from A to B to C.) So, rather than viewing slow transit as an opportunity to unwind and watch the street life pass by, I see it as a precious-free-time-gobbler. 

love to be immersed in street life when I'm walking, but when I inevitably need to travel beyond walking distance, I want to get there quickly. Does this make me a so-called "speed freak?" If so, wouldn't all the urban designers out there praising slow transit for others - while they hurriedly shuttle from charrette to public input meeting to office to daycare in their cars – be "speed freaks" too? The reality is that most of us – walkers, bicyclists, drivers, and transit riders alike – are "speed freaks" most of the time, simply because we prefer minimizing travel time and dedicating our precious free time to friends and family.

And this gets back to "place mobility:" it is great when many daily necessities – the grocery store, the bank, the library, the elementary school – are within walking distance. But – and this perhaps reveals a conceptual flaw in New Urbanism – not every place can or should be a self-contained "village." As Jane Jacobs argued, the whole point of cities is to offer rich opportunity – opportunity that requires travel beyond whatever a "village" can offer: "Planning theory is committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. [But] city people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (Death and Life, 115-116)."

For example, I may be fortunate enough to have a daycare center on my block, but perhaps I want to send my kids to a magnet or private school across town – a school better than my neighborhood school? So would my kids rather wake up at 5am to take a streetcar sitting in traffic to get to school, or wake up at 7am to take a faster subway or a bus on a bus lane? I may be fortunate enough to have a pharmacy on my block too, but what if the doctor I trust is across town? Would I rather take the whole day off from work to take a streetcar sitting in traffic and delayed by a poorly-parked car to get there, or could I take a half-day by taking the subway or the crosstown express bus? For better or worse, there will always be long-distance destinations, and I suspect transit riders will continue to prioritize speed for these trips.

As for the short, local trips made possible by "place mobility," I still wonder whether mixed-traffic streetcars are the best bang for the buck. Yes, they are a placemaking tool, but they're not the only (or the cheapest) one. If, as admitted in the article, mixed-traffic streetcars don't particularly offer useful transit, nor are they necessarily the only/best/cheapest placemaking tool, then I have to wonder if 30 years from now we'll look back on them as yet another expensive urban renewal fad. (American cities are still littered with half-dead "game changing" fads from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.) We ultimately need rapid transit and "place mobility," but mixed-traffic streetcars are hardly a prerequisite for creating the latter.

So far I've hesitated voicing these opinions to fellow urbanists because I don't want to alienate any friends, but I'm increasingly skeptical of the streetcar fervor. Given that (A) mixed-traffic streetcars are simply slower and less-flexible than mixed-traffic buses, and (B) that the benefits that are packaged with properly-prioritized streetcars (dedicated lanes, signal priority, durable shelters, etc.) could just as easily be packaged with buses, I wonder if the streetcar fervor is an example of simple "technograndiosity." At the end of the day, I'd rather have ten bus lines reaching twenty useful places than one streetcar line reaching two useful places.

(Marc Szarkowski creates plans, models, diagrams, and illustrations of urban design, streetscape design, and planning proposals, and is a regular rider of Boston's, Philadelphia's, and Baltimore's transit systems.)

*Most new streetcars in the US have average scheduled speeds of 6-10 mph, a jogging or running speed for able-bodied adults.  However, actual travel time (compared to a private vehicle alternative) includes the average wait time.  Most US streetcars are not very frequent (usually in the 15-20 minute range) given the short trips that they serve, so it is the high wait time, combined with the very slow ride, that makes them slower than walking.  Again, this calculation describes the experience of an ordinary working person who needs to get places on time,  not the tourist or flaneur for whom delay is another form of delight

more maps of your freedom: job access and transit

The Regional Plan Association, the New York-region planning think tank, has produced a great new map as part of their Fragile Success report:

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 1.35.34 PM

http://fragile-success.rpa.org/maps/jobs.html

This map takes the travel time methodology regular readers of this blog know well, but then within that area of access shows all of the jobs, categorized by sector, as a dot density map. The effect is to visualize the quantity and number of jobs that can be reached from a give point in a given time, by walking, transit, cycling, or driving. The map is also able to quickly calculate the number of jobs inside the AM peak travelshed on the fly, and even allows the user to toggle on and off different job classifications. If you want to see all of the education jobs within a 30 minute walk of a given location, now you can. 

To revisit a 2012 post, this sort of map of personal mobility is useful for two reasons:

  • Helping people and organizations understand the transit consequences of where they choose to locate, and thus to take more responsbility for those consequences.  This, over time, can help people who value good transit to locate where transit access is good — something that's very hard to discern from a typical bus map but that becomes very obvious here.  You can even assess access to specific things that you value, based on exactly where the blobs are.  

  • Helping people visualise the benefit of transit — access to your city — as a freedom, and thus to understand more clearly what transit does for them.  It broadens the narrow notion of travel time  – which is often understood for only one typical trip — into a picture of your options for accessing all the things you value.  The percentage of a city's resources (jobs, housing, retail etc) that is in the blobs for a particular location could also form the basis for a meaningful Transit Score that could replace the technologically biased scores now used by WalkScore.com.

yet more evidence for the decline of driving in the US

Another report from USPIRG on the decline of driving in US cities is out today. Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America's Biggest Cities combs through secondary data to assess changing mobility patterns. The big picture is clear: in nearly all of America's major cities, less driving is happening, as measured by miles traveled, journey-to-work mode, or share of work done from home. 

Some key statistics from the report:

  • The average American drives 7.6 percent fewer miles today than when per-capita driving
    peaked in 2004.

  • From 2006 to 2011, the average number of miles driven per resident fell in almost three-quarters of America’s largest urbanized areas

  • The proportion of workers commuting by private vehicle – either alone or in a carpool – declined in 99 out of 100 cities studied

  • The proportion of residents working from home has increased in 100 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas since 2000.

  • The proportion of households without cars increased in 84 out of the 100 largest urbanized areas from 2006 to 2011.

A few illlustrative maps:

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 09.35.32

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 09.35.43

Of course, the canned response to data of this sort is to attribute it entirely to the 2008 recession and its knock-on effects on personal income and unemployment. USPIRG's analysis seems to refute this idea, finding that unemployment in the 15 areas with the greatest declines in VMT actually increased less from 2006-2011 than in all other cities. The same holds true for declining income and increasing poverty. The bottom line is that in the cities where mobility patterns are changing most intensely, this shift cannot be handwaved away by pointing to the recession.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 09.55.16

 

Previously noted: USPIRG's report on the correlation of the market penetration of mobile communications technology and decline of driving.

by Evan Landman

are smartphones changing the geography of our cities?

The increasing prevalence of mobile communications technologies has important consequences for urban transportation. The new ability to carry your social life around with you, enabling instant connections regardless of physical location, has the potential to reconfigure how we think about time and mobility, and in turn how we build environments to suit our travel behavior.   For example, it appears to be impossible to use smartphones safely while driving, so smartphone users have a motive to seek an alternative mode so that they can make use of their travel time.

 Ben Schulman has an interesting take on this in his paper, The Car as Smartphone: Effects on the Built Environment and Sociality, which you can download below. He places the smartphone in a continuity of change in human communications technology, and traces how those technologies have helped to shape our cities. 

The built environment then is a reflection of the predominant communication devices being used at given points in time that shape sociality. In other words, we develop an infrastructure necessary to accommodate the needs of our preferred communication tools.

This idea is a larger envelope around the familiar idea that all cities are built around the transportation technologies of the time.  Transportation, after all, is one kind of communication tool.

There is a lot of to digest here, but it is well worth a read in order to situate these trends within an academic urbanist frame of reference. My take is that the role of communication is hugely important, but must be understood as an aspect of a broader web of economic and social relationships which together work to produce the space of the city. 


Download Schulman—car-as-smartphone-2

why are americans driving less? better communication options!

Over the last 15 years, the Internet and mobile communications technologies have transformed the way Americans live and work. During that same period, growth in [motor] vehicle travel slowed and then stopped, with Americans today driving about as much on average as we did in 1996.

USPIRG has a new report out today, focused on how network technology has ushered in new possibilities for Americans’ personal mobility. Modern communications are beginning to alter the types of trips people need to make, as more and more people work remotely for at least a portion of their working hours. The mobile, high-speed, GPS devices that a majority now own are absolutely necessary to the cellphone trip planners and various -sharing systems that have spread to many US cities in recent years. 

This is one of the most compelling arguments for why we should expect America’s declining interest in cars to be permanent.  

The “decline of cars” story is a hard one to convey to the currently ruling generation (now in their 40s-70s).  Older folks too easily assume that Millennial disinterest in cars has something to do with being young and single and childless and maybe poor.  

We already knew that Americans are getting drivers licenses later and later in life — and this statistic ought to get attention because it’s comparing Millennial behavior to that of their parents at the same age.  

The strongest story, though, presents not just a trend but an explanation of it, and that’s what we have here.  Communications technology explains why the younger generation is finding cars less necessary (and why older people who are good at technological uptake are finding the same thing).  People still need to be together (see Yahoo’s recent decision to abolish telecommuting) but communication technology is replacing a lot of errands that the older generation is used to doing with cars.


Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 10.41.47

USPIRG reviews a broad array of recent research on the topic, concluding:

By providing more
choices and flexibility for individuals to meet their transportation needs,
these new tools can make it convenient to adopt “carfree” and “car-light”
lifestyles.

Households that reduce
the number of vehicles they own often dramatically reduce the number of miles
they drive. Because many of the costs of owning a car are perceived to be
fixed, vehicle owners perceive the cost of driving an additional mile to be
artificially low. New services such as carsharing shift the cost of driving
from fixed to per-mile costs, providing an incentive for users to drive less
and allowing many households to reduce their overall spending on
transportation.

Information technologies make it easier to ensure seamless connections between various modes of transportation, expanding the number and types of trips that can be
completed effectively without a car.

The report also discusses mobile ticketing, perception of travel time, and each of the various sorts of sharing services, and provides a set of policy recommendations to respond to and build upon the potential of this technology. Read it yourself here.

the need for maps of your freedom

 

Remember this map?

 

GoogEarth walkscore

I used it in the earliest days of this blog, and it's in almost every presentation I do.  It's from a tool that allows you to select a location in a city and see blobs (technically isochrones) showing the area you can get to in a fixed amount of time using transit plus walking.  This one is for 9:00 am and the three shades of blue represent travel times of 15, 30, or 45 minutes. In essence, the software takes the point you select and runs the equivalent of Google Transit trip planning searches to find a points where the travel time crosses the threshold; these become the boundaries of the blobs.  (For details behind this crude summary, see Aaron Antrim's comment on this post.)

I call this a map of your freedom.  It's useful for two potentially transformative purposes:

  • Helping people and organizations understand the transit consequences of where they choose to locate, and thus to take more responsbility for those consequences.  This, over time, can help people who value good transit to locate where transit access is good — something that's very hard to discern from a typical bus map but that becomes very obvious here.  You can even assess access to specific things that you value, based on exactly where the blobs are.  
  • Helping people visualise the benefit of transit — access to your city — as a freedom, and thus to understand more clearly what transit does for them.  It broadens the narrow notion of travel time  – which is often understood for only one typical trip — into a picture of your possibilities as a transit rider.  The percentage of a city's resources (jobs, housing, retail etc) that is in the blobs for a particular location could also form the basis for a meaningful Transit Score that could replace the technologically biased scores now used by WalkScore.com.

The original tool is a beta buried deep in WalkScore's archives.  It's basic and very, very slow.  

The other main alternative is mapnificent.net, by Stefan Wehrmeyer.  Available for many cities, Mapnificent.net looks good …

Mapnificent

… except that it contains two fatal assumptions:

  • Initial wait time is excluded.
  • Some timing of transfers is assumed, based on the author's experiences in Europe.  So he uses an average transfer wait time of 1/3 of the headway instead of 1/2 of the headway, which would be appropriate for random transfers.

Here's the problem.  Both assumptions mean that Mapnificent's assumptions undervalue frequency and overvalue vehicle speed. Since this conceptual bias is already very, very common (see Chapter 3 of my book), Mapnificent is seriously misleading in a way that can be really unhelpful.  For cities that I know, especially area with lower frequency service, Mapnificent wildly overstates the convenience of transit, and fails to show how locating on frequent service will get you better access to the city.

In my network design course we talk about this.  When figuring travel times in the course, I insist on using 1/2 of the headway as the intial wait time and the same as the transfer time (unless there's a pulse) so that frequencies weigh heavily into true travel times, as they do in life.  This sometimes sounds silly: If a route runs once an hour does that really mean I wait an average of 30 minutes?  Or do I just build my life around the schedule?  I view the two as the same thing, really.  We're not describing literal waiting so much as time when you're in the wrong place.  We're describing the difference between when you need to arrive and when you can actually arrive.  This could take the form of arriving at work 29 minutes earlier than your shift starts — consistently, every day.  Effectively, you end up waiting at your destination.

So there are a range of judgment calls to be made in designing these things, but it's worth getting it right because the potential utility of this tool is so significant.  The good news: I'm involved with people who are working on something better.  Stay tuned!

portland: the grid is 30 years old … thank a planner!

Thirty years ago next week, on Labor Day Weekend 1982, the role of public transit in Portland was utterly transformed in ways that everyone today takes for granted.  It was an epic struggle, one worth remembering and honoring. 

I'm not talking about the MAX light rail (LRT) system, whose first line opened in 1986. I'm talking about the grid of frequent bus lines, without which MAX would have been inaccessible, and without which you would still be going into downtown Portland to travel between two points on the eastside.  (Full map here.)

Portland grid\

What did it look like before 1982?  Here's a bit of the 1970 network (full map here).

Portland 1970

The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown — a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn't really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them. 

How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?  

  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember "the Division bus."  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.

If you're in a hurry, skip to "Thank a Planner!" below.  But if you have a couple of minutes, let's explore more deeply how the grid transformed Portland, and why it was so controversial at the time.

In both maps above, that wavy line across the middle of eastside Portland is the Banfield Freeway, where the first and backbone line of the MAX light rail system runs today.  In the 1970 image, look for the line marked "1" extending north from the Banfield in the middle of the image.  This is NE 42nd Avenue (a bit of which is labeled 41st, but don't let that distract you).

In the old network the bus line along 42nd came from the north edge of the city, once an hour.  Partway down it merged with another branch, to form 30-minute frequency.  When it approached the Banfield, it turned west and zigzagged into the city via the Lloyd district.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it was duplicating other routes the whole way.  If you wanted to go somewhere else on the eastside, the bus was not much use.   Frequencies were poor so it was very hard to make a trip involving multiple routes.

If you lived on NE 42nd in 1982, you were confronted with massive change, the sort of change that makes people scream.  Never again would you have a direct bus to downtown Portland.  Now you would be on the new 75, which would run continuously north-south all the way across the city.  And if you wanted to go downtown, you would have to transfer (as we called it in those days). 

But on the bright side, the 75 would run every 15 minutes, so transfering wasn't hard.  And in return, you got all the other benefits of a frequent routes that would let you connect quickly to reach destinations all over the east and north sides of the city, without going downtown.  

This is always a tough sell, because many people value transit only for the commute downtown.  These people tend to complain when the network is optmized to serve many kinds of trip at once, which is exactly what the grid does.  A frequent grid is the ultimate in versatilityequity and freedom.  It does not pick favored destinations for favored markets. Instead, it delivers anywhere-to-anywhere mobility for wherever you might want to go.  Today, the non-downtown elements of the grid, especially 72 and 75, are among TriMet's most productive lines.  

The grid redefined the role of transit in serving Portland's livability objectives.  When you think of everything that makes Portland both livable and culturally distinctive, you're probably thinking about the historically dense and gridded part of the city.  This is where almost every cool urbanist outcome of the last 30 years — from food carts to bike lanes to office-over-retail — has sprouted and thrived most successfully. Rail gets all the press, but the MAX light rail line would not have worked without this grid to connect with it.  (The reverse is not true: the grid worked well for four years before the MAX line opened, though MAX was certainly an improvement that achieved further ridership payoffs.) As Gregory Thompson and Jeffrey Brown put it in a recent paper :

If the 1983 and 1986 restructurings had not happened, LRT would have been a competitor with the CBD-focused, poor quality parallel bus routes that already were there, and there would have been no high quality bus routes intersecting the LRT at right angles. Portland would have enjoyed much less patronage than it has since experienced on both its LRT and bus routes.

Where did all the money for the new high-frequency crosstown lines come from?  Removing duplication. Look again at the your ride on 1970's route 1.  Once it turned west off of 42nd, it duplicated other routes the entire way into downtown.  Now look closely at the routes approaching downtown from further south in the old map.  They ran on so many closely-spaced parallel streets that they were effectively duplicating one another as well, wasting service.  The grid plan found many resources by removing these duplications and moving to wider and more consistent spacing of lines across the whole city.  In the same process,the grid introduced the idea that it's OK to walk further to a more frequent and useful service — the foundation for transit's link with walking (and with all of walking's public health outcomes) today.

The grid was also a radical simplification, making it easier for people to keep the network map in their heads.  Now, bus lines would often follow the same street from end-to-end, so you could remember easily that there's a Division Street bus, say, and an 82nd Avenue bus.  In the old network, if you wanted to go from 20th & Division to 82nd & Division, you had to go downtown and back, because these two parts of Division were covered by different routes.  The beauty of the grid is that your transit directions are sometimes as simply as walking or driving directions:  "Take the Division bus out to 82nd, then take the 82nd bus south."  The transit lines are just part of the street.

Imagine, in 1982, the struggle involved in implementing this.  Vast numbers of people lost their direct bus to downtown, at a time when going downtown seemed like the only purpose of transit to many existing riders.  Transit agencies tend to listen most to their existing riders, who have adapted their lives to the system as it is, so it takes real courage for them to seek new markets instead of just catering to the existing ones.   Imagine the disruption, the rage, the recriminations, not to mention the apathy from people for whom buses just don't matter, no matter what they're achieving.

Thank a planner!

If you can imagine how hard this was, consider thanking the planners who took all this abuse and persisted in pushing the plan through, because they believed in everywhere-to-everywhere networks and knew this would work if it were tried.  I'm especially thinking of:

  • Ken Zatarain, who was a TriMet service planner at the time and who is still at the agency.  Thank him at:  zataraik AT trimet DOT org .
  • Thomas G. Matoff, the single most important mentor in my own transit career, and probably the critical player in pushing the grid through.  Tom, who was service planning manager and thus Ken's boss, was an eloquent, passionate and persistent advocate for the grid both inside and outside the agency.  He was the first person I've met, and one of the few I've known, who could convey how essential network design is to the life, joy, and prosperity of a city.  Tom went on to be General Manager of Sacramento Regional Transit and is now working on the Sonoma-Marin rail project in California.  Thank him at:  tmatoff AT sonomamarintrain DOT org .

I'm dead serious:  If you value being able to get around Portland in all directions, thank them.  In other words, do one of these things:

  • shoot emails of appreciation to the three emails above, copied to me (jarrett AT jarrettwalker DOT net), with "Thanks for the grid" in the subject line, or 
  • leave a comment here, or 
  • say something on Twitter with the hashtag #PDXGrid .  

You might also ask the two mayoral candidates about how important the frequent grid is to their vision of the city, and whether they think it should be enhanced.

Why does this matter?  Because even today, there's disagreement in Portland about important the frequent grid is, or even whether a complete everywhere-to-everywhere network (which requires high-frequency buses as well as rail) should be a priority at all.  Some view the grid as unimportant, for example, because they view bus service as unimportant.

Purists might argue that the grid never made it to its 30th birthday, but rather perished at 27 in 2009.  That was the year that TriMet cut all-day frequencies below the 15-minute threshhold that is widely accepted as the definition of "frequent enough that you can use it spontaneously, without building your life around the timetable."  Since the grid relies on easy connections to achieve its goal of easy anywhere-to-anywhere access, the 2009 cuts began to undermine the whole idea of the grid. TriMet avoided doing this in its first round of cutting after the crash, but felt it had no alternative in the second 2009 round.  

Will the grid ever be restored to its necessary frequency?  Will it ever be expanded and enriched (as regional land use planning generally assumes it must be) with even better frequencies?  Not everyone in Portland thinks this is a priority, so you might want to express your view.  

More on the history and spectacular outcomes of the grid if you click below.  But even if you don't click, thank a planner!

Continue Reading →

quote of the week: hopeful intentions of the u.s. federal transit administration

[In reading this, recall that mobility means "how far you can go" or "how much area you can cover" in a given time.  "Accessibility" or "access" means "how many economic, social, and recreational opportunites that you can reach" in a given time.]

"[The U.S. Federal Transit Administration (FTA)] believes improvements to both access and mobility are key features of a good transit investment. FTA agrees a measure that defines accessibility instead of mobility might be a better representation of the kind of benefits transit projects are intended to produce. As noted, however, it has proven very difficult to measure. Although it is relatively easy to specify a measure such as number of jobs within a specified travel time of a single location, creating a broader corridor or regional measure including calculations to and from multiple locations is more difficult and complex. FTA believes a measure focusing on project ridership will indirectly address access improvements since more people will ride a project that has enhanced access to jobs or other important activity centers. Focusing on the way a transit project can enhance an individual’s ability to get places, rather than just travel faster, is a desirable outcome of the evaluation process. FTA intends to continue to explore how best to do so."

The FTA's Notice of Proposed Rule Making [pdf] that
proposes to shift the criteria for funding
new transit projects from travel time to ridership,
a move that Socrates* had some questions about.
Hat tip to Susan Pantell for reminding me
of this passage. 

This is indeed hopeful.  I'll lay out a fuller argument on how this agenda might move forward in a coming post.

Question: When FTA refers to the difficulty of aggregating accessibility measures for everyone in a region, do you think they're referring to a logical problem (i.e. the stated task is logically or philophically incoherent), or a data availability problem, or some other kind of problem?  It certainly shouldn't be a processing power problem anymore.

* To anyone who suggests that I'm being grandiose in assigning my own thoughts to Socrates, I can only reply that (a) the dialogue in question is broadly consistent with Socratic method, which is Socrates's primary legacy, and (b) Plato made quite a successful career of ascribing his own ideas to Socrates, including many that were not at all consistent with Socratic method, and he doesn't seem to have come to much moral/karmic harm.  As long as a fiction is obviously a fiction, it's not lying, it's metaphor.  

walkscore’s new apartment search functions

Walk Score, an admirable Seattle company that invented the "Walk Score" now widely used in the US real estate business, now has an improved app for their transit travel time tool.  That tool, which I use in my own definition of "personal mobility," shows you how far you can travel on transit from a chosen point in a fixed amount of time.  For example, here's how far you can go in 15, 30, or 60 minutes from San Francisco Civic Center, at least on agencies that participate in Google Transit:

6a00d83454714d69e2011571e07ffe970b-800wi
You can find something similar at Mapnificent.net.

Walkscore now has a fine new set of presentation tools that combine this information with real estate listings, so that you can search available apartments based on commute time to a destination of interest.  Couples can even search for locations that optimize both of their commutes.  For example, if one of you works in downtown Seattle and the other across the lake in downtown Bellevue, Walk Score discovers that if you want to equalize your commutes, you should live in the University District, where the blobs of access from the two workplaces overlap. Walk Score will even show you available apartments there.

2 pers commute

(Of course this service needs to be expanded beyond rentals.  Some people who are buying a home may care about similar criteria.)

All this is a step toward a more universal use of this tool that allows anyone (people, businesses, institutions, government services) to see the transit access consequences of where they choose to locate.  Many places are simply inaccessible by any efficient form of transit, so people need tools for avoiding those places if they want transit to be part of their lives, or that of their employees, customers, or clients.  That's especially important because some of these places are cheap, but may not be as cheap as they look when you consider the transport costs they impose.

I'm also interested in using this tool to generate a more factual two-digit "Transit Score" than the one Walk Score currently promotes.  More on that here.

imagining cities without mobility

Philips Corporation, like everyone, is running a livable cities program, in this case a set of awards for individual projects rather than big-picture rankings of cities.  I just stumbled on it, and got a rude shock.

There are eight categories: Neighborhood, Mobility, Care, Education, Water, Shade, Sport, and Regeneration — all excellent things.  Obviously, I'm professionally interested in mobility, so I looked to see who was winning there. 

The leading candidate for the Mobility award is Plaza Movil Street Park, a proposal (for Buenos Aires, Argentina) for temporary street closures to create community park space.  Its benefits are described like this:

Creating recreational spaces for local communities to relax, play, meet, and chat.

That's wonderful.  It's glorious.  I'm all for it.  To use Philips's terms, it's great for Neighborhood, and probably also for Shade.  But it's not mobility

The only relationship that this plan has to mobility is that it takes space normally used for mobility and uses it for something else.

St. Augustine observed that we are always either being or becoming.  In urbanism, "being" corresponds to placehood, and "becoming" corresponds to movement or mobility.  The late 20th Century car-centered model led to the massive conversion of land area from placehood functions to mobility functions.  Transit's great virtue is that it provides a lot of mobility using relatively little space, so that more area can be devoted to places, both public and private.

And yes, a great street provides an experience that integrates placehood and mobility to a degree.  And yes, good urban redevelopment also reduces our need for mobility up to a point. 

Bravo for well-designed street closures.  But to give a street closure a mobility award seems to imply that mobility — our ability to get to places we want to go to — just no longer matters. 

There is a strong current in New Urbanism, not without detractors, that does seem interested in abolishing mobility.  Patrick Condon's idea for Vancouver, for example, would cancel a single proposed subway line and instead replace all of the city's electric trolleybuses with streetcars that go the same speed as the buses do.  He would cancel a mobility-improving project and instead spend money in way that that may do great urban things but doesn't increase mobility at all.  Once his network was complete, nobody could get anywhere any faster than they can now. 

This makes sense only in a context where going places (even under renewable elecric power) is an objective evil.  Streetcars, in this vision, supposedly cause greater urban density to be built at livable neighborhood scales, so that people meet more of their needs close to home.  People spend most of their time in their own "villages" and others nearby.  They simply do not travel far across the city, and had better not be in a hurry when they do.

It's understandable that "urban village" is a winning concept right now.  We do need to increase the self-reliance of each part of a city, so that travel demand for many of life's needs can met closer to home.  The pendulum swung far the other way in the late 20th century, toward surrendering placehood to movement.  I support and eagerly participate in efforts to help it swing back.

But I think we can see what it might look like to swing too far in the new direction.  We stay close to home, and thus evolve transport systems that are useful for going short distances and useless for going long ones.  And the obvious retort to this is:  In that case, why live in a city?  Why not just live in a country village, or in a small city? 

The whole point of living in a city is to have access to unusual things that are only possible at a large scale.  If you want major league sports or a good symphony orchestra or a world-class major university, you need to be in some kind of urban area.  If you have a very unusual interest, only a place with lots of people will have a few people who share that interest.  If you want choices, you need redundancy, also known as competition.  You need there to be two or more sources for whatever service or product or experience you're looking for, readily available from where you live.   For those things, you need a certain amount of urban mass, and some options for moving around within it.

The great irony of anti-mobility village-first thinking is that it inevitably leads to monotony — less choice and therefore less opportunity for people to form specalized communities where unusual thought and creativity can flourish.  More disturbingly, it leads to a world where only the internet offers those things, which leads in turn to nightmare images of a world of plugged-in couch potatoes, people who never go outside anymore because their social and intellectual needs simply aren't met by the 500 people who happen to be within walking distance.

The antidote to conformity and monotony is the city.  For a city to function as a city, you need mobility.  Streetcars are fun to ride, but not if you're in a hurry.  Closing a street on Sundays so people can dance is a great thing.  But you can't run an economy that way, nor can your citizens feel free.