Reader Russell Bozian thinks he spies a theme coursing through recent posts.
Will partially built houses ever be energy efficient? Ones where the walls are up, but the roof has not been put on yet? If you don’t qualify for a full home loan, will banks even lend you half the money you need to build a house? Will the banks figure that you can at least have half a good life, living in a house with walls but no roof? …
Jarrett, your original post wonders out loud why Portland can spend tens of millions on transit and not, in 2010, see a much higher percentage of people commuting to work on public transport. But at the present build rate, won’t it take at least until 2050 before Portland has a comprehensive and ubiquitous public transport network, such as we see in Manhattan? Why do we starve public transport of the money it needs to finish a decent network of routes, and then pause to criticize its incomplete performance statistics? Would we ponder why the waterworks is not delivering much water to our faucets, if we only gave them enough money and right of way for each water line to stop 100 feet short of our houses?
There are some kinds of public projects, like building air traffic control towers, that you just need to buckle down and spend money on to finish–without pausing and looking at the half-finished tower and pointing out that not many planes are being guided yet. Public transport networks to replace automobiles is one of those kind of big, expensive projects that (a) many other cities in many other countries have completed successfully and (b) do not lend themselves to meaningful performance analysis in their incomplete condition.
Russell is talking, of course, about the power of network effects. Every addition to a network makes all parts of the network more useful, so there should be a multiplying effect as a network expands. But unlike a house, it’s hard to decide when a network is complete. Even if you do, people will still think of things you might add, just as you might add things to houses.
Few rallying-cries are as satisfying as “Complete the Network!” But history’s cruel joke is that we never know a network is complete until we notice we’ve stopped building.
The road network looks very complete to me, as it does to Russell, but many road engineers don’t think it’s complete at all. Look at San Francisco: A freeway from the north coast extends for over a hundred miles, climaxes at the Golden Gate Bridge and — ends! With no connection to the freeway on the other side of the city! The very same thing happens if you follow Interstate 5 across the Canadian border and into Vancouver. It just ends! If you want to get from the freeway on one side of Vancouver to the freeway on the other, you have to use city streets. If you’re used to the American model of continuous-welded Interstates, these places are like some kind of eternal construction detour, and generations of well-meaning freeway-trained motorists have asked: “When are they going to complete it?”
They’re not. Or rather, it’s complete now, in its fragmentary state, whatever that is.
None of this disputes Russell’s fundamental point, which is that network effects matter. The more places a network goes, the more useful each part of it is. We have to keep saying that. It’s an important point and one of the few transit-related insights that motorists can instinctively understand, because it has a direct equivalent in the motorist’s world.
The goal of completeness can be rhetorically useful, but don’t get too attached to it. It’s death, in more ways than one.