jane jacobs on transportation: my take

Death and LifeThe City Builder's Book Club is in the process of reading Jane Jacobs's seminal 1961 book, the Death and Life of Great American Cities.   For Chapter 18, which deals with transportation, I did a guest post for them designed to kick off their discussion.  It's there, but also here:

Chapter 18: "Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles?"

The frame of the question is striking: “Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles?” Both key terms, erosion and attrition, warn us of a gradual process, a process we might not notice as we focus on the shiny revolution of the moment.

They warn us too, that the causes will be multiple and probably untraceable. Jacobs is adamant that the automobile itself didn’t cause sprawl, just as it didn’t cause traffic congestion; the horse-and-buggy era already offered the possibility of both. So, the attrition of automobiles, as it’s achieved, will have many causes and effects. Each needed but compromised revolution – market-based parking, congestion pricing, major transit, complete streets, road diets – will take due credit for this attrition, but it will really happen through individual choices, and of course the liberation from habit that comes only from the turning of generations.


Early on Jacobs attacks Corbusier for failing to run the numbers on the freeways that were supposed to serve the massed apartment towers of his Radiant City (left). The free flowing traffic in his drawings would have been gridlock, and “his vision of skyscrapers in the park degenerates … into skyscrapers in parking lots.” Corbusier’s freeways are “embroidery,” – surely an insult to that delicate craft – adding a mood or symbol of transportation rather than providing actual mobility. Many urban “visionaries” still do that, of course, implying that a new transportation tool will be so cool to ride or drive that nobody will care if it provides the volume and efficiency required, or fits into a network that will get everyone where they need to go.

Like many urbanists, Jacobs is not very interested in how public transit works, even though it is clearly the mode that must grow as the role of cars gradually shrinks. To anyone who values pedestrians, the mode that delivers as pedestrians beyond their walking range surely deserves more thought. But what she does observe is astute.

For example, she notes that forcing surface transit to use one-way couplets is a way of sacrificing transit’s needs to those of cars, and causes a gradual loss in transit’s effectiveness. (You need transit in both directions for it to be useful in either, and moving the two directions of service apart reduces the area that can walk easily to both of them.) One way couplets aren’t universally evil. They are an essential feature of downtown Portland, for example, and work well with its 200 ft blocks. But one-way couplets that are further apart are another story, sometimes serving completely different neighborhoods with their two directions.

Still, Jacobs knew, from watching New York streets, something that transportation planners needed several more decades to establish: in a dense and active city that is rich with mobility options, there will be as much car traffic as the city chooses to make room for. Her story about the closure of the roadway through Washington Square Park – which resulted in traffic simply disappearing – is the story of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway 30 years later, and of other road capacity removals from the expressways of Seoul to the boulevards of Paris. The traffic that used the formerly busy road disappears, through countless private readjustments, so long as there is an abundant grid of alternate paths into which traffic can disperse, and other modes, such as public transit, to which it can convert, and other times of day to which it can shift its travel. (Anthony Downs later coined the term “triple divergence” to describe these three universally available paths of dissipation.)

This is how attrition of automobiles works. And apart from grand gestures like a freeway removal, it is mostly the work of small, steady work: little increases in friction to cars that subtly shift a balance. Jacobs coins the beautiful term attrition tactician – which conjures balding men in dark rooms under bright lamps, engineering the moving of curbs by a few inches each year. Only today are we seeing the emergence of the attrition strategist or even attrition visionary – charismatic figures like New York’s Jeanette Sadik-Khan or Sydney’s Mayor Clover Moore who wage the battle on some scale and do not apologize for their feared traffic impacts, nor the imagined devastation to businesses that will result if some people shift to public transit or bicycles.

The charismatic figures have their place, but most achievement is gradual. The doctrine of gradualness that pervades this chapter – and indeed all of Death and Life — is a splendid antidote to all silver-bullet theories of urban transformation, from streetcars to convention centers. Real transformation happens in people’s choices, behaviors and habits. It happens at its own unpredictable pace. We will see it only in silhouette – murky and confused – by looking at transport outcomes, but we will see it directly in the life of the city.

11 Responses to jane jacobs on transportation: my take

  1. Rez April 6, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Interesting take on Jane Jacobs observations. I think I’ll tag along in reading the book.

  2. Zoltán April 7, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    You pick up on the major effect that the book had on me with regard to transport (and, actually, with regard to cities in general) – the need to tactically move forward with small steps. Your linking her words on Corbusier to symbolic transit is new to me, but it’s an idea I shall remember (because if a problem is to seem serious to me, it tends to have to invoke a Corbusian equivalent of Godwin’s law).
    That said, I’m never that sure about the outcomes of Radiant City on road traffic, because Radiant City was a very dense place, with everyone clustered around places transit could stop, and Corbusier spoke of the operation of subways, commuter rail and buses, all on a grid layout well spaced for transit – so the freeways would have failed in one of two ways, the first becoming gridlocked as Jacobs suggested, or alternatively being utterly superflous, moving on their huge infrastructure far fewer people than the PT did. This would, I suppose, largely depend upon how much an authority governing this fictional ideal wished to spend on transit operations.

  3. Zoltán April 7, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    Jane Jacobs argued that really fast transit could link together areas just as dull and dead as really fast travel by car could. While this probably doesn’t hold entirely true; cars have their own particular feature of needing a whole lot of space per passenger km that makes suburban and exuburban areas what they are, but there’s some evidence for her view in certain suburban areas of Helsinki. Many of the suburbs that have come about there over the past fifty years or so are densely built places with apartment blocks clustered around railway stations, with fast rail service typically every ten minutes, but are utterly depressing places to be, devoid of much visible pedestrian or commercial life.
    So while cars are a big problem, that good transit will solve, good transport doesn’t automatically equal good cities. Which, I suppose, means listening to urbanists about how to create a city of places that people actually want to go to, even if they do occasionally come out with silly things about spending money on slow transit.

  4. Mikko April 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    At many of the Helsinki commuter rail and metro stations, the buildings are actually *not* clustered at the station in any sane manner. Most of the current alignment of the metro lines follow a motorway, so a lot of the surface area around the stations is asphalt. Even at many of the stations where that’s not the case, there’s still a large parking lot, if not an outright green field site next to the station. A few (Leppävaara, Myyrmäki, Matinkylä at the end of the upcoming west metro) have a ginormous boxy hypermarket/shopping center building with blank walls right at the station, which makes for a pretty unpleasant pedestrian environment. So yes, good city planning doesn’t automatically follow from heavy rail transit construction.
    Also, many of the Helsinki area suburbs that have a rapid transit station only look like transit-based development. The mode share of rail is actually not high in the traffic to other suburban areas. Everybody goes to central Helsinki by public transit because parking in the city center is sufficiently difficult, but the traffic that has actually been growing fast over the past two decades is that which takes place outside of the center. The mode share of public transit there is quite low. The rail lines don’t serve those needs at all, and orbital, BRT-ish bus lines have been built very late, Jokeri 1 opening in 2003 and Jokeri 2 being now under construction and scheduled to open in 2014 (there’s a tunnel whose construction is about to begin).

  5. In Brisbane April 7, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Ah problem is NSW State Gov is taking away Clover Moore’s powers and replacing it with a committee from the State under the ‘Stop the war on the car’ proviso.
    Same ‘stop the war on the car’ cry is heard in Toronto, Canada with Mayor Rob Ford.

  6. GMichaud April 8, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Two things, incremental is fine, but broad concepts like the Beltline in Atlanta, right or wrong help define the turf. Organizing concepts like the Beltline can define transit.
    The other thing is Mikko @ Helsinki,Finland. I agree that the suburbs outside of the inner region are a crap shoot of urban environments. I also believe the central city areas do an excellent job of general mass transportation. The country at large is pretty good too. I live in the State of Missouri, Finland is a country of similar population and a little larger land area. The comparison could not be more stark, Missouri is a transit wasteland compared to Finland.

  7. Andrew April 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    My general impression is that removing road capacity tends to increase traffic congestion. Claiming that traffic will “disappear” when roads are removed is a myth. There are just too many people whose trips are poorly served by transit in most cities, particularly people going to/from the suburbs (like people who live in Toronto and work in the office parks in Mississauga near Pearson Airport). An obvious example is the controversial St. Clair streetcar project, where reducing the number of car lanes to 1 each way in sections has noticably worsened congestion. This has also increased traffic congestion on Eglinton Avenue, which also severely slows down the #32 Eglinton West bus. Increased traffic congestion is also caused by traffic dumped on Eglinton by the half-completed Allen Road expressway which ends there.

  8. Mikko April 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm #

    “The comparison could not be more stark, Missouri is a transit wasteland compared to Finland.”
    I should say that the Helsinki region heavy rail does get quite good ridership despite many of the urban areas around the stations being a lot less than ideal. The single branched metro line has 58 million passengers per year and the commuter train system (three lines) carries about 55 million per year, all in an urban area of about one million people. Expensive underground extensions are currently being built to both, to the tune of 800 – 1000 million (metro) and 650 million euros (commuter rail, includes an airport link). The surroundings at several of the stations are being filled in, some with quite massive construction, but I’m not sure that the urban design is getting much better. The pedestrian environment still seems quite dead, even if it’s more likely to be in the shadow of a 25-storey tower or such.
    Now a clunky reference to Missouri: the transit monument of Helsinki and the terminus of all three aforementioned commuter rail lines, the Central Railway Station, was designed by Eliel Saarinen, the father of Eero, who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

  9. Al Dimond April 9, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    @Andrew: It sort of depends where you are, what you’re measuring, how long you measure for, and how much you care. Short-term effects of road closures in major cities have been a mixed bag, but in the long run people build around the transportation options that are available.
    If you’re in a place where development patterns force long trips, removing capacity on a road will surely add congestion on that road in the short run; it will also cause more congestion on some connecting and parallel roads and relieve congestion on others. On the other hand, in such a place, you’ll also see increased congestion when they build the next suburb out; the next suburb out is typically built to whatever extent there’s extra road capacity in surrounding areas. If you can successfully build enough freeways to curb congestion then your city is probably dead. So maybe you stop worrying about staying ahead of congestion with road-building and start giving people better options.

  10. cargo April 10, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    I’ll be crawling through her book this weekend. She’s got interesting matters to discuss. Transportation, traffic congestion and effect of automobiles to the environment are some of the major issues to discuss.

  11. Nathanael April 18, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Andrew, traffic definitely does disappear when you remove roads.
    But the question is how *much* traffic disappears.
    In the case of St. Clair, for instance, one lane in each direction was removed… and it looks like about HALF a lane of traffic in each direction disappeared. So, congestion went up.
    St. Clair is particularly problematic because as Steve Munro pointed out, the City and the TTC seem unable to operate that streetcar line properly. It’s possible to maintain reliable timings and headways now, but the TTC is so used to being stuck in traffic that they’re not doing it…. meanwhile, the City really doesn’t like to actually turn on the transit priority signals.
    So the benefits of the St. Clair project are not being fully realized due to STUPID stuff which needs to be fixed.