the new urbanism’s problem with transit (comments of the week)

An excellent comment debate has arisen on my recent post "New Urbanists are from Mars, Transit Planners are from Venus," which addresses the mutual incomprehension between many transit agencies and many urban designers who think they're building transit friendly communities.  Read the whole thing and its comments, but I want to highlight three comments from professionals in particular:

From Alex Block:

Jarrett writes: "I think many New Urbanists have no idea how much conflict they have with transit planning, because in many cases transit planners are excluded so completely from the conversation that the New Urbanist never realizes what a mess has been made for transit."

I also think this fits into a broader critique of New Urbanism in general – in that it originally sought to engage with developers where the action was – in the suburbs – and thus often did so on suburban terms. The signature work products of many New Urbanist firms are often just changes on what remains essentially a drive-able suburban model – albeit one that at least provides for walkability, placemaking, and many other important elements.

In short, it's a evolution of suburban development – an incremental change.

I do think the New Urbanists have done some very good work for core cities insofar as the suburban standards developed by engineers have often been grafted onto existing cities after the fact (and in many cases are now being corrected), but that doesn't get around the fact that the movement's most successful elements are essentially still suburban models.

On the one hand, that's great! As many of the American suburbs are the places that need the most fixing. Providing a walkable environment at least helps mitigate some of the problems.

However, since this model is development-based, therefore the client is the developer and the to the extent that the underlying development model hasn't changed, so too the transportation model of the New Urbanists has not.

Perhaps the growing revival of urban places of all stripes (whether urban, suburban, developed or redeveloped, etc) can help shift the balance a bit – instead of New Urbanism we'll just look at urbansim, which I think would open the doors to transit planning and regional planning in a more fruitful way.

Architect Eric Orozco, also an illustrator on my book, hits a key point about the role of some transit agencies in perpetuating the confusion:

If the "cult of New Urbanism" is as hermetic as it is characterized, it has not done such a good job crafting a unified social theory or keeping its members much aligned to any such thing, much less one. …

The predilection to design pod-like development with self-contained "town centers" stems more from a design vision than a social one. What is to blame is simply poor contextual sensitivity in locating the town center. Not knowing enough about the geometry of supportable transit service and mistaken assumptions about its flexibility. That's an innocent lack of cognizance of the necessities of transit routes, not so much Moses-like hubris.

To be fair to urban designers, this mistaken assumption sometimes stems from the collaboration with the transit agency, which is also studying "optional alignments" on maps, not mentioning the "eternal" costs involved. In fact, some problems stem from the fact that some transit agencies – themselves! – seem not to be prioritizing effective transit service in their planning and are repeating the early mistakes of Calthorpe and folks by conceding more optimal alignments to better serve development. Transit planners, maybe your Venusian priorities need to be communicated forcefully. Martians think you are too easy.

Bingo.  A few transit agencies are very sophisticated about interacting with land use planning, but others are entirely passive and accommodating.  The latter, in my experience, are agencies where staff has internalized the message that what they do isn't very important — a message that local politicians may well be reinforcing. In multimodal agencies, politicians may also be signaling that while rail is important, the access and freedom provided by buses is of no interest to them, so a development's geometry problems for bus service can be ignored.

These agency staffs will respond to transit-hostile development proposals in purely detailed terms.  They will focus on minor adjustments needed to accommodate bus geometry, etc., but are silent on the development's effects on the prospects for transit overall.  Once transit agencies have chosen that submissive role, nobody is in the position to identify the development as transit-hostile — certainly not early enough in the process for the critique to be taken on board.

If your transit agency responds to development proposals in this way, make sure that this is really what the political leadership wants them to do.  Often, the political leadership wants more active engagement from its transit agency but the agency hasn't acquired staff or consultants who know enough about development to engage in that conversation.  If the transit agency won't take on this role, city planning departments need to develop their own expertise in this area.

Finally, commenter Marc reminds us that it's all about education:

Maybe I should elaborate on how much a lack of education may be contributing to this problem: as a former architecture student, I had NO classes on transportation, planning, or even urban design. The program had almost completely devolved into insular, solipsistic endeavors, almost to the point where architecture was little more than fine art. Save for a handful of exceptions, most non-engineering design schools are at least partially trapped in this approach (and the more "avant garde" the worse they are).

Lots of the earliest new urbanists describe how they had to laboriously self-educate themselves on matters of urbanism which their schools completely ignored. Even today you probably will find many NU architects, urban designers, and planners who will say that whatever they learned about transit and urbanism they picked up informally or after graduation, because the architecture-as-art schools simply don't teach these things. You design objects in splendid isolation (never mind the rhetoric about "biophilia" and "connectivity"), and I suspect that isolationist approach might still be carrying over when we see "town centers" or TODs that are strangely disconnected from their surroundings, even if their designers mean well. So injecting some transportation courses into the schools, as well as reducing the preoccupation with isolated art objects, might do a lot for molding designers who can keep transit in the back of their minds when they draw up development ideas.

I'll also concede that sometimes there seems to be a callous disregard for transit modes that are beneath a certain ideal – "streetcars or nothing." But I'm not sure if this is concentrated among new urbanists or even among architects and other designers in general, or whether it's just a widespread upper-class attitude. (Like the situation with buses that Jarrett noted: "I don't take buses and don't see them as all that important, so I don't really care about how well they function.")

Whenever I've lectured in graduate programs — including the one time I taught an entire graduate transit planning course (Berkeley, 2002) — it's been clear that the practical, geometry-based approach to transit that I present in my book is completely unlike what urban planning students are used to getting in school.  They seem to get empirical material about what transit achieves and how it relates to society, but nothing of the geometry of how transit works.  I know people who completed Masters of Urban and Regional Planning degrees with a transportation emphasis and never learned the essentials of transit.  Architecture students, as Marc indicates, are likely to be even more remote from these realities.  So urban designers and planners who want to understand transit have to notice the problem and choose to teach themselves (tip: that's what my book is for!), just as the early New Urbanist architects had to learn urbanism on their own.

What will it take to build respect for transit into our curricula?




9 Responses to the new urbanism’s problem with transit (comments of the week)

  1. Eric O September 17, 2012 at 11:43 am #

    It’s not just those kinds of graduates of planning schools who are unaware of these problems, but folks who are seasoned planners and advocates with many years of experience, and the transit professionals who advice them!
    It is after all those folks (CNU hierachs included) who, for example, have created the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, which is primed to perpetuate BIG problems with transit service outcomes.
    LEED-ND will encourage developers – in many cases, if not most – to implement transit outcomes which actually will challenge the service.
    The system rewards developers that add more transit stops (even to the same routes!) to reach more residents in their development. On the surface, this is great for the residents, but what it will actually do is encourage development teams to seek diversion of routes into the internal areas of their development. And, because the system rewards for the stops – not the actual distinct routes, developers will seek to add more stops than necessary to the same route and potentially slow down the service. In transit-speak, the rating system is slanted towards coverage goals.
    It may be good for the development, sure… but is it good for the transit service? Is it actually “sustainable”?
    …You better be evaluating other ledgers!

  2. Bronwyn September 17, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Most of the people I know who both care about and understand transit planning are ones who had to rely on transit for a significant part of their adult lives, not just as a temporary measure. (The ones who were intending/expecting to get a car soon didn’t care.) So may I suggest taking away the cars of the professors and especially the program/department head, and then handing them a transit pass for their city, and a strictly enforced, small allowance for taxis and ridesharing?

  3. Beta Magellan September 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    When I was briefly in a planning masters program, the transit-specific curriculum seemed to concentrate more on how to secure funding for transit projects than their actual design and operation (make of that what you will).

  4. Steve S. September 17, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    The lack of basic, practical geometric knowledge of (non-auto-based) transit planning, and the fact that many New Urbanists even today have had to self-teach themselves how to do architecture in a community context and not just as a hermetic “master” over their own fiefdom are, in my view, two related symptoms of a deeper problem: the loss of engineering-based design knowledge at the university level. Another way to put it is Le Corbusier’s triumph über alles. And of course, this doesn’t even start to deal with academic fadishness (a JD is essentially worthless nowadays, and the MBA is fast heading that way. Meanwhile, maybe twenty people total graduated from my alma mater’s engineering school in my year and the best transit planning education taking place was in a social sciences discipline (and one that was interdisciplinary on top of that). Try explaining that to my potential employers…

  5. BBnet3000 September 18, 2012 at 5:28 am #

    I think Peter Calthorpe is one of the few New Urbanists who has really come around on transit. Of course, he is based in Berkeley (a suburb with an actual walkable downtown and pretty good transit service for the United States) rather than South Florida…

  6. EN57 September 18, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    What designers need to do is be open to advice about transit, from transit experts, when it’s necessary, preferably at the conceptual planning stage. I would prefer urban designers to concentrate more on their own jobs of creating wonderful, living, breathing, busy places full of activity, attractive to many different types of people, and capable of sustaining themselves over time. These are the sorts of places where it is worthwhile providing frequent transit services because they are full of life and activity and energy! Often transit has a role in facilitating these outcomes by providing access and transit experts can help with this – but the transit is there to serve the activity – transit is not an end in itself.

  7. Laurence Aurbach September 18, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    I agree that pod-like developments and town centers isolated from main thoroughfares are some of the biggest flaws of greenfield new urbanism. And I also agree with the new urbanists who predict that suburban retrofit will become a major area of growth in the coming decades. So it’s going to be more important than ever to coordinate land planning and transit networks.
    There actually has been a long-running debate within new urbanism about the placement of activity centers. One side argues that in order for centers to be safe, attractive, and walkable, they must be removed from the wide, fast arterials, placed on secondary streets that are either perpendicular or parallel to the main arterials. Also, growing environmental concerns have encouraged the design of mini-greenbelts around each development, further exacerbating the isolation from the road network.
    The other side argues that walkable urban activity centers have always been centered on main thoroughfares; this pattern maximizes access, visibility, and transit efficiency. If the main thoroughfare has too much fast traffic, then a variety of design and policy options are available to make it more livable.
    However, the second argument runs up against roadway engineering standards. The standards say the main thoroughfares must be wide and carry fast (40-55 mph design speed) traffic. The standards say that intersections must be spaced far apart on main thoroughfares. Thus, the standards make walkable main thoroughfares difficult or impossible. Changing the standards requires more effort than most developers and designers are able to give, so the fallback is isolated activity centers.
    Jarrett’s series of posts has painted the problem as a conflict between designers and transit planners. There may be some truth to that, but please recognize there are many other actors and interests putting obstacles in the way of well-coordinated land use and transit. These may include DOTs, MPOs, civil engineers, engineering standards, zoning ordinances, elected officials, and developers of conventional suburbia.

  8. Jeffrey Jakucyk September 18, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Laurence beat me to most of what I wanted to say, but there’s a little more to it than that. Another reason that the pod-based development pattern with isolated town squares happens is simply because of the way the land is assembled. In urban and suburban context, nowadays the “block” is the area bounded by streets, usually major arterial streets. It’s not what most people think of as a block, which is the street as a spine, with the development on both sides.
    So when the major streets are the boundaries of your development, you can’t create a main street there because it would only be one-sided. Your pedestrian scaled urban main street, which would be in the ideal location for transit and visibility, is just as likely to be facing an office building’s parking lot, or a Wal Mart, or a wall hiding the backyards of the residential pod across the street. That’s not a recipe for success, and while it doesn’t excuse the situation, it does at least illustrate why greenfield and even infill development tends to retreat into its own pod.

  9. Sam September 18, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    I second Bronwyn’s proposal on requiring professors to ride the bus. Can I suggest that we add transit planners and administrators, and city development officials to the list? In the Midwest at least, the people who run the systems rarely ride them and I think it contributes a lot to the issues Jarret outlined with transit planners not viewing their work as important. I think if we made them actually ride the bus, we’d see a lot more innovative bus service in this country, increased funding or not.