Freedom Happens In Infrastructure (and Services)

Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith, Stephen Hall.  The Spatial Contract.  Manchester University Press, 2020

In Western political philosophy, physical space is a fairly recent discovery.  Early thinkers about socialism and capitalism tended to focus on wealth as the primary thing to be generated or distributed.  Only in recent decades, in the work of Edward Soja for example, have we seen serious consideration to how space — including the ability to move — is distributed.   Freedom, too, started out as an abstraction, often defined negatively as the absence of constraint.  But real freedom only happens in a system of infrastructure and services:

What does it mean to be free to walk down a road?  Most people would agree that this requires being free legally and socially … But to truly understand what makes someone free to walk down a road, we need to be paying a lot more attention to the road.

Or as you’ve heard me say elsewhere: Transportation planning is freedom planning.  Every decision about infrastructure or services (where they should be? how they should work?  what they should cost to use? how well they should be maintained?) is a decision about who will be free and how free they will be.

This little book explores what it means to be free in a world where freedom relies on systems. It’s fun to think of “throwing off your chains” and “hitting the open road.”  That’s negative freedom, the freedom from constraint. In fact, you can only “hit the open road” because somebody built the road, put it here rather than there, and is maintaining it or not.  What’s more, those decisions define your options about where you can really go, what you can really do, who you can meet, and so on.  We are always inside spatial systems — transportation, water, sanitation, power, etc — and our freedom lies entirely in what options and opportunities those systems offer us.  The authors call these reliance systems.  [1]

From this insight, the book builds the idea of a spatial contract.  It’s an analogy to the social contract — the idea that citizens and their governments have an implicit deal where the citizen accepts constraints imposed by the government in return for security, stability and other things that only government can provide.  A spatial contract is the same idea applied to space but especially to infrastructure and services.  In the narrow sense, a spatial contract between resident and government would specify that the citizen pays taxes and the government provides infrastructure and services.  But spatial contracts are more diverse than that, because reliance systems are not all produced by government, nor should they be.  There are private actors, informal sectors such as the taxicab industry, and so on.

The authors’ focus on establishing a moral framework for talking about reliance systems, one that (unlike many established frameworks of moral and political philosophy) deals with the physical and spatial reality of these systems.  The chapters “Seeing like a system” and “Seeing like a settlement” describe this framework from important but different spatial points of view.  Each system operates in physical space with its own logic, and needs to be seen from that point of view.  Each settlement, where people live and work together, is a point where many systems interact and must collaborate, and needs to be seen from that point of view.

Obviously I don’t recommend this book to every reader.  This is a scholarly conversation.  But unlike most academic writing, the book is friendly and readable for anyone who has a basic level of comfort with political and philosophical thinking.  Freedom is at the center of my work these days, and this book has helped me think about it more clearly.


[1]  The term reliance systems strikes me as confusing, because the word “system” is normally preceded by what it provides (water system, transit system) rather than the user’s relationship to it (reliance system).  If you prefer, you can just use infrastructure in the broad sense that is being proposed on the left in the US infrastructure funding debate, one that includes childcare and education as well as bridges and broadband.  But we could also call them liberation systems, since they go beyond providing basic needs to providing the possibilities for freedom.


Pedestrian Deaths are an Epidemic

Angie Schmitt, Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.  Island Press, 2020.

As a transit planner, I work on creating better networks of routes and schedules that will help people access jobs and opportunity.  But a transit agency can’t complete any customer’s trip.  To do that, the customer needs to walk.  The transit agency can make a nice shelter like the one on the right here, but it can’t change the horror that the customer will face trying to walk to their destination, or to cross this street (9 lanes, half a mile from the nearest signal) to get to the bus in the other direction.  That curb lane is marked as a bus lane if that makes you feel better.

This picture happens to be Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas but as every American knows, it is utterly ordinary.  This is the standard suburban street, mass produced around every US city according to manuals that prioritized traffic flow over all other aspects of human life — manuals that are still widely used today.

When I started my transit planning career in the early 1990s, we faced this kind of suburban street but the stakes were usually lower, because transit wasn’t carrying huge volumes of people to these places.  Most of the ridership in major metro areas was in the relatively walkable pre-war inner city. But all that’s changed for the worse.  Today, in many US transit agencies I study,some of the highest ridership bus services are on these suburban arterials.   People who need transit are forced to live and work in these places, so they have no choice but to dash across those nine lanes, if they are fit enough to dash.  My father, in his 70s, used to have to cross a street like this one to catch the bus.  He couldn’t dash.  He could only hope.

So the fact is shocking but shouldn’t be surprising: compared to ten years ago, 50% more pedestrians are dying after being struck by vehicles — a growing tide of death and mutilation that Angie Schmitt rightly calls a “silent epidemic.”

To clear the space for discussing real causes, Schmitt starts by rejecting the dominant culture’s impulse to blame the pedestrian, which started with the invention of the crime of “jaywalking” almost a century ago.  She cites the most obscene examples of victim-blaming, such as the case of Raquel Nelson, a Georgia woman who was prosecuted for the death of her own young son because they had attempted to cross the street together.  But she rightly focuses more on the pervasive language choices made by journalists, law enforcement, and other officials that tend to exonerate the motorist no matter what the facts are.  Controversially, she even challenges the pervasive “distracted walking” campaigns as an example of setting up public perception to blame the victim.  I have mixed feelings about this, because pedestrians gazing into their phones do sometimes step directly in front of buses and trains, but there’s no question that distraction is too easy an accusation in most cases.  Crossing the suburban arterial most pedestrians are too terrified to be distracted.  My father was not distracted when he set out at 2 mph across a river of traffic going 60 mph.  He was simply helpless.

Technology won’t save us, and if it only caters to our urges it could make things worse.  Schmitt calls out the trend toward larger and higher-riding cars that make it harder to see a child stepping into the street.  In one of the most interesting chapters, she takes apart the various claims of the “driverless” car industry.  She sees value in many of the new technologies that alert drivers to hazard, and that could include automatic braking, but of course, much of this technology just opens up new opportunities for human stupidity, greed, and sloth.  As the vision of a truly driverless car recedes, we may be looking at a permanent state of partial automation, where the driver must be absolutely alert and ready to act at any moment despite having nothing to do.  Maintaining this state of hypervigilant boredom is a superhuman task.  People who study meditation for decades may finally get close to it.  But when Uber hired people to ride in its driverless test cars and watch for trouble, they didn’t hire or pay for those skills, so when one of their cars killed Elaine Hertzberg, the employee in the car was looking at their phone.

Finally, Schmitt rightly brings the focus back to road design and enforcement.  A chapter called The Ideology of Flow looks at how and why streets have been designed on the principle that traffic speed simply matters more than the safety of pedestrians.  Here she must take on the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) an excellent example of the principle that the most controversial ideologies are often hidden in documents whose titles promise that they are utterly boring and irrelevant.  MUTCD presents itself as a reasonable set of guidelines to ensure that if you drive from one state to another, the stop signs won’t look so different that you won’t recognize them.  But it also contains strong moral statements about the value of human life, such as when it says that a crosswalk should be built only if 93 pedestrians per hour are crossing, regardless of how many people are dying.  (This should also recall Brent Toderian’s maxim: You can’t judge the need for a bridge by counting the people swimming across the river.”)

Right of Way is clear, direct, and easy to read.  Like a good journalist, Schmitt has strong feelings about this but doesn’t lead with them.  Instead, she lays out facts and stories and lets you have your own feelings about them.  Ultimately, this book invites the reader to think about the value of human life when it conflicts with our need or longing to go places quickly.  Different people may have different perspectives on that, but after reading Schmitt, most will be shocked at just how extreme the epidemic of pedestrian death has become, and what simple things could be done to stop the killing.

A Fine New Guide for Transit Activists

Steven Higashide, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit. Island Press, 2019.

Why are American cities finally taking buses seriously?  Because, as Churchill famously said, “Americans will do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

I’ve been following transit in America for 35 years, and working in the field for 25. During that time, cities have growh frustrating to get around in, with dire consequences for people’s access to opportunity. But throughout that time powerful people have always been telling me that buses just don’t matter. Development interests cared only about rail or ferries. Technology marketers have always shiften the conversation to new patented things, of which some are useful but many are tragic distractions.  To the extent that buses have mattered to the powerful, it’s often been as a social service — a charity that they give pennies to out of pity but whose functionality they barely care about.

And that’s not even to mention the active hostility to bus service that transit planners encounter daily: the shopping mall or hospital that refuses to let a bus get anywhere near the building, the communities that want buses out, the urban businesses who think that motorists are the only customers who matter.

But having exhausted all the alternatives, American cities are finally rediscovering this essential tool. No remotely functional city in the world lacks a transit system, and the bus is always a critical layer – the thing that goes to all the high-demand places that rail can’t go.  As we enter the inevitable hangover from the mid-2010s sugar-rush of tech boosterism, people are finally doing the math to see why, for a city to function for everyone, buses simply must be allowed to succeed.

Steven Higashide has written a great little book charting the current and incipient bus revolution.  In a skillful balance of facts and stories, Higashide explores what successful bus services look like, and how to overcome the barriers to bus service reform. He interviews the architects of some of the most impressive achievements, and also delves well into the deep challenge of equity and public engagement.

Do I have quibbles?  My only serious one is that I wish the book were clearer about where activists should direct their constructive rage.  US transit agencies are less powerful than they appear and are often not the source of the biggest problems. Much of what they do is defined by their poverty and by the great mass of regulations and labor contracts that form the boundaries of their world.

At times Higashide understates the danger of telling transit agencies to do so many things that everything they do suffers from lack of focus.  Transit agencies desperately need to focus on designing and running good transit systems.  Demanding they take on other battles often comes at a cost to that core business, by dividing staff and elected attention.

For example, Higashide suggests that transit agencies lead on pedestrian infrastructure around stops, a massive task that falls in the city (and sometimes state) role in managing streets. Cities must be pressured to adopt their own transit goals that lead to those kinds of investments, as leading ones like Seattle have done for years.  Just because transit is connected to everything doesn’t mean transit agencies should have to solve every related problem with their own meager budget, as they are often told to do. That just leads to ever-lousier bus service.

But this book is so good in so many ways that I don’t mind disagreeing with it here and there. The messages are critically important. The writing is lively and fun.  You can read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and it’s short and logical chapters support easy snacking.  It’s a great tool for giving you hope, and focus. Buy it, read it, give it to people who need it. It will make a difference.


An “Opinionated Atlas” of US Transit by a Great Transit Traveler

The massive redesign of Houston’s bus system, which has helped grow ridership as many US transit agencies are losing riders, would not have happened without Christof Spieler. Within the Houston METRO Board, he was the one member who rode transit, thought constantly about transit, brought professional credentials as an urban planner, knew what needed to be done, and knew how to argue for it to people of many different ideologies and cultural backgrounds.  The Board, which was itself ideologically and culturally diverse, was inevitably guided in part by his expertise, passion, and patient persistence.

Since then, Christof has been traveling the US, studying and thinking about transit.  Every week, it has seemed, he tweets from some new city.  Finally, all that thinking has come together as Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit.  

The first two parts of the book are a sensible explanation of what good transit planning is:  Think about people rather than technologies.  Think about networks rather than lines or corridor projects.  Think about frequency rather than just speed.  These are arranged in simple one-topic pages, with a summary paragraph and bullet points — ideal for skimming.

Christof’s map of Los Angeles. Note what a small area has frequent service both north-south and east-west. (Orange lines are frequent buses, and all rail is frequent except the purple commuter rail lines.) (Island Press, 2018)

But it’s the third part, the atlas, that will really suck you in.  For the 50 largest metro areas in the US that have rail or Bus Rapid Transit (that’s everything bigger than Fort Collins, Colorado or Eugene, Oregon) he provides a loving description of the city’s network, its demand pattern, its recent history, and its issues.  Denizens of each city may disagree with what Spieler chooses to emphasize, but he certainly will start a lively conversation, not just within cities but about the comparisons between them.

What’s new about this atlas?  Spieler shows you the frequent bus network for every city, thus helping you see not just where trains go, but where people can go easily.

Christof’s map of Chicago at the same scale. Note the substantially larger area with both north-south and east-west frequent lines. (Island Press, 2018.)

For example, his Los Angeles map reveals that despite the vast area of moderate density in that city, a complete frequent grid (with both north-south and east-west lines near most people) exists only in a tiny area of about 7 x 7 miles (the size of San Francisco), extending roughly from downtown to the edge of Beverly Hills and from the Hollywood Hills to just south of I-10.  Everything else, including highrise centers like Century City, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena as well as vast areas of mostly 2-3 story housing, has frequent service in only one direction, if at all.  Another map of Los Angeles includes densities, and shows how much high-density area lies outside the frequent network entirely.

Spieler’s map of Chicago, by contrast, shows  a remarkably complete grid over very similar densities in a city with even fewer major destinations outside of downtown.

Spieler’s book is perfectly designed to be both readable and browsable — a great gift for an urbanist or transport geek and a great book for the coffee table.  You can read around in for a long time, exploring different cities, their strengths and their missed opportunities.  Let’s hope it produces a smarter conversation about urban transit.

Christof Spieler:  Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit: Island Press, 2018 


A Friendly Guide to Transport Planning

David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axthausen.  Elements of Access.  Network Design Lab, 2017. 

Access — where can you get to soon? — is, or should be, the core idea of transportation planning.  David Levinson has long been one of the leaders in quantifying and analyzing access, and this work kicks off this fine new book.  The cover — a 1925 map showing travel times to the centre of Melbourne, Australia — captures the universality of the idea.  Access is what  I prefer to call freedom: Where you can go determines what you can do, so access is about literally everything that matters to us once we step out our front door.

But that’s just the beginning of this very friendly book.  Elements of Access is really a tour of the whole field of transport planning, and its goal is to strike a balance between academic precision and readability.  In this, it’s a great success.  I’ve never taken more pleasure from reading academic writing about transport.  The writing is mostly clear and easy to read, and deftly combines technical ideas with references to everyday life.

The book is also easy to browse.  It’s organized in units of 1-2 pages, grouped under six themes.  Photos are used well.  Footnotes appear in the otherwise white space on each page, so that there’s no flipping to them, and interesting nuggets in them have a chance to catch your eye.  The book is also full of internal references, aiming for the structure of a hypertext to the extent that a physical book can.

Do I have gripes?  Sure.  Inevitably, a book of this breadth rushes past many rich topics, and sometimes — as with transit fares — the treatment is too cursory to be useful.  Some explanations are clearer to the average reader than others.  And I wish the content had been linked to the concept of access more explicitly throughout.

Of course, one common reason for negative reviews is that the reviewer looked at the bibliography, didn’t see his own book listed, and formed a judgment right there.  Well, my book isn’t in the bibliography, but Elements of Access is a good book anyway, whether for reading, browsing, or as a reference.  I recommend it.

how to (not) sound elitist when discussing transit



This is not a balanced book review. While I will start with some general praise of this new book, I must focus on a few passages about public transit that are both misleading and potentially harmful.  I do this not to challenge these authors in particular, but because these mistakes are so common in urbanist writing and need to be called out wherever they appear.

Reid Ewing and Keith Bartholomew, both at the University of Utah, have a new large-format paperback offering a concise overview of the basics on Pedestrian and Transit-Oriented design.  If you want a good glossary of key urbanist concepts such as imageability and coherence, or you want a good and well-cited argument for local street connectivity, this is your book.  

Very usefully, the book is organized as a series of checklists:  Here are the features that you must have to be considered transit-oriented design, here are others that are desirable.  It's designed to be handy to the time-crunched developer or policy person.  In fact, it meets one of the most important standards for an influential book in our distracted age:  You can get most of the message by just looking at the pictures and reading the section headings.  

The writing is good, too, clear and with careful attention to explaining and demystefying concepts.  With one exception, I could recommend this as a good reference guide to the key concepts of pedestrian-oriented design.  

As a guide to transit-oriented design, however, it has a fatal flaw:  The authors make recommendations about transit that make sense from a design and development point of view but are nonsense to many experienced transit planners.  These recommendations will sound elitist and tone-deaf if you present them to your transit agency.  As always, I emphasize sound; I've talked with enough urbanist writers to know how good their intentions are; they are mostly genuinely surprised when their comments about transit backfire.  But it's not a hard mistake to avoid.  I am going to take apart a critical passage in the book not because it's typical — it's an unusual flaw in a good book — but because it illustrates a lingering problem with urbanist discussions of transit in general, one that I hope we are close to moving beyond.

Ewing and Bartholomew lead off their transit discussion with this tired old chestnut:

In the quest for efficiency, transit has become dull and utilitarian, part of the problem reather than the solution to today's lifeless streetscapes (Coppe 1991).  [p 82]

If this generalization is really about "today," then how is it bolstered by a 22-year old citation?  Obviously it's true to a degree, more in some cities than others,  but there has been transformative progress in the last two decades.  Fleet, facilities, and technology have been upgraded across the developed world, often with the input of great designers.  Do transit agencies get no credit for the evolution in the comfort, openness and access that have happened over the last generation?  

More fundamentally, this line conveys disinterest of the  nature of transit's success, a disinterest that is tragically common in urbanist professions.  The word efficiency is used as though all readers would agree it's a misguided goal.  But when working under any fixed budget as transit agencies do, efficiency is the same thing as abundance.  (When something called efficiency is genuinely destructive or unsustainable, it should be called false efficiency.  Freeways, fracking, and industrial farming may be less efficient than they look because of externalized negative impacts.  Questioning those things doesn't amount to questioning efficiency.)

As for the word utilitarian, it has a technical meaning in philosophy but here it's a dismissive word meaning useful.  Anything that scales to a vast network that's potentially useful to thousands or millions of people can be called utilitarian.  Great transit agencies wear this term as a badge of honor.  What's more they prove that usefulness is beautiful.

But the authors dig themselves deeper.  After showing us pictures of charming, distinctive bus shelters in two wealthy communities that can afford them, they write:

In some cases, transit operators might do better by putting fewer buses on the street at times of low demand, and diverting the money they save into bus stop amenities and fleet facelifts.

This, urbanist friends, crosses a bright red line called upward redistribution of wealth.  

This book appears at a time when many US transit agencies have been slashing transit service for the last five years, driving away legions of riders.  Portland, for example, has had its inner city grid network gutted — mostly cut to 20 minute frequencies at which the connections on which it relies are almost impossible — even though frequent transit service is a foundational element in the City of Portland's neighborhood development policies. 

Any "low-ridership" services that have survived all that carnage are serving popular and important non-ridership goals.  They are not going to be cut to build nicer bus shelters.  Doing so could also be illegal in the US if you're using Federal funds: US Title VI legislation (part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is designed to prevent exactly this kind of upward redistribution of the benefits resulting from public investment.  All US transit agencies that receive Federal funds must do extensive analysis to prove they are treating low-income and minority riders fairly in both service and infrastructure.

So if you follow this book's advice, and tell your transit agency they should cut service and force lower income riders to buy cars so you can pay for  nicer bus shelters, it doesn't matter how noble your intentions are.  You will sound elitist.  You will sound especially hostile to the burgeoning environmental justice agenda that is already embodied in civil rights legislation, and that has its own strong nexus with the ultimate outcomes that we call sustainability.  If you prevail in guiding the policy of your transit agency, that agency could be exposed to civil rights lawsuits as a result.  Do you really want this many enemies?

It doesn't help that in suggesting service cuts at "times [rather than places] of low demand," the authors are just repeating a common misconception.  Ridership at different times of day is interdependent, if only for the obvious reason that most transit trips are round trips.  If you cut service and thus reject a customer at one time of day, you'll likely lose their business in the other direction as well.  The most obvious "time of low demand," the late evening, is also a "guaranteed ride home," which means it affects the overall attractiveness of the product.  Finally, lower-income riders who form the bedrock on which transit grows are especially likely to be travelling in the evening; cut their service, force them to spend their scarce money on cars, and you've shoved them further into poverty.

A consistent pattern of all-day service (including "times of low demand") is a powerful tool for fostering lower vehicle ownership.  That's is why many transit agencies are now committing to a policy "Frequent Network" that guarantees service over a certain span regardless of trip-by-trip ridership.  (These policies, important in guiding true Transit-oriented Development at regionwide scale, deserved a mention.  Policies in the Portland and Vancouver BC regions could both have been cited.  Indeed, the book is silent on the urgent question of how to recognize a suitable site for TOD.)

I love distinctive transit shelters as much as anyone, but not if they are defined as an alternative to the sheer quantities of service that cities need and that ridership would reward.  (Canadian midsized cities, for example, generally have about twice the ridership per capita of similar US cities, not becuase their shelters are cuter but becuase they run about twice as much service per capita.)

Distinctive, adorable shelters can still come about in one of three entirely reasonable ways.  Either:

  1. they have been paid for by developers, or by neighboring landowners who will profit most directly from any uplift in land values, or
  2. they have been paid for by city governments as a form of beautifcation, or
  3. they are transit agency investments that are affordable and suitable for mass production, like the San Francisco shelters with the characteristic wave roofs.  

Developer-funding (also endorsed in the book) is often the purest nexus of all, but city funding is also a healthy trend.  City governments are much better placed than regional transit agencies to make investments that express civic identity and character.  Most US cities can also do improvement districts that focus the cost on the landowners who will most benefit.  Still, it's usually wealthier communities that can afford to do this, so it's deeply misleading to present these specialized shelters as realistic examples for cities in general, let alone to suggest that cash-strapped agencies should reject existing riders in order to pay for them.

It's hard to even criticize Ewing and Bartholomew for these howlers.  As long as I've been in the business, I've heard leading urbanists lecturing transit planners about how they should abandon their obsession with abundant service and focus on aesthetics instead.  As someone with serious credentials in the arts, my response is always that I understand the aesthetic values that the urbanist is describing, but that their recommendation is pointless until they own the consequences of the cuts they are implicitly proposing to fund these things. 

To be fair, transit agencies have been slow to engage urbanists in their own language, which requires staff with appropriate expertise.  This, however, has improved dramatically over the last decade.  Most leading transit agencies in major US cities have design and land use professionals on staff.  Working urban designers and architects are responding constructively to transit agency input, and respectful conversations between the fields are happening more than ever.  Most urban design and architecture professonals that I deal with are sensitive to real-world transit issues and open to learning about transit agency perspectives, so we can hope for a continued spread of insight on these issues.  

Indeed, Ewing's and Bartholomew's book shows how far the urbanist discourse has come in respecting transit and the diversity of its riders.  They speak mostly of "transit," avoiding rail vs. bus arguments, and their photos show buses as accepted parts of the urban landscape deserving of attention.   This is real progress, still controversial in some quarters.  It was partly in the context of this larger sensitivity that the passages quoted above were so shocking.

In the long run, urbanist thinkers who discuss transit must learn to respect transit network design and policy as a genuine expertise — something that's worth learning about before you comment on it.  Again, my own experience suggests that the practice is ahead of the literature in this regard.  This book — very useful on all subjects except transit policy — shows how far urbanists' respect for transit agencies has come since the early days of the New Urbanism, and how much — or perhaps how little — remains to be done.

my book reviewed in CNU magazine


"Once in a while, a book comes along that summarizes most of what's important about a particular subject, and does so in a way that's lucid and effortless.  One such book is Jarrett Walker's Human Transit."  

— William Lieberman, review of Human Transit,
Better Cities & Towns, a Congress for the New Urbanism magazine. 


Download the full review here:
PDF.   Or here it is online.

I specifically like Bill's praise for the earliest CNU conferences, where everything happened in plenary and as a result, people had to listen to things they might not want to hear. 

intriguing new book on jane jacobs and her transporation (email of the week)

From the book's co-author:

I was glad that you urged "lazy students" via your Human Transit blog to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I enjoyed reading your thoughtful commentary for the City Builder's Book Club on Jane Jacobs and transportation!

Glenna lang coverI thought I'd let you know about a book that might have escaped your notice called Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." It's just come out in paperback with a new cover featuring a heretofore unpublished 1963 photo of Jane alongside her main mode of transportation – her bicycle – on the streets of New York. 

Genius of Common Sense was originally intended for young adults but has caught the attention of the likes of Robert Caro, Jason Epstein, and Robert Campbell as a solid introduction to the life and work of Jane Jacobs for adults too. With more than 100 images, it follows her through the publication of Death and Life and her New York battles against urban renewal and expressways. 

Sounds interesting!  Anyone want to write a review as a guest post?

book review: grescoe’s straphanger

Taras Grescoe. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. Macmillan, 2012.

Straphanger cover

When the publisher of Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger asked me to review the book, I felt the usual apprehension.  Shelves are full of books that discuss transit from a journalist’s perspective.  They often get crucial things wrong, as do many journalists’ articles on the topic.  I wondered I was going to endure another four hours of watching readers being innocently misled on issues that matter.

Grescoe does a little of that, but he also shows why spectacular writing compensates for many problems of detail.  Straphanger is a tour de force of compelling journalism and “travel writing” – friendly, entertaining, funny, pointed, and (almost always) compelling.  Like any good explainer, he announces his prejudice at once:

I admit it: I ride the bus.  What’s more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros and high-speed trains.  Though I have a driver’s license, I’ve never owned an automobile, and apart from the occasional car rental, I’ve reached my mid forties by relying on bicycles, my feet, and public transportation for my day-to-day travel … I am a straphanger, and I intend to remain one as long as my legs will carry me to the corner bus stop.

Grescoe and I have almost all of this in common, but I felt a pang of regret at this posture.  To the mainstream, car-dependent people who most need this book’s message, Grescoe has just announced that he’s a space alien with three arms and a penchant for eating rocks.  But there’s a positive side: once you decide you’re not in danger, eccentric tourguides can be fun.  Perhaps I have a poor dataset from living in “officially weird” Portland, and before that in San Francisco, but in a culture that seems increasingly welcoming of eccentricity and difference, there may be an audience for Grescoe among the motoring set.

Because this is what Grescoe is at heart:  A great tourguide, in this case a travel writer, showing you around some fascinating cities, exploring intriguing transit systems, and introducing us to vivid and engaging characters, all while having fun and sometimes dangerous adventures.  These last are important; Grescoe has had enough traumatic and confronting experiences that he can describe straphanging as a form of endorphin-rich adventure analogous to mountain climbing or skydiving.  I look forward to the movie.

Statistics are cited lightly but to great (and usually accurate) effect.  Effective and quotable jabs are everywhere: 

“The personal automobile has, dramatically and enduringly, broadened our horizons.  In the process, however, it has completely paved them over.

Grescoe has a great eye for characters, too.  Who can fail to be charmed, for example, by this portrait of a character I hadn’t known:  Bogotà mayor Antanas Mockus, alter-ego of his successor, the aggressive and practical Enrique Peñalosa:

Working with a tiny budget and no support from district councillors, Mockus focused on … undermining cycles of violence through jester-like interventions in daily life.  He dismissed the notoriously corrupt traffic police and hired four hundred mimes to shame drivers into stopping at crosswalks.  …  Taxis drivers were encouraged to become “Gentlemen of the Crosswalks,” and every new traffic fatality was marked with a black star prominently painted on the pavement.  To discourage road rage and honking, he distributed World Cup-style penalty cards to pedestrians and motorists, a red thumb’s down to signify disapproval, a green thumbs up to express thanks for a kind act … Seeing tangible evidence of municipal progress, citizens once again began to pay their property taxes … and the once-bankrupt city’s finances began to recover.

What’s wrong with this book?  Well, if it’s travel writing, nothing; travel writing is about the adventure, and while you learn things from it, you expect to learn subjective, unquantifiable things that may be inseparable from the character of your guide.  Journalism, on the other hand, has to get its facts right, or at least state its biases.  Grescoe gets a pass on his largest biases, mostly because he’s entirely aware of them and happy to point them out.

But there are a few mistakes.  Like many commentators, Grescoe throws around meaningless or misleading data about urban densities.  Here’s a typical slip:

Thanks largely to the RER, the metropolitan area of Paris, with over 10.2 million residents, takes up no more space on the Earth’s surface than Jacksonville, Florida, a freeway-formed city with fewer than 800,000 residents.

This doesn’t seem to check out, unless some subtle and uncited definition of metro area is being used.  (Wikipedia tells me that the City of Jacksonville is 882 sq mi in area while the Paris with 10.3 million residents is 1098 sq mi.)  But even if it did, this is the classic “city limits problem.”  Jacksonville is a consolidated city-county whose “city limits” encompass vast rural area outside the city, whereas “metro Paris” is by definition a contiguous area that is entirely urbanized.  An accurate comparison with metro Paris would look only at the built-up area of Jacksonville, which is tiny compared to Paris.   The point is that any talk about metro areas or cities is prone to so many different definitions, including some really unhelpful ones, that it’s wrong to cite any urban density without footnoting to clarify exactly what you mean, and how it’s measured. Grescoe is far from alone in sliding into these quicksands.

As with many journalists, Grescoe’s sense of what would be a good transit network is strongly governed by his emotional response to transit vehicles and technologies.  Grescoe is very enamored with rapid transit or “metro” service to the point that he sometimes misses how technologies work together for an optimal and liberating network. 

He claims, for example, that there should be circular metro lines around Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto.  In fact, circular or “orbital” services (regardless of technology) rely not just on network effects but also on being radial services into major secondary centers.  This is why the Chicago Circle Line made no sense: Chicago is so massively single-centered that there are few major secondary centres sufficient to anchor a metro line until you get way out into the suburbs, at which point concentrations of jobs are laid out in such transit-unfriendly ways that no one line could serve them anyway. Chicago is going the right direction by improving the speed and usefulness of its urban grid pattern of service – a mathematically ideal network form that fits well with the shape of the city.  Toronto has similar geography and issues.  As for Los Angeles, this is a place with so many “centers” that the concepts of radial vs orbital service are meaningless.  Especially here, where travel is going so many directions and downtown’s role is so small, the strong grid, not the circle, is the key to great transit. 

Grescoe is clear enough about his strongest bias:

“I don’t like buses. … Actually, I hate them.”

Despite his opening statement that “I ride the bus,” Grescoe repeatedly associates buses with losers, and with unpleasant experiences.  In correspondence with me, he wrote:  “The anti-bus bias you perceive was a concession to North American readers whose experience of buses tends to be negative.”  Again, this is understandable as travel writing, but it’s tricky as journalism and very tricky if the purpose is advocacy.  When you presume a bias on the part of your reader, with the intent of later countering it, you can’t really control whether you’ve dislodged the bias or reinforced it.  I felt the bias being reinforced; other readers may have different responses.

Again, the problem with anti-bus bias is not that I don’t share it.  The problem is that if you set transit technologies in competition with one another, the effect is to undermine the notion that technologies should work together as part of a complete network.  If you want a network that will give you access to all the riches of your city, buses are almost certain to be part of it – even if, as in inner Paris, you have the densest subway system in the world.  Hating buses – if that becomes your primary focus — means hating complete networks. 

When it comes to Bus Rapid Transit, Grescoe accepts the common North American assumption that the place to see BRT is Bogotà or Curitíba.  So he comes back from Bogotà with the near-universal reaction of North American junketers there:  The massive structuring BRT is really impressive in the numbers it carries, but hey, this is the developing world. Not only is car ownership low but it’s more authoritarian in its politics, giving mayors the power to effect massive transformation fast without much consultation.  What’s more, these massive busways are effective but really unpleasant as urban design – not something I’d want in my city.  Respecting the effectiveness and utility of the Bogotà busways, Grescoe does endorse Bus Rapid Transit in secondary corridors, but he has not seen busways done completely for a developed-world audience.

North Americans who want to experience successful Bus Rapid Transit in a developed-world context should skip South America and visit Brisbane, Australia, where a wealthy modern city moves, in part, on a complete network of beautifully designed, landscaped, and highly functional busways that flow into an underground segment right through the heart of downtown, and that are designed to provide an extremely frequent rapid-transit experience.  There are some European pieces of good busway, such as Amsterdam’s Zuidtangent.  But you have to go to Brisbane to see an uncompromised developed-world busway network, one that provides reliable operations end to end.

While Straphanger’s flirtation with anti-bus stereotypes was troubling to me, there’s a limit to how much Grescoe can be criticized for this.  This is journalism of its time, and the bus=loser stereotype is still of our time in some cities.  It’s up to each of us to decide whether to seek experiences that confirm our stereotypes or those that might contradict them, but nobody can challenge all of their stereotypes at once.   Grescoe does eagerly challenge many other destructive attitudes throughout the book, and the brilliance of a book lies in the way it brings delight and confidence to the experience of both using and advocating transit and great urbanism. I heartily recommend this fun, enlightening, and inspiring read.