Urban Structure

reflections on world commuting times

Here's an interesting chart!  It's from a study of commute times in Brazil, but there are enough world cities to make it interesting.



1.  Viva Marchetti's constant!  There are interesting academic debates around the edges, but the persistence of the 30-minute one-way commute, and especially the few cities with averages much less than that, echoes the observation of Marchetti and others that this seems to have been a tolerable daily travel time across both many centuries and many cultures.  Average commute times in cities don't seem to get much below 30 minutes because most people don't seem to value such short commutes.  But in highly dysfunctional cities they can get much longer.

2.   The organic "planning" of many Brazilian cities is producing better outcomes than the alleged orderliness of Chinese planning. 

3.  Despite the common whining about traffic in both places, the California metros are in good shape.  Los Angeles in particular sings the advantages of a decentralized urban structure that gives many people opportunities to live near their jobs, one that can be easily adapted to successful transit-walk-bike mobility.  

4.  Conversely, dominant and fantastically wealthy central cities (London, New York) are bad for commute times  because so few workers can afford to live close to them.

5.   Aestheticist master planning in the car era was really bad for commute times, because it tended to create building-in-park arragements that are just toxic to both transit and pedestrians.  Like many capital cities that were planned to symbolize rather than function, Brasilia excludes too many pieces of a necessary economy, spawning a vast and disorganized fringe where commute times are even longer than in more organically grown Brazilian cities.  

(Don't get me started about Australia's master-planned capital Canberra,where I've done a great deal of work over the years.  While I love Canberra for a lot of reasons, it took a lot of planning effort to get less than 400,000 people spread out over an area that's 37 km (23 miles) long, insuring long commute times for most of the population.)

Oh, and this chart demonstrates one other takeway:  If you write studies or consulting reports for a living, make sure that everything someone needs to know to understand a graphic is in the graphic, not in adjacent text.  As here, graphics quickly throw off the shackles of context to make their own journeys across the web, confusing or enlightening people depending on the wisdom of the designer.



Expanding liberating transit in small cities

Salem, Oregon (metro pop around 200,000) is typical of a lot of small cities in America.  It's a state capital and has some small universities, which help keep its downtown focused, but it's not an enviro-utopian place like Boulder or Eugene, nor is it besieged by demand for massive urban density like the bigger west coast cities all are.  This is a town that much of North America could recognize as familiar.

I love working on tranist in big cities, but I also love working in small ones.  Often, it's easier to get things done.  

So I'm proud to announce that the local transit agency, Salem Keizer Transit has released for public comment a major reworking of their transit network, one that we helped them design.  As usual, red means every 15 minutes all day, blue is every 30 and green is every 60.  Here's the new network on the left, and the existing network for comparison on the right.


The themes are familiar if you've followed other work of ours, in Columbus, Houston, or Auckland, New Zealand.  There's more high-frequency service (red) which means more places where transit is useful to people in a hurry.  The spacing of nearby routes is more even, so that walking distances are more uniform.  Sometimes service has been eliminated to extremely low density areas, such as parts of the west side of Salem in this image, where existing service is logging fewer than 10 passengers per hour of service.  

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have low-ridership services to low-demand areas, but only that the community, acting through the transit agency Board, needs to decide how to balance ridership goals with competing goals that require low-ridership service, such as perceptions of equity and lifeline access for people who are extremely dependent on transit.

Salem is interesting in that the city's geography really limits the possibilities for a high-frequency grid.  The arterial pattern is a starburst, many streets going downtown in different directions but very few streets that are useful for running perpendicular those streets.  Thus Salem continues to have only one frequent crosstown — along Lancaster Drive — but the plan works toward expanding that crosstown so that more non-downtown trips can be made that way.  Otherwise, this remains a strongly radial plan for a strongly radial city.  Salem has done better than many cities at keeping its major institutions, including its biggest university, all clumped in a small area of greater downtown, where most of the transit sytsem goes.

The bigger story, however, is that freestanding cities of Salem's size are big enough to do interesting things with transit, and to build services that are useful enough that some people will make location decisions in response to them.  That's the essence of how a city's form becomes more sustainable over time.  

Frequent networks: escaping the “food desert”

For their piece on food deserts this week, National Geographic led off with this map of Houston.  It shows where large numbers of people who lack cars are located more than 1/2 mile from a grocery store.  

Houston food desert

"Public transportation may not fill the gap," the article says, but sometimes it can.  The article doesn't mention it, but Houston METRO's proposed System Reimagining will actually liberate many people, but not all, from the "food desert" problem.  

One thing is for sure: When we're talking about errand trips like groceries, most customers don't have a lot of time.  If there's a line to check out of the grocery store, and you miss an hourly bus, you'd better not have bought anything that needs refrigeration, and certainly nothing frozen.  So as always, frequency is freedom.  

So if you need frequency, Houston's transit system today is basically willing to take you downtown, which is not likely to be the path to your nearest grocery story.  Here's the frequent network today. 


It's radial, good for going downtown but not for many other purposes.  If you're lucky it will take you to a grocery store, but more likely it misses the ones nearest you.  And of course you may not be on this network at all.

Here's the reimagined frequent network:


Compare this to the food desert map (to see the detailed Reimagined network maps, see here)  Many of the areas of concern, especially those in the southeast and southwest, get a much richer network in a grid pattern.  The grid pattern means ready access to many commercial centers in your part of town, not just to the major destinations of the region.  And of course, a much larger share of the "food desert" areas are on this network, so that they can make shopping trips that take an hour instead of all afternoon.

Another crucial thing about the grid is that by running in all directions, it cuts across socioeconomic divides.  Low-income people can get out of their enclaves to reach both jobs and commercial services in more prosperous areas nearby.   (This frightens some people on the upper side of these divides, but it's one of the basic ways that good transit that's broadly useful creates paths out of poverty.)

(Remember: Most low-income people are busy!  They have to be frugal with time as well as money!)

Not all the "food deserts" can be healed with transit.  Some of the highlighted areas on the food desert map are in the northwest and northeast, outside of loop 610.  Low-income housing in this area takes many forms, but a lot of it is semi-rural, and the built environment is often very hostile to both pedestrians and efficient transit routing.  Some of these areas also have declining population.  Our plan does try to offer some options in these areas, but transit is not the primary solution to the food desert problem there.

But over a very diverse range of Houston, the way to get low-income people to decent healthy food is the way you achieve so many other benefits: environmental, economic, and social: an abundant frequent transit system, in a grid pattern, that reaches across all the parts of the city that are dense enough to support it.  

brisbane: a city transformed by a bus link

Next time someone tells you that transit has to be rail in order to affect real estate demand, send them this paper [paywalled] by Elin Charles-Edwards, Martin Bell and Jonathan Corcoran –  a dramatic example of bus infrastructure profoundly transforming residential demand.

Our scene is the main campus of University of Queensland, which is located on a peninsula formed by a loop of the Brisbane River.  It's in the southwest corner of this image.  The area labeled "Brisbane" is the highrise downtown.  Most everything in between — which is mostly on the south side of the river — is dense, redevelopable inner city fabric.  

Bris cbd

If you look closely you can see a single faint bridge connecting the University across the river.  This is the Eleanor Schonell Bridge, which opened in 2006, and which is solely for pedestrians, cyclists, and buses.  No private cars.  It's one of the developed world's most effective of examples of a transit path that is vastly straighter than the motorist's options.

Prior to the opening of the bridge, University of Queensland had a problem much like that of Vancouver's University of British Columbia.  Its peninsula setting helped it feel remote and serene (the rarefied air of academe and all that) but it was also brutally hard to get to, especially from places where students and lower-paid staff could afford to live.  While there are some affordable areas west of the campus, most of the immediate campus area is far too affluent and low-density to house the university's students or the bulk of its workforce.  So commutes to the campus were long and difficult.  

Apart from the geography of income, the issue here was classic chokepoint geography, and that was the key to the transit opportunity.  Brisbane's looping river, and its extreme shortage of bridges outside of downtown, slices the city into a series of hard-to-access peninsulas.  Motorists are used to driving way out of direction to reach their destinations, and until recently, buses had to do the same thing.  The only transit that could do what cars couldn't was the river ferry system, CityCat, and while this system is immensely successful, it is still a small share of the travel market because (a) so much of the population is not on the river and (b) the river is a  circuitous travel path as well.  

Charles-Edwards et al show how the bridge created an explosive expansion of access (where can I get to, soon?) for the campus by walking, cycling, and bus service.  Walking:

Uq walkshed

And by bus (focus on the triangle in the centre of the image, which is the campus):

Uq busshed

It's worth noticing why this bus bridge is so effective:  It plugs right into the Brisbane Busway network, which looks like this.  ("UQ Lakes" is the campus stop.) 


Direct buses from campus run along most of these paths, and connect to many other frequent services covering the area south of the river, including a couple of useful frequent rail lines extending southeast from downtown.   This is the biggest and highest-quality busway system in the developed world, in terms of the degree of protection from private car traffic along complete travel paths, including a tunnel under downtown.  So the access opened up by this bridge was extraordinary.  The busway is so fast and reliable that even commutes from northern Brisbane — on the same side of the river as the campus — were speeded up by the new bridge because they could remain in busway for the entire journey.

The effect on the location of students and staff, from 2003 until 2012 (six years after the bridge opened) looks like this.

Uq relocations

The colour choices are unfortunate, so pay attention to the legend and focus on "St Lucia" (the campus) and the inner city areas just across the river from it. Remember, too, that this is a map of percentage change, so don't be distracted by big colors far away from the action, which represent noise (percentage changes on a tiny base). You can see that students and staff have shifted in big numbers to the inner city across the river from the campus, but also to southern and eastern suburbs each of the river, which are more affordable and still easily reached by buses from the campus.  In the author's careful words, the bridge caused "a significant redistribution of staff and students across the metropolitan area."  It also had the likely effect of reducing overall commute times by enabling people to live much closer to the campus, though the authors don't mention that.  

Because the project gave buses so much of an advantage in accessing the campus, the mode share shifted dramatically, enabling the campus itself to grow without choking on cars:

 Between 2002 and 2011, the population accessing the campus increased by 23 per cent, … all of which were absorbed by [non-car modes on] the bridge. There was an accompanying shift in the modal mix of trips away from cars to public transport. This was most marked among students, for whom less than one-quarter of trips were by car in 2011, down from two-fifths in 2002. Bus patronage increased among students from around a quarter of trips to more than half. Staff car usage declined from 70 per cent in 2002 to just over half in 2011, with buses, cycling and walking all increasing in popularity.

Eleanor Schonell Bridge is a powerful example of infrastructure that transforms a city's living patterns by transforming the isochrones of access.  We can all think of trains and ferries that do this, but it's rare that buses are allowed to succeed in the same way.   Once again, Brisbane has shown that it's not the transit technology that matters to people's location choices.  It's where you can get to easily.

columbus: a new transit network plan

Columbus, Ohio's metro transit agency, COTA, has now released a new network plan for public comment.  As in the recently unveiled similar plan for Houston, I led the network design task on this project as part of a consulting team led by IBI Associates.  

Again, the core idea is to expand the Frequent Network — the network of services that run every 15 minutes or better all day — so that more people have service that is highly useful.  Here's the existing Columbus area frequent network :


And here is the Draft Proposed Frequent Network:

 In Houston, we achieved similar expansion solely by reallocating existing resources.  In Columbus, there was a small budget for expanded service, but still, 90% of what is achieved here is the result of reallocation: removing overlapping routes and deviations, removing duplication, and in some cases removing service that very small numbers of people were using.  

Details of the plan are on the COTA website, here.   The total proposed network is here.  Note that color denotes all-day frequency: red is 15, blue is 30, green is 60.  The plan does many other good things, including a major expansion of weekend service.  


 You can upload the existing network, for comparison, here:   Download Existing System Frequency Map

Again, if you're in the Columbus area, please comment to COTA using this special email:   TSR@cota.com.  At this stage there is no decision about whether to implement a plan such as this one.  Any final plan will be revised based on public comment that comes in over the next couple of weeks.  That means that if you like the plan, it's important to comment to that effect, as well.  


houston: transit, reimagined

Yesterday, Houston Metro began seeking public comment on what may be most transformative transit plan in its history.  I'm honored to have been a part of it, as the network design lead* on the consulting team.  Read all about it, in as much detail as you want, here.  Explore the detailed map here.  Note that the pulldown menus in the black bar lead to lots of cool maps and diagrams, as well as extensive data about the plan.

The plan shows that without increasing operating cost, Houston's frequent network — the network of services where the bus or train is always coming when you need it — could grow from this …

Frequent Network Existing


to this:



This cool page toggles between the two, so you can see the system growing.

How on earth could we grow a network that much without new money?  There are two answers:

1.  That's how much waste there was in the existing system.  Waste in the form of duplicative routes, and due to slow meandering routes created due to a few people's demands.  

2.  Hard choices are proposed about expensive service to very small numbers of people.  The plan devotes 80% of Metro's resources to maximizing ridership, which all of these frequent lines do, and only 20% to providing access to people living in expensive to serve places.  Currently only about 50-60% of resources are devoted to services where high ridership is a likely outcome.   (See here for my paper on this analysis method.)   This shift in focus will have negative impacts on small numbers of riders who rely on those services, but these were small numbers indeed .  (About 0.5% of existing riders end up over 1/4 mile of service, and most of them are just over that threshold.  Often, their longer walk is to a better service, a tradeoff that most people are willing to make in practice.)

The exciting thing is not just the massive growth in frequent services proposed, evident above, but the shape that they'll take.  The core idea of the new network is the high-frequency grid, designed to enable anywhere to anywhere travel with a single fast connection.  Everywhere on the proposed network of red lines, that kind of easy access will be possible.

Obviously, too, the whole geographic focus of the network had to shift.  Houston is one of the biggest US cities that still has a radically downtown-oriented transit network despite decades of decentralization.   The core area where the existing network converges has only 25% of the region's jobs, and while transit must favor the jobs that are in dense and walkable settings, there are now many highrise clusters around Houston that answer to this description to some degree. 

Houston has been growing mostly westward and northward in the last few decades.  Its densest residential neighborhood, for example, is Gulfton, located 7 miles west of downtown.  Not far from there is its second-densent employment and activity center, Uptown-Galleria.  Houston is a constellation of centers, and the transit network needs to be more decentralized to effectively service all of those centers where the density and walkability make transit viable.  The high-frequency grid, shown above, reaches all of those places.

Houston also features a fascinating patchwork of incomes.  There are rich and poor neighborhoods but there's no longrer a rich or poor side of town.  That means that low-income people, too, will find the whole network useful.  We have done our best to retain useful service on the historically low-income and minority eastside, despite declining population in some areas.  The key strategy there was the anchor most services to the main universities in that area (University of Houston and Texas Southern U.) which are the surest drivers of all-day demand.

The huge no-cost expansion of useful service may remind you of a plan I worked on two years ago for Auckland, New Zealand, where it was also possible to massively expand the frequent network by redeploying duplicative services.   Not all  transit agencies have this much waste, so your city's mileage may vary.  But if you suspect that transit could be doing more in your city, read all about the Houston plan.  You'll be amazed, as we were, about how much is sometimes possible.

Finally, if you're in the Houston Metro service area, remember to submit a comment even about things you like.  Sadly, most of the public comments received on transit plans are negative even if the plan is broadly popular, becuase people who like it falsely assume it will happen anyway.   This plan will not be implemented if it does not attract strong support.   We welcome constructive comments about the plan, which will be used to make the final plan even better.  But if you like the plan, it's important to say that as well!  Instructions for how to comment are here.  


* This term means I led the design workshop that developed the design, but it does not mean I get all the credit.  These plans are collaborations among many players, both on our large consulting team and of course at Houston METRO.  The team was headed by TEI of Houston — Geoff Carleton was the excellent project manager — and included Carol Lewis, Nancy Edmondson, Dan Boyle, and Asakura Robinson.  Kurt Lurhsen, METRO's head of planning, shepherded the project internally with the support of a great teams.  The plan would also not have gotten to this stage without the preliminary support of METRO's Board, including Chair Gilbert Garcia and Strategic Planning Committee Chair Christof Spieler.  Spieler has been an especially tireless advocate of this project from its earliest days.  All of these people and organizations contributed substantially to the plan as it appears.

the geometric shapes of transit’s success

In my work for transit agencies, I'm always insisting that reports should not just explain how routes perform (typically in ridership per unit of cost) but also why.

Here's one partial example from an infographic developed by TransLink, the transit agency in Vancouver, Canada.   




All other things being equal, long, straight routes perform better than short, squiggly and looping ones.  The reasons are obvious to most transit riders (and are laid out in detail in Chapters 4 and 14 of my book) but you'd be amazed how many well-intentioned people  haven't figured this out, and continue to advocate land use patterns that make effective transit impossible.  (Mantra:  It's not Transit-Oriented Development unless it's oriented toward transit that can succeed.)

Now, TransLink can use this in their explanation whenever someone demands that a route should squiggle to serve their interests. 

A core of my own practice is in developing ways to build understanding of the causes of transit's success, so if your transit agency is struggling to explain productivity, put them in touch with me!

vancouver: a source on the battle of robson square

In an online event today, I mentioned the "Battle of Robson Square" in Vancouver — an archetypal conflict between transit and civic placemaking that has arisen in a city that claims to be very pro-transit.  It's a fascinating conflict worth watching for people far beyond Vancouver.  

Fortunately, I don't need to write a post on this, because there's an excellent one by Peter Marriott, laying out the issues at stake, here.  Peter's intro is an important challenge to any urban designer who thinks transit can just "get out of the way" of a beautiful design idea.  Peter's article is also full of useful links to a wide range of voices in the conversation.

using development charges as a transit funding mechanism

Travis Allan and Cherise Burda over at the Pembina Insitute, a Toronto-based energy think tank, have an interesting post up on the prospects of using real estate development charges as a funding mechanism for transit. Development charges are fees developers pay to municipalities meant to offset the capital costs of extending or improving services like water or sewage systems that are imposed by new construction. However, the manner in which these fees are calculated is not always conducive to the type of development a city may be trying to encourage. Moreover, transit is rarely a serious consideration in assessing the charge. This is particularly important when development occurs in a place or a pattern that is difficult or impossible to provide good transit service to, such as those that violate the "Be on the way" rule. The original post explains some of the problems the authors observe in Ontario's development charge:

The development charge, as currently implemented in most Ontario municipalities, is crudely designed. There is a strong chance that it is subsidizing less-dense, single family homes while making compact, transit-friendly development more expensive. Development charges also likely overcharge some commercial development, and this could be contributing to the flight of office space to the suburbs, in locations underserviced by transit.

In many Ontario municipalities, including Toronto, new development is charged based on who will use it. For example, many municipalities have a per-unit rate for apartment building units, and another rate for detached single-family homes, regardless of where the buildings are located within the municipality, how much land area they occupy and the cost necessary to service them.

No matter the amount of new road or sewer needed to adequately serve a place, the development charge is assessed based on the number of residents or users.  This is obviously perverse.  Actual development impacts on the public purse vary based on location and density than by the number of residents or users.  

If a city like Toronto wants to make it easier to developers to build a certain type of development, changing the fee structure is one way to create an incentive. But what does this mean for transit?

The authors propose to use a portion of this revenue to pay for infrastructure investments needed to provide transit service to new developments. At the same time, the city could make changes to the structure of the development charge to incentivize the construction of transit-supportive development. If it worked, and there were no unforeseen consequences, the effect could be self-reinforcing: development charges encourage the type of development that transit needs to work well, and pay for some of the cost of providing that service. The supply of housing and commercial buildings that are accessible and designed to work with transit increases, more people are able to live and work in them:

 Developers continue to build in sprawling greenfields because it is often cheaper and easier than building developments in walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhoods. Lack of supply means homebuyers are priced out of these locations and are literally “driven” to the urban and suburban fringes, where long and stressful auto commutes are required — and this only leads to more congestion.

Since the vast horizontal distances of greenfields require much more infrastructure person, why should this be as cheap, in development charges, as building compactly??

for the holidays, a sentimental epilogue

For this sentimental season, I thought I'd post the first epilogue that I wrote for Human Transit.  It got mixed reviews.  Friends in architecture and urban policy loved it, while my friends from the literature world, who have a keen eye for literary truth, panned it with great affection.  Fortunately, my editor at Island was of the latter group, so the book came to have the epilogue it has, rather than this one.  (I also tried this as the basis of the epilogue, to similar reviews.)  

All that is for the best.  This thing is sentimental, as befits the season.  Read it when you want a sentimental read, as we all do now and then.  

If you don't know what I mean by "plumber," you'll figure it out from context.  (It means you haven't read the book!)

Happy holidays.  [And don't forget:  early bird registration for my Washington DC short course (1/17-18) closes 12/28.  Registration opens Wednesday for the Portland OR session on Feb 7-8.  Hope to see you there.]

What if we learned to listen to our plumber?  Suppose that every time we were confronted
with a hard choice between different things that we value – a choice that’s
geometrically unavoidable – we took a deep breath, and chose?  We would need to make these choices as
individuals, but also as communities, urban areas, and nations.  If we did, what might be possible by the
middle of this century?


Helen has just turned 75, but she’s lived many lives and
plans to live a few more.  Raised in a
mining town in the Australian tropics, she's worked all over the world as a
missionary and foreign aid worker.   She
married twice and raised three children, all of them as self-reliant as she
is.  When she was widowed in her
mid-sixties, she moved to a small island in Indonesia to start a new
school.  It was a struggle to convince
her to retire at 72, and come home to Australia.

She returned to a big house on a quarter-acre block in
Theodore, a distant suburb of the Australian capital, Canberra.  It was the house she’d grown up in, and she
assumed she’d live out her life there, just as her mother did.  But just after she turned 74, she nearly had
a bad accident while driving.  Looking
back on it, she realized that she couldn’t react fast enough anymore, and that
it was only a matter of luck that she hadn’t killed someone.

So she sold her car, and let her license expire.  Now, her house in Theodore was a prison.  To get anywhere, she faced a 500m walk to a
bus stop, and then a bus only every half hour, none in the evening.  

Back in 2015 her mother had dealt with the same problem, in
the same house.  For a decade her mother
wrote letters and went to meetings to complain about how far she had to walk
from her cul-de-sac house to a bus stop, how infrequently the buses ran, and
how unfair that was.  Whenever Helen
visited her mother in those days, she heard all about this campaign, its
frustrations and small victories.

As it happened, Helen had been dating a transit planner at
the time.  One night, over drinks, he
talked her through the geometry proving that her mother’s cause was hopeless.  He showed why very low-density
suburbs with lots of pedestrian barriers could never generate enough ridership to
support extensive transit service, even if the politicians were inclined to
favor them.  

The problem wasn’t the bus
company’s failure to innovate, as her mother claimed.  At one point he put it starkly: "If you want to know what quality of transit to expect, ask this question about your neighborhood: 'How far would transit have to go to serve 1000 people?'"  Of course, in the labyrinth of Theodore the answer was several kilometers, while in Canberra's inner city it was just a few blocks.The problem was sheer geometry.  It made sense.

So Helen looked at her options, and noticed that a place
called Ainslie Village had just been redeveloped as a retirement complex.  Formerly, it had been a cluster of temporary housing for the homeless located on a hillside cul-de-sac that precluded public transport.  Now, however, it would now extend down to a nearby main street, Limestone Avenue, and would include a mixture of towers and small cabin-like units.  The towers were cleverly
arranged so that people could use their elevators to climb the hillside to the
upper parts of the village, though of course many seniors preferred the exercise of
climbing the hill.

The frequent transit line in front of Ainslie Village was the direct link between the city and the airport.  Helen liked this feature.  She still wanted to go overseas a couple of
times a year, and to welcome visits from the friends she’d made all over the

But what also sold Helen on New Ainslie Village was the back
side, where it faced a nature reserve. 
She could walk just a few hundred meters and feel immersed in the native
woodland.  At night the kangaroos would come down around the village to
graze, just as they did in Theodore; Helen had always found tranquility in the patient curiosity with which kangaroos gaze at humans.

Helen seems to have achieved the dream that’s motivated so
much suburban development, the desire to be in the city and the country at the
same time.  But it wasn't just good
fortune.  It was her own willingness to
look at her choices, understand their consequences, and choose.

Mia, 35, lives with her two children and her mother in a
mobile home on the east edge of Las Vegas. 
She manages the housekeeping department for a hotel-casino, and after
saving for years, she finally put back enough money to buy a mobile home. 

She grew up just a mile from here.  Her mother lost her house to foreclosure in
the Crash of 2008 and had to move the family into a small apartment.  In 2010 their old car finally broke down for
good, and there was no money to replace it. 
So she and her mother walked to the bus stop most days, and those walks
are one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.

The stop for buses into the city was right outside her bedroom
window, but there was a long, high wall blocking the way, built by a
well-meaning developer who thought that even though they couldn’t afford a
detached home, they’d still appreciate the feeling of a “gated community.”  Thanks to the wall, she and her mother had to
walk for ¼ mile through the streets of their development, then through the
so-called “gate,” and then ¼ mile back along the fast boulevard to the bus

The boulevard was built for speed, so the lanes were wide
and the sidewalk was narrow.  Her mother
would try to talk with her as they walked, but every time a car flew past they
had to pause, their lives interrupted. 
Soon, Mia learned to hold her breath briefly in those moments, so she
wouldn’t get a lung full of exhaust. 
Even so, it was dusty and hot in the summer, while in winter rains
they’d be drenched by the mud kicked up by passing cars.  On this narrow sidewalk between the traffic
and the wall there was nowhere to escape it.

Of course, that got them only to the stop for buses to the
city.  Coming home, the bus would drop
them on the opposite side of the boulevard. 
There was no safe place to cross anywhere near the bus stop, so they
simply had to run for it.  Trying to dash
across the fast lanes, they felt like criminals, as though simply living their
lives was illegal.

So when Mia was able to buy her own mobile home, she looked
hard for one that would be better than that. 
Realtors still pointed her toward “gated communities” of mobile
homes.  Things had improved in these communities
since she was a child; some of them now had little mini-bus services that wound
their way through the twisting streets, so there was an alternative to walking
out to the fast boulevard.  A realtor
gave her a big pitch about how great these little buses were, with pictures of
the plush interior and the cute paint scheme, but she just asked to see the
timetable.  Sure enough, they were too
slow and infrequent to be useful to her. 
She needed to be close to a frequent
transit stop, and it had to be safe to cross the street right at the stop, so
that she could get to the stops on both sides. 

Obviously, she also wanted places she and her children could
walk to, not just the little playground of their mobile home park but also a
larger park nearby and a grocery store. 
She liked the location of the grocery store next to the bus stop, so
that she could buy fresh food for dinner on her commute home.  That’s why she chose this mobile home park
over a number of others.

She also made sure that the bus line is likely to be there
for a while.  She still remembers
hearing, as a child, that she couldn’t go to see her best friend on Sundays
anymore, because their Sunday bus service had been cut.  Fortunately, since then, the transit agency
has identified certain lines as its “core frequent network,” where they, and
the city governments, want to encourage the most intensive ridership.  That’s part of why her mobile home park, and
the grocery store at her bus stop, were built where they are.  The Las Vegas economy is still prone to big
crashes, so the transit system has to cut service now and then, but she knows
that while there are no guarantees in life, the service she relies on is likely
to survive, because so many people ride it.  

Mia’s life may never be as secure as she’d like, but she’s
found a place that she can afford, where her children can grow up safely
getting around on bicycles, and where her mobility feels as permanent and
reliable as anything can be in this fast-changing city of illusions.

Kurt, 45, loves his cars. 
He has two, both four-wheel drive, and his wife has another.  As a realtor, he likes his hybrid jeep for
getting around to the suburban homes he sells, but he also has a big, rough,
high-riding thing he calls Monster.  He
talks about it as though it were his dog, and he takes a rebellious pride in
its dreadful fuel-efficiency and 1990s styling. 
Monster is his best friend when he gets up into the Rockies, especially

Three years ago, Kurt took a year off work to build a house
with his wife and two teenage sons. It’s on an acre of pine trees on a gravel
road five miles from the nearest town, 40 miles from downtown Denver.  He feels a surge of pride every time he comes
home to it.  Now and then, his eye will
fall on a particular joint or beam and he’ll remember the day they set it in
place, and how good that felt.  Just as
important, he feels that the project solidified them as a family, and helped
his boys learn focus and discipline.

There’s no transit anywhere nearby, but he wouldn’t expect
there to be.  It was a hassle until his
boys got drivers licenses; they always needed rides to the nearest bus stop,
five miles away, or even to the nearest rapid transit station, 30 miles
away.  But as they turned 16, he bought
hybrid motorbikes for them.  Now they’re
fine on their own.

Kurt’s life is not as expensive as it looks, at least not as
measured in dollars.  Even with fuel at
$10/gallon, the hybrid jeep is an efficient way to get around.  His workday involves many short trips in
low-density suburbs (a market that transit could never serve well) so the
jeep’s fuel is just part of the cost of doing business.  He spends a fortune on fuel for his weekend
trips with Monster, but this is the family’s main recreational expense, and he’s
budgeted for it.  As for his house, it
would have been expensive to buy.  But by
building it himself, he saved at least as much as he lost in salary during the
year off.  So he feels he came out

Kurt hates the city. 
He drives his jeep into Denver now and then to visit his mother, who
lives in a tower downtown.  She loves it
there, but when they sit in the coffeeshop downstairs from her apartment, he’s
always a little on edge with all the random bustle of strangers.  He also hates parking there, all that
pointless circling in concrete parking structures.  His mother keeps telling him he could park at
a light rail station and take the train in. 
It doesn’t sound like fun to him, but his wife doesn’t mind doing
it.  Maybe he’ll try it sometime. 

But really, he’d rather be driving Monster into the Rockies,
with his boys, and some fishing rods, and the sky.


Helen, Mia, and Kurt are different people with different
goals, situations, and resources — but all are citizens of free democracies in
the mid-21st Century, societies built on the notion that adults
should make free choices and accept their consequences. 

Kurt doesn’t expect the approval of transit experts like me,
but I have no quarrel with him.  Like
Helen and Mia, Kurt chose his living situation with a full awareness of what it
would mean for transportation, as well as for other aspects of his family's
life.  His choice imposes some burdens on
the environment, but he pays prices – at the pump, certainly, but mostly in
inconvenience – that capture the cost of those burdens.  He has no reason to feel guilty about his

At times, as the 21st century unrolled, it seemed that
freedom without guilt was a dying dream. 
The crises bearing down on humanity seemed to be dragging everyone into
embittered dependence on strangers.  So
many problems needed complex solutions requiring lots of government action, while
big corporations perfected the art of evading responsibility for their behavior.  Perhaps most depressing, it was becoming
clear that no matter how free a citizen tried to be, how much responsibility
she took for her own life, you could still run numbers that showed she was
somehow subsidized, freeloading.  It made
everyone suspicious.

But that last insight was the way out.  Eventually, a critical mass of people
got  stopped getting angry when they were
told they were being subsidized, and started asking “okay, how much?” 

The movement started in transportation, in cities.  People started figuring out that by sitting
in traffic instead of getting where they were going, they were paying time to save money.  Why, they asked?  After all, money may not be abundant, but
it’s a renewable resource.  Time is the
least renewable resource of all.

So people started demanding the right to pay money to save time.  It started in the early 2000s with the London
and Singapore congestion charges, and gradually spread to the idea that parking
costs should rise and fall with demand, so that there would always be a free
space, and you’d never drive in circles forever looking for one.  On the freeways, high-occupancy toll (HOT)
lanes offered a faster ride at a higher price, calibrating the price carefully
so that the traffic in the lane never got so heavy as to obstruct the buses
using it.  Those buses were important,
because they ensured that everyone had the freedom to move quickly along the
highway, even if they didn’t want to pay the toll.

There was plenty of blowback.  Less wealthy people feared that they’d be left
with abandoned infrastructure, much as, in the late 20th century,
they had been left with substandard schools. 
Governments responded with market interventions to ensure that the
housing market responded to low-income needs, not just through subsidies but
also through good urban design.  For
example, Las Vegas did the work of “sprawl repair” so that Mia could find a house
she can afford that wouldn’t force her to depend on a car.  “Affordable housing” gave way to “affordable
living.”  Governments and lenders no
longer encourage poorer people to live in places where the housing is cheap
because mobility is poor, and where they’ll feel trapped into owning a car that
they can’t afford.  Instead, the whole
mix of housing and transportation costs is considered before a home is deemed

There were fights and compromises.  But over time, enough people realized that accurate
pricing was the only fair way to achieve both sustainability and freedom. 
So the price of scarce things was allowed to rise.  Fuel got more expensive as oil supplies
declined, which motivated the development of cleaner car technologies. 

Still, no innovation could change the scarcity of road space
in cities, because that was a geometry problem. 
Humanity had tried a supply-side solution, by building more sprawling
cities, and had found that this just doesn't work.  By building more road space they had just
motivated people to drive further.   Some
still imagined that we could escape into the third dimension, via flying cars,
but most people understood at once that it’s scary enough to have car accidents
on the roads, without worrying about them happening over your head.

Once all this became widely obvious, things changed
fast.  Work continued on big, expensive
rapid transit lines, but work began, urgently, on transit options that could be
developed faster and could spread quickly across big cities.  The Los Angeles Metro Rapid buses had been
one such experiment, and though they became overextended and had to be cut back
for a while, they helped usher in an era of innovation in street-running
transit options and were now considered essential features of the boulevards
that they plied.

Now, with more consensus, tools could be deployed to match
the scale of the problem.  Suddenly,
on-street transit lanes became common – in fact, they became the most reliable
way to travel in many parts of big cities. 
As more people cared about the quality of transit vehicles, those
vehicles got better.  Bus and light rail
technologies converged on a long, sleek, high capacity vehicle that could slide
efficiently along a transit lane, carrying people beyond their walking distance
without ever making them felt that they’d left the street. 

All this became possible, in part, because people started
measuring their own mobility, and making choices that would improve it.  With tools inspired by the WalkScore.com and
Mapnificent.net travel time maps from back in 2010, people began to see where
they could get to easily, and where they couldn’t, and if they couldn’t, they
asked why. 

As this happened, many people lost interest in symbols of
mobility, such as rails in the street that symbolize permanence and
airplane-like noses on streetcars that symbolize speed.  Instead, they began insisting that cities
spend transit money on creating actual mobility – projects that would reduce
their travel time to their jobs, their friends, and all the riches of the city.   Others continued to prefer to focus on the style,
feel, and sense of fun in a transit service. 
So there was a debate about those things, and compromises that suited
the culture of each community.

These clear and bracing debates transformed the housing
market, but not as much as some people feared. 
Density is rising along major transit lines, for people who want high
mobility, but away from those lines you can still get a little bungalow, or a
big house with a pool on a quarter-acre, or even a house like Kurt’s in the
woods, if you’re willing to accept the costs that come with each choice.  You can also get many things in between, like
the transit-friendly mobile home where Mia lives.  Mia is what some transportation textbooks
would call a captive rider, but she’s
shown that even if you’re poor, your choices matter.

At every stage in this process, communities had to work,
through government, on understanding their real choices.  Patiently, over and over, they were asked the
same kind of question: “Do you want more of this, or more of that?  You have to choose.”  Planning professionals started focusing on
making these “plumber’s questions” visible, so that everyone could see they
were unavoidable, instead of letting them hide inside other debates.  Elected officials began to accept that they
were paid to make these hard choices, after honest conversations with their

The conversations were hard. 
People wanted to hide from them. 
But they had to happen.  The
choices had to be made, so they were.  As
a result, Helen, Mia, and Kurt are all free to make their own choices, and to
bestow that same freedom on their children.