Thinking Through the Right Transportation in the Right Place at the Right Time

Samuel Staley's picture

In an earlier post, I discussed the difference between mobility, accessibility, and transportation technology. In today's post, I want to discuss what I think is the next step in this taxonomy in terms of the implications for the built environment and urban planning. More specifically, we need to move beyond the idea that certain transportation technologies-whether it is a car, a bus, a train, or our feet-are substitutes. The real question is ensuring the right transportation technologies are in the right place at the right time to maximize accessibility while maximizing mobility within a cost-effective framework with minimal public subsidy.

Our (transportation consumers') interest in accessing goods and services will determine to a large degree the transportation technologies we use. Thus, in Manhattan (population density = 71,000 people per square mile), the dominant mode of obtaining access to goods and services is by foot. Manhattan, as we point out in our book Mobility First (Chapter 4), is a walking city. Public transit is also important (mostly rail but also bus), but this technology is suitable for destinations outside the immediate neighborhood not reaching destinations within a couple (or even several) blocks. Cars simply don't make sense for both mobility and personal cost reasons in these high-density settings.

Across the East River, the transportation story is more complex. In Brooklyn (Population Density=35,000), choices of transportation technologies (also known as modes) are more evenly split between automobiles, public transit, and walking. In Queens (population density = 20,000), 60 percent of commuters travel by car. In Staten Island (population density = 7,500), 71 percent commute by car. 

All this is rather academic, but the point is not the obvious one that the automobile is dominant in low-density settings. Rather, it's the transportation choice set changes depending on the character of the built environment. The danger is in thinking that transportation modes are perfect substitutes in terms of their ability to provide mobility and access in all urban settings. In short, adopting a blanket principle that communities benefit from have the greatest number of transportation choices is not necessarily true.

Ponder the following general rules of thumb. Automobiles are unquestionably the most flexible and adaptable, but they are neither the most popular not the most efficient choices for all settings. (Personal car trips make up less than 5 percent of all commuting trips in Manhattan, for example.) Cars, in low and medium-density settings are quite efficient for most people traveling distances of at least a mile or more (but less than several hundred). Walking, however, is quite effective for the vast majority of people for accessing destinations and points of less than a mile. It doesn't make sense (and most people don't) use the automobile to access services and goods with a few hundred feet or yards of where the live or work. (The exception, of course, is when safety might dictate the use of an alternative mode, whether walking or transit.)  Bicycles, in the right context, provide an excellent point-to-point access for those traveling one to three miles. Public transit is typically most efficient for accessing destinations of three to ten miles as long as a direct route is available although the big downside to public transit is lack of point-to-point access to primary destinations and origins.

The kicker is that different built environments make different transportation modes relatively more (or less) effective and efficient (both in terms of social and private costs). Public transit simply can't provide meaningful alternatives for most people living and working in low-density suburban neighborhoods (with densities typically less than 5,000 people per square mile or less).

Since optimizing public transit is a fundamental value (perhaps even "objective" in the philosophical sense) for many professional planners, transportation policy proposals are almost always framed in the context of boosting public transit without a meaningful discussion of the implications for the built environment. The all too facile "answer" to low transit ridership is to densify neighborhoods to justify the expansion of transit, but this assumes that these higher densities will provide equivalent access to the services and goods people want.

This also implies a functional equivalency between built environments, as if, from a planning perspective, there is no meaningful lifestyle or quality of life difference between a Brooklyn-style neighborhood compared to a conventional suburban-style neighborhood (e.g., Staten Island). Yet, as any planner understands, these neighborhood styles are not functionally equivalent. As an empirical reality, households (in the U.S. or elsewhere) are not neutral with respect to their housing or neighborhood preferences.

Thus, when discussing mobility, accessibility and transportation technologies, planners should be cognizant of the reality that for most households moving to more dense, mixed use, Brooklyn-style neighborhoods-the ones that truly favor and optimize multimode transportation options-will also view this a dramatic shift in life style and quality of life. A functional and meaningful difference exists between living in a single-family home with a yard and an attached private garage versus a townhouse with curbside, open air parking and (optimistically) a sliver of personal open space. Similarly, a function and aesthetic difference exists between a three bedroom, two-bath ranch house and open floor plan, and a narrow, stacked row house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. In most cases, travel times and the complexity of travel necessary to access goods and services will increase as well.

As I have mentioned previously, mobility is a normal economic good, which means the demand for greater mobility increases with income. Shifting households to neighborhoods that require alternative transportation modes that are more cumbersome, complex, and time intensive will require compensating urban amenities that offsets these disadvantages. Otherwise, society and communities suffer.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Good start then quickly off track

This post sets up the conversation quite reasonably, but pretty directly undermines the initial premises by the end. Two ways it falls of the tracks ...

1. In the final paragraph, non-automotive modes of travel are considered, by their very nature, to be "more cumbersome, complex, and time intensive." Doesn't this depend on the context? In a low-density area, sure, navigating multiple systems with limited access without a private vehicle is very cumbersome. Everyone agrees. But in a higher-density area, congestion and parking needs can make the automobile more cumbersome than its alternatives. I thought that was the original point of this post.

2. There is a recognition that movement from a suburban setting to a Brooklyn-style neighborhood is "a dramatic shift in life style and quality of life." No argument there, except that you seem to tacitly suggest that this shift is obviously a negative one. The examples clearly stack the deck against the urban option by referencing the size and privacy of the house without reference to the wider context of the neighborhood. An "open floor plan" is even equated with suburban living, for some reason. Personal open space is mentioned but not proximity to a neighborhood park or playground.

There are certainly differences between the two, but preferences swing in both directions (and everywhere in between). And the prevalence of lifestyle preferences change through time, as demographics and values change. Even if 80% prefer the suburban option at any given time, shouldn't the other 20% have a reasonable expectation to exercise their own preference without undue hardship? It is ironic to hear libertarians intent on selling a specific lifestyle preference as the ideal, one they presumably deem to be most conducive to personal freedom, while denigrating other choices as inferior and less worthy of public support.

Conservatives And Streetcar Suburbs

Conservatives always ignore streetcar suburbs. Michael Lewyn's response pointed out that Kotkin made this error in his latest article. A day later, Staley makes exactly the same error by saying that the only choices are a "conventional" [=auto dependent] suburb in Staten Island or a dense row house development in Brooklyn.

In reality, Brooklyn has some of the country's best streetcar suburbs. See a picture of one at

Many of them still exist: Staley should go to Ditmas Park or Midwood to see for himself. Houses have substantial private lots and the neighborhoods still feel very spacious, but the lots are smaller than in "conventional" suburbs, there is a street grid, and there is nearby shopping and transit, which makes them so walkable that people were able to live in them without cars when they were first built.

Some of the most prominent New Urbanist neighborhoods, such as Celebration and Orenco Station, have a similar form. Those neighborhoods are so well known that I have to assume that conservatives are ignoring them deliberately. None so blind as those who will not see.

Genuine conservatives should like these neighborhoods, because they have traditional Main Streets that help conserve the sort of traditional community ties lost in auto-dependent suburbs where people do their shopping at impersonal regional malls.

I have to conclude that they ignore these neighborhoods because they are less interested in promoting genuine conservatism than in promoting consumerism.

Charles Siegel

Streetcar suburbs are no model for good urban/transit planning

I support light rail, but there's just one teensy problem with the concept of streetcar suburbs:

there are simply not enough people per lot/acre/mile in the low-rise suburbs to afford streetcar service, leaving the larger numbers of people who live in the mid- and high-rise urban core to subsidize it.

This is exactly why we shouldn't bend over backwards to woo suburbanites and/or conservatives over to the idea of vastly increased light rail and passenger rail service across the country, by promising or promoting it in the suburbs.

To do so is to cater to the Right's patently absurd and unjust desire to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

What we ought to do is simply tell them to stay in their cars and their suburbs and see if they enjoy the growing traffic gridlock, crumbling roads and collapsing property values.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Streetcar suburbs can have streetcar service...

Just look at Shaker Heights. Or Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.

As far as telling the suburbs to "stay in their cars and their suburbs", that seems to have worked out better for them than for city dwellers.

The tables have turned.

It's NOT working out better for them.

Isn't it obvious?

Infilling Suburbia

You are misinterpreting and/or misapplying the concept of streetcar suburbs. According to the theory proposed by Samuel Bass Warner in "Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900", a strong city center is a prerequisite. When streetcars are instituted, those who are among the first to afford doing so, they move out of the urban core and form the first suburban ring. As the cost of transit declines with more overall usage, a second outflow occurs, which forms the second suburban ring, which requires the streetcar line to be extended, which enables those who can afford to do so to move farther out...This pattern repeats itself. Of course he wrote this before our "Car+Sprawl" Myth was firmly insinuated in the general populaces' mindset.

What with the events of the past sixty some odd years (i.e. how the implementation of the Interstate Highway System effectively cut the throat of Urbanity after which about twenty years later its guts were ripped out by so-called Urban Renewal), our society, due to its addiction to GDP-based sprawl growth, has lost sight of strong city centers being a prerequisite for sustainable land usage - although thankfully this trend is changing. Furthermore, the suburban poverty rate has begun skyrocketing, a trend analysts believe will continue for the foreseeable future.

And so, upon applying the concept of streetcar suburbs to our current state of affairs, I would say that we do indeed need to reach out to the increasingly poor suburbanites, who have extended themselves and their transportation expenses way beyond their budgets, by extending a streetcar/light rail system to them. And then, rather than the concept working from the core outwards, it would work in the inverse, from the outwards to the inward core; by this I mean those who live in, say, the fourth suburban ring, would save transportation costs by infilling and densifying the third suburban ring, etcetera and so forth. We the people need to begin conurbating.

David Parvo
Most Senior Fellow
The Placemaking Institute



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