From Here To There

Our daily commutes see us Homo Sapiens in many different environments expressing many behaviors. We can be seen as the solitary sort, mindlessly careening along at 70 miles per hour. We can be the begrudging social animal stuck in traffic with our ever-more irritated fellow man. Or we can be the herd animal rattling to and fro in a crowded bus. Given the variety and frequency of the human commute it is curious how little people take into account how design (graphic, architectural, industrial and political) plays a role in the ways we get from A to B.

“Transportation” in and of itself isn’t a terribly charged word. But when the word “public” is put in front of it, it becomes a phrase wrought with political battles as well as deign and economic impact. “Public transportation” has come to be defined by the modes of transportation – bus, train, subway, trolley – rather than simply moving people from place to place. By breaking it up into parts it has obscured the bigger picture. We talk about transportation in terms of trees, not in terms of the forrest.

America in many ways defines itself as a nation of the automobile. This is partly cultural. The freedom to move, the open road and whatnot are American bastions. But eventually the idea of the car became literally synonymous with America as made clear in the addage “What’s good for GM (General Motors) is good for America.”

Yet, America didn’t start out as car country. The Model T didn’t start production until 1908. Boston opened the first subway a decade earlier in 1897. Electric trolley cars came a bit before. But the largest transformative mode of transportation – the railroad – predates them all.

All of these have incredible influence on the shapes of our lives. They work to define the expansion of a nation and the difference between a city like New York and a city like Louisville. They are trees that define the forrest.



Like any forest, some trees are bigger than others. Some get more water and sun. Currently the sun shines brightest on the automobile. But in the world of transportation what gets the most resources is not a result of natural selection, but a conscious choice by planners, politicians, business men, architects  and designers.

Had America been pouring money into infrastructure like light rail and high speed trains we would likely be zipping around in those. But America has the interstate highway, by far the most expansive and effective system of roads in the world. Highways changed the way cities were laid out. With railroads towns developed wherever there was a stop. Without them there is no boom in westward expansion. Highways allowed cities to expand along exits. Highways allowed for suburbs, and now ex-burbs. Call it sprawl or call it expansion, investing in highways and roads made these things possible.

And there are consequences. Tailpipes, long-distance commutes, massive infrastructure, noise, oil dependence are all coming together and forcing us to make decisions and perhaps realize that the definition of America is not necessarily cars, and that the dominance of the car is not some free market, darwinian (small ‘d’) function or a natural right.

Money is a “limited” resource. Investing in one form of transport can mean letting others wither on the vine. See the incredibly fast extinction of trolleys and electric cable cars as evidence. When mass transit suffers cuts in service, like when most public services are eliminated, it effects the poor and the elderly most obviously. It also amplifies the reliance on the car which simply makes it simpler to develop land further and further out of the city core. Additionally as time goes on and services erode there is a perception that the service is insufficient (correct) and hence a waste of money (not so much).

There seems to be for many Americans a tiny libertarian sitting on their shoulder saying “if the riders aren’t willing to pay for it, transit is not worth having.” It’s almost a moral tenet. Some of them say it as they drive alone in their SUV that’s guzzling government subsidized gasoline, hurtling down a subsidized road that creates environmental externalities that are quite literally killing people. This is what we’ve been designing our lives and our communities around.

 


Midwestern cities face a particular conundrum in the face of all this. Long the little brother of the coasts, they are suffering in comparison to the rise of the South and Southwest. Population shrinkage, loss of their manufacturing advantage overseas, and recently a housing bubble have thrown all the ways in which Midwestern cities have developed into a rather harsh light.

Overeagerness involving highways and roads did little to help this. Many cities blighted their waterfronts, divided their cities – which destroyed neighborhoods – and developed endless repetitive infrastructure which they continue to pay for.

Many of the issues seem straight forward but ignite a tinderbox of anger when trying to deal with them. Aaron Wrenn of the Urbanophile blog says it best, “Suburban sprawl has become culturally identified with the postwar ‘American Dream.’ Indicting the system that produces sprawl is often seen an indictment of our very way of life.”

Reinvigorating these cities requires that they take steps to creating livable, vibrant neighborhoods and corridors. They need to create ways in which there are shorter (both time and distance) commutes, and an economy that creates businesses for these people to commute to.

Transit, hand-in-hand with land use planning are keys to this development. A 2009 study shows an increase in property value in areas surrounding transit nodes and an increase in the number of jobs (notable given the current employment climate). Transit along with zoning that allows for more density attracts development and increases the connectivity of neighborhoods. It isn’t an accident that very dense places are the economic engines of most every nation. Anecdotal evidence from places like Portland, Oregon show that smart planning and investing in transit can result in both economic gain and dramatically help the brand of a city, particularly a mid-size city.

 


So why does this discussion result in headaches and angry family members around the dinner table. The simple reason is change is painful and we avoid it, sometimes violently. However, some blame lies at the feet of the designer. Designers, advertisers and architects helped to generate the idea that freedom and cars are one and the same. Designers, architects and advertisers need to work harder to help people understand that freedom doesn’t equal automobile, freedom equals autonomy. Autonomy requires a variety of transit options.

Frankly it’s a hard sell when bus routes are being eliminated in most communities, investment in transit is trumpeted as a spending boondoggle and the wealthy in many communities  work to maintain property values rather than actual value.

Yet the success of the Los Angeles Metro in marketing it’s wares has been eye opening. It shows that when designers and advertisers put muscle into something they can move the needle. It will take designers and ad men and architects trumpeting the idea that mass transit isn’t some social engineering project but a necessity for a city to survive.

It takes designers to create usable maps that don’t intimidate new riders of transit. It takes architects working with developers to create taller more dense buildings around transit nodes. It takes industrial designers to make buses and rail cars that are comfortable and have aesthetic appeal. It happened for the car. In some ways the car changed the way we design, but mostly we designed things for the car.

 


Imagine a world where there is no car. Don’t imagine it to try and fulfill a tree-hugging dream of a no car utopia. Simply try to imagine what a world looks like without a car. How are cities changed? How do we move resources, both human and otherwise from place to place. Where do we live. How do we live.

It’s time designers of all ilks think about how that world could be and not how it has been. It’s time to realize how important their influence is. It’s time to sit back and dream a sustainable American dream.