The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 5

We continue our walk through Weis and Arnesen’s “Thriving as a City in 2020” paper, this time looking at effective transportation in the prototypical city.

The Not-So-Distant Future: Cities in 2020, Part 5

Posted By Megan Wildhood

Oct 25, 2012

Last week, we looked at Weis and Arnesen’s discussion on the ideal way to develop housing in a city.  Before that can happen, though, Weis and Arnesen argue that we must undergo a paradigm shift from considering how to sustain current levels of traffic flow to reducing traffic flow as a key element in development.  With such a concentrated population as the ideal city would have, mass transit – namely, a high-speed rail – is absolutely essential to the sustained functioning of this city.  Weis and Arnesen explain why:

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION:  RAPID, RELIABLE, REASONABLE

             For moving people into, out of, and within a vibrant city, there is no substitute for reliable, rapid transit.  Great cities move their residents with comprehensive public transportation systems.  The foundation for a mass transit system is high-speed rail; the auxiliary layers include light rail and buses (Weis, 2006).  And with population density around the periphery of the city core, walking becomes a significant option for moving people within the core of the city.  That places a premium on urban beauty, including urban parklands, to offer pedestrians a pleasant environment to walk among the various destinations that are part of their daily and weekly work, shopping, and recreational milieu.

            Comprehensive public transportation systems were regarded in the latter half of the 20th Century as accessory to, rather then fundamental to, the urban landscape.  Systems that once moved people into, out of, and within cities like Los Angeles were substantially dismantled and discarded by 1960.  In the 1920s, Los Angeles enjoyed the most elaborate rail system in the country, with nearly 1,500 miles of track connecting the eastern desert with the Pacific Coast.  By 1960 every train was gone.  Now the city is struggling to recapture remnants of its once great transit past, and is being heralded as being “on the road to fashioning one of the best public transit systems in the nation” (Pomfret, 2006).  That is faint praise for a city where only 6.6 percent of the commuters use public transit.

            The great cities of year 2020 should be targeting a 70 to 80 percent rate of commuters who either use public transportation, or who walk or bike to and from work.  That’s a far cry from the 6.6 percent that “one of the best public transit systems in the nation” delivers.

            Our collective perspective on transportation desperately, and urgently, needs a paradigm shift.  We are caught in a “chicken and egg” dilemma.  Myopic transportation planners look at “capacity” in terms of sustaining the number of automobiles and trucks that currently flow through formerly vibrant downtowns.  That misplaced emphasis on “traffic capacity” must be replaced with “people movement” capacity — and has to occur in anticipation of reducing that demand for capacity with mass transit systems and multiplied housing density at the city cores. In this case, the “egg” of reducing traffic capacity may need to precede the “chicken” of transit and housing.

            Then there is the problem of politics and major public projects.  It can’t take 30 years or more to go from “talking about” transit to rolling out the first train.  Strong, visionary leadership is essential if we are to take the critical steps before it’s too late.  Munich (see later section) showed us that action can be both quick and effective.

That urban beauty should be discussed in the transportation section demonstrates one example of the paradigm shift Weis and Arnesen champion.  It is not, nor can it be, just about sustaining – or even expanding – traffic capacity.  It isn’t even just about creating efficient, clean ways to move high volumes of commuters every single day.  Walking and cycling must be included in a city’s transportation discussions, and that goes hand in hand with creating safe, beautiful landscapes for those on foot or bike to enjoy.

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