Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What the Post and James Biggs doesn't get

Aerial view of a traffic jam, 14th Street and the Mall, Washington, D.C.,
National Archives photo. Aerial view of a traffic jam, 14th Street and the Mall, Washington, D.C., Apr. 1937. 30-N-37-1360A.

A few weeks ago, the Post editorialized against the creation of a streetcar line in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, because they think the counties have other funding priorities, in "A desire named streetcars."

There were some good letters in response, "Why a Columbia Pike streetcar line is a good idea now," which made the point that the editorial was illogical. From the first letter:

The editorial acknowledged that the counties believe “streetcars will more than pay for themselves over time by spurring new investment,” but it suggested that the counties defer building the streetcar line for budgetary reasons. This is shortsighted advice.

The editorial said the streetcar line “could be the first step toward a revitalized Columbia Pike” but also acknowledged that the corridor now includes a “shiny high-rise apartment complex” and “a brand-new supermarket.” Did it occur to the editorial board that the revitalization has already begun because of the streetcar plan? That has been the economic development pattern nationwide when communities commit themselves to streetcar projects.

Today there is another letter to the editor, "When businesses follow streetcars . . .," which states:

Both of the Aug. 7 letters on streetcars in Northern Virginia were correct in that added transportation on Columbia Pike would boost business there. However, make no mistake: Just as with stadium projects, no business will be created. Businesses will simply move from other areas to areas subsidized by government transportation. People have only so much money to spend. Money spent at a stadium or at new shopping areas is simply money that will no longer be spent on their homes, education and other entertainment options, or at other shopping areas.


But the letter writer fails to recognize that (1) all transportation infrastructure is subsidized; (2) including roads; (3) and that the process he describes and implies is transit-exclusive is no different than for the process around road building and automobile-centric mobility.

I wish that people understood urban economics better. (Maybe the best place to start is with The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs.)

Now it's true that as Molotch argues in "City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place" that:

A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities.

That's the nature of the game. If your jurisdiction doesn't remain competitive in the context of the regional residential and commercial landscape, you decline, both relatively and absolutely.

(This is why I am such a fervent partisan for DC specifically in my writing, for repopulating and revitalizing the center city, even though I do discuss regional issues and the importance of regional planning, and I am supportive of regionalism. Even so, I care most about DC.)

Motor vehicle-based mobility is less efficient compared to other modes, and fixed rail transit focuses and induces investment and positive locational choices that privilege the communities that have it over the others that don't.

Hey, that's life.

The trick is to be on the right side of the equation.

This is hard to do when the region's major newspaper and minor newspaper (Examiner) is always editorializing against transit expansion. (I guess I'll have to go back and research the various Post editorials in the 1960s about building a subway system to see what they wrote.)

I've written about this a lot, including in these three entries:

- What matters isn't "transit oriented development": what really matters is compact development and integrating transportation and land use

- Planning for transit lines: trip speed vs. access and station density

- With "transit-oriented development" urban design and/or planning is destiny

Every elected official and key stakeholders in the region need to understand this.

As long as the region doesn't understand that transit-centric land use and transportation planning is key to the region's competitive advantage, we'll be digging a deeper hole, although because we have a decent enough system in place now, we will still be better off than most jurisdictions, comparatively speaking.

This is from the "Executive Director's Report" by William C. Barr, Parking Magazine (the journal of the National Parking Association), Fall 1962, p. 9.

"In spite of the need to move urban traffic, many urban highway programs have been stalemated for one reason or another. In Washington, DC there has been an effective, organized citywide drive to curtail highway construction. The Washington program includes an Inner Loop Freeway which would serve the purpose of bypassing through automobile traffic and permit the citizens who live in the outlying areas to have greater accessiblity to the downtown area.

The opponents of this program have succeeded in persuading Congress to hold in abeyance the necessary appropriations until a study regarding the need for a subway and rapid rail transit system is completed.

Such a program for Washington, DC, is obviously not feasible from an economic point of view and would serve no useful purpose. Metropolitan Washington is a 'lateral' area. As a result, there is little, if any, heavy concentration of people in a given suburban area. If they were to use such a rapid transit system they would be requited to drive considerable distances to the pick-up stations... states that motorists would continue to shun public transit if they were paid to ride it."

Underlining added. The second underline is merely to point out that putting transit stations in the middle of freeways doesn't work as a way to generate high ridership.

The original plan for the subway system in the Washington region was for the transit lines to be placed in between freeways, comparable to how the orange line pops out on I-66. This was true for many of the stations proposed in upper NE and NW Washington as well.

Ironically, this editorial was published about 7 months after the streetcar system was abandoned as a result of an order by Congress, in legislation passed in the 1950s.

Too many of us in the region are as shortsighted as William Barr.

Good thing we didn't listen to William Barr 50 years ago.

Who should we be tuning out now?

Commuters in the evening rush-hour crush in the Gallery Place/Chinatown Washington Metro station.
Commuters in the evening rush-hour crush in the Gallery Place/Chinatown Washington Metro station. Photo by Richard Flynn.

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