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.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Transit notes #2: Anti-transit opposition a form of defending automobility as a way of life

(Even though in the previous entry I argue that the Tide light rail system in Hampton Roads has limited value because of low use, compared to investments in areas where transit is more highly used...)

Yesterday, the Virginia Beach City Council had an important vote on whether or not to proceed with certain aspects of extension planning from Norfolk to Virginia Beach for the Tide light rail system--VB is the largest city in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area.

It turns out they voted to proceed ("Virginia Beach council signals it wants to move forward with light rail," Norfolk Virginian-Pilot).  But the day before the Virginian-Pilot ran a fascinating piece ("How did the light rail debate in Virginia Beach become so nasty?") on the opposition, which reminded me of opposition to sustainable mobility in DC as I discussed in the past blog entry, "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city," or quotes from people affiliated with a black church in the Shaw neighborhood, arguing against bike lanes:
“This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.

-- "Can some big D.C. churches fight off a bike lane? They are bringing large crowds to try," Washington Post

From the V-P piece:
Atkinson and his support base – mainly older residents, Tea Party, Libertarian, Republican and anti-tax groups – have put light rail on blast. It won’t benefit anyone in Virginia Beach but developers, they say. It costs too much, won’t move people, doesn’t solve congestion, they say. Atkinson, 75, is quick to point to statistics from the draft environmental impact study backing that up. ...

He says he has support from all stripes, including some millennials, who he said should move to Norfolk if they want public transportation.

On Pilot comment sections and social media, you’ll see his supporters call light rail a “boondoggle,” “choo choo” and the “Tide-tanic.” Many complain that the project is being “shoved down our throats.”

They are angry. And in the past year, the issue has gotten more contentious, more heated, and the rhetoric more vitriolic. A State Transportation Board member likened it to the divisiveness of the presidential campaign dominated by Donald Trump. ...

When did it get so bad that a 54-year-old Beach resident would cuss out an entire generation of people on a young professional group’s Facebook page for wanting The Tide to come to Town Center?

To paraphrase the litany that couldn’t even begin to be printed in a newspaper: Young people have never done anything in their lives and you want to take my money to build a light rail? Screw you. ...

Bonney said the negative tone of the debate is partly due to the lingering legacy of white flight, resentment of urbanism and reluctance to be a willing participant in a regional effort that led many of the city’s older residents to settle in Virginia Beach.

Light rail has pitted young versus old, residents versus developers and those who embrace change against those who do not. ...

Debate attendees laughed at the mention of a network of light-rail lines. One man yelled for young people to “move to Charlotte.” ...

Light-rail supporter Will Christopher says Atkinson relies on fear of change and demagoguery to rile up his base. He’s concerned that the future is being decided by a bitter, older generation threatened by change and unconcerned with future generations .
The American Dream as an automobility-centric development paradigm.  A lot of the opposition to sustainable mobility is generational. And it is based on the adoption of a automobility-centric mobility paradigm.

Even in center cities, or urbanizing metropolitan areas, like Washington, DC, most residents have been imprinted with the automobility land use and transportation planning paradigm, and they fail to recognize or acknowledge this fact, and that automobility is merely one way to develop a place, and that while it may work in some settings, it doesn't work in others.

Levittown, New York, an early suburban subdivision on Long Island.

Economic costs of an automobility-centric land use development paradigm.  Furthermore, in a more zero sum economic situation, automobility is a less economically sustainable and less resilient development paradigm -- Fairfax County Virginia, long one of the nation's most successful economies, is now facing decline as automobility-fueled growth levels off. In fact, the only place where Fairfax County is growing substantively is in transit corridors ("Fairfax residents voice frustrations over county's financial health," Washington Post).

Future-oriented planning fails in a political environment focused on today.  As a discipline, by definition planning is concerned with managing change and addressing the future.

Cincinnati voting sign, 2009.

But politics and typically, the time horizon considered by the average citizen, rarely takes into account the future and the needs of tomorrow and future generations, and the value that has been reaped by us today, from investments made in the past.

Generational opposition to sustainable mobility.  This is especially a generational question.

Older people, who grew up during the massive period of American economic growth and the ascension of the automobile as the primary way to get around, tend to be the most vociferous opponents to the creation of new sustainable mobility infrastructure, even as people age and increasingly need assistance to get around, while most places are not set up to do so ("Transit Access and America's Aging Population," AARP).

For a variety of reasons, younger demographics are more interested in sustainable mobility and in reshaping communities going forward so that an efficient sustainable mobility platform can be created, implemented, and used (e.g., "Hampton Roads young professionals group overwhelmingly supports light rail," "Light rail and millennials take center stage at Virginia Beach City Council meeting," and "NFK Dreams: Listen to Virginia Beach, millennials. Norfolk is your home," V-P).

Note that this mobility pattern is not foreordained, just the way that land use and transportation developed in the US over the past 100 years.  In places like Copenhagen, older people walk, bike and use transit just fine.

As a rule, transit projects face almost uniform opposition.  It becomes increasingly difficult to promote transit especially.

Image from "Red Light, Green Light: A messy fight looms over The Amp, Metro’s proposed bus rapid transit system," Nashville Scene.

I read pretty widely and almost without exception, transit projects of all types seem to experience a significant amount of virulent opposition.  While it's true that in some places, e.g., streetcar projects in Tucson and Dallas, transit projects are supported (both of those projects were initiated by active citizens, not transportation planners or elected officials), in general most projects experience virulent opposition ranging from bus rapid transit projects in Richmond, Nashville, Indianapolis and elsewhere, bicycle projects of all strips, and lots of light rail projects, Virginia Beach being only one.

The streetcar program in Cincinnati faced many anti-votes, on the eve of the opening of the light rail system in Charlotte, NC anti-tax citizens got an defunding referendum on the ballot--it lost.

Nashville Scene image.

The belief that the US is defined by the automobile.  While it's true that many such projects are difficult to justify in the shortest run -- because they lack the right preconditions of spatial conditions, density, and a tight collection of primary activity centers -- in many places transit works, and as importantly as density increases walking and biking become significantly more efficient modes as well.

Why is it even in those places where transit has demonstrated success, like Washington DC (opposition to the streetcar, although it has quelled since it opened, as I expected), Arlington County Virginia (opposition to a streetcar there led to its being dropped, and ArCo is considered a national best practice example of transit-oriented land use development) and Montgomery County Maryland (opposition to light rail, even though the county's benefits from Metrorail service is considerable)?

Note the slogan: Discover America Best by Car on this Standard Oil road map.

While it may be couched in saving money, I believe opposition to sustainable mobility in all its forms -- transit, walking, biking, and car sharing -- has to be more about defending automobility as a fundamental element of the definition of what it is to be "American," what it is to be the United States.

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At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent posting

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great points about old people not needing car mobility- my parents did well w/o any car on CH for decades . There is a whole series of generations in the USA that has been indoctrinated to loving the car even when they move into the city. This is not good and is counter productive and silly. In Germany you often see elderly women and men riding bicycles full of groceries coming or going places, etc. It is not an impossible or poverty stricken lifestyle it is just natural and a regular thing. people have forgotten about this after WW2 here and we are spoiled entitled and fat now.

At 4:22 PM, Anonymous rg said...

Regarding generational opposition to transit and defense of automobility--which can be incredibly rabid as we have experienced firsthand here in DC and as outlined the VP article-one interesting thing I have noticed among the 65+ people I know personally is that those who have long been automobile dependent and rarely walked, biked or took transit, even when they where younger and more agile, are those who are having the most difficult time with aging while their counterparts who rarely drove are having a much better experience with aging. Many of the former cannot walk more than 1 or 2 blocks or navigate more than a few stairs and are otherwise increasingly frail while contemporaries of theirs from the latter, car averse group continue to live their day-to-day lives with much more ease and comfort. Clearly nobody is immune from the effects of aging and even my acquaintances from the latter group certainly move more slowly than they used to. But they still move, walking and getting around quite easily. I know these are just anecdotal observations and that there are no guarantees in life. Nevertheless, it seems safe to conclude that it would be wise for me to maintain my active, car averse transportation lifestyle.

Anyway, it may be that those rabid opponents of investment in non-automobile transportation infrastructure have also been selling themselves short all along! In my meaner moments, I might be more triumphant about this state of affairs, but it just makes me sad for everyone involved, because it appears that everyone loses.

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. when I wrote something in advance of the "suburban paradigm" piece, I outlined my sustainable mobility lifestyle which is a mix of biking, transit, walking (but my joke is that I won't walk more than 1/2 block, I bike instead) and car sharing in a typical day.

A person in Chevy Chase (the piece was shared on their listserv) commented that such a scenario is appropriate only for "younger people." At the time I wrote it I was 52? She, it turns out, is a couple years younger than I... whose mobility is likely to be greater as we age?

2. My father died from heart disease at the age of 54. I don't know how his brother died, but it was at the same age. Their father died at the age of 47 (I don't know how he died.)

Granted my diet is likely different (because I worked for a nutrition advocacy group for a few years), and emergency care is better today (a key reason for the decline in heart attack deaths), but I bike daily and have for 26 years, and my father likely didn't exercise much.

A key reason for my choice of biking--besides efficiency, saving time, and living in a manner that supports the adoption of a sustainable mobility paradigm--was the health effect.

... next month I'll be 56.

3. Jan Gehl and his wife I think are about 80 years old now. They live outside of Copenhagen and regularly bike the 10 mile (or is it km) distance between home and city.

4. but speaking of health and mobility as you age, I need to start doing some regular work with weights...

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, I have to disagree with you here Richard.

You know I'm not on the culture war against the car or autos. The points on health are valid (said as someone who walks 4+ miles a day). I want to live in area where I can walk. I also want to have the ability to drive and be driven and have delivery.

That said, fights on transportation/infrastructure spending are VERY old traditions in the US. Remember the Stamp Act -- the revolt so we wouldn't have a British post office and roads? The fights to build Canals (or not). The fights on railroads and their giant busts? I could go on. Bourbon virginia debt repudiation?

If I can identify some trends in this 200+ years records....

1) Maybe private industry and money is better spent/wasted on building infrastuture. Yes, the railroads have huge giveaways but it wasn't taxable dollars.

2) Zero sum game economics are always at play. Look at the canal fight in Massachusetts (inland vs. coastal towns). And yes, when we are taxing money out of gas tax revenue that is very zero sum.

3) User fees work! Yes, perhaps in 20+ years electric cars may break the gasoline-road tax connection. But we need to find user fees in some fashion to pay for transit. Say .10 cents more on property tax within a mile of a metro station. Or give developments rights to WMATA.

Other ideas -- direct taxation of uber fees.

One other thought:

The US, until the 1960s, have a very clear line on spending money on infrastructure. The 1960s broke that. Jane Jacobs and the anti-highway movements. robert frost, the road not taken.

It is a huge legacy. You've got an entire generation that has grown up and think that Robert Moses is the devil. And I think the pro-transit advocates haven't really struggled with that dual legacy very well.

You want more transit? It is going to be ugly, loud, probably racist, probably bad for poor people, and it is going to be Moses all over again.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

On this, I think we're both right. I think today's battles are more about what I said, and less about what you said. I could be wrong.

I hear the same language in my neighborhood from people, e.g., the line in the Facebook post cited in the NVP article is comparable to some of what the oldsters say pejoratively about the desires of "new residents" to have a dog park as part of the amenities at Takoma Recreation Center.

I wrote about this in terms of the core vs. the outer city too.

2. But yes, I think people have learned the wrong lessons about infrastructure, Moses etc. E.g., again, same thing in DC, with Takoma and Brookland. They were successful in fighting off the freeways. They were successful at fighting off earlier iterations for rowhouse developments on Metrolands.

But I argue they learned the wrong lessons. They were right about the freeways. They were right about _the proposed developments_ at the Metro at that time, but not about development at their respective stations.

But they learned that they are "always successful opposing development," that "development at the Metro is always wrong."

Just like not all infrastructure is bad, but freeways through cities are was the right lesson from Moses, ECTC in DC and other anti-highway battles.

Plus it's complicated by neoliberalism, the focus on the market, the denigration of govt. provided services, and the double whammy of underfunding and then underfunding triggering problematic services that undermine the reputation and quality of govt.-provided services.

3. wrt "the entire generation that has grown up and think that Robert Moses is the devil," I was one of those people at one time too. Not just about mobility but about modern architecture etc.

The reality is or at least should be a lot more nuanced.

Mass opinion doesn't work very well with nuance.

And elected officials and the electorate aren't too focused on the long term, especially in this political environment, and by definition infrastructure is a long term play.

(The original transit notes #2, was supposed to be on expansions of LR in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and the positive impact it is having. That one is still to come.)

4. The struggle is bi-modal. In places that don't have much in the way of transit.

And in places where transit is somewhat on a downward spiral--DC seems to be the only place where that is really the case--with vociferous groups fighting transit extension and the adoption of new types (streetcar in DC and NoVA, light rail in Suburban Maryland).

and transpo-related by not transit-related, adding tolls and/or HOT Lanes.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Even wrt ECTC and freeways through cities, where I was reflexively supportive of what happened historically in DC in terms of freeway opposition.

Now I see the value for a tunnelized version of freeways or at least "tubes" to capture and divert through traffic from principal arterials that are both commuter and neighborhood serving.

Yes it was better to not have freeways cut up the city and eliminate housing and population. But no it is not so great for neighborhoods dealing with the impact of principal arterials that are traffic engorged and have the same negative impact on the neighborhood that a freeway would.

I didn't think that way 10 years ago.

More and more places are starting to look at this, and there are many examples world-wide.

But it's also a function of knowing about best practice, continuous learning, etc.

And while the planning profession, especially the transportation professional generates lots of research, academic writings, etc.

e.g., this lineup for a conference in NJ the next week looks awesome

it doesn't seem to trickle down. (Plus many of the projects would be f*ing expensive, like the Big Dig.)

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Today's Battles.

Sure, today's battles are all about the "defending the car" or something like that. Change is never fun. MY point is that fights about infrastructure have been an enduring fight for 200 years, and not to label is part of a culture war.

RE: The legacy of Moses

Yes, we are at the same place where in terms of nuance. And of course once the government (vs private sector) controls transportation spending you start throwing a lot of other goals in there. Slum clearance. Redevelopments. Carbon Targets.

And it is all related to the push of money and the river that is the Highway Trust fund. Why fix a road when you can use federal funds to build an interstate!

as a tag line I always say we need a transportation system about moving people. Very Lewis Mumford in some ways. Almost moves into a dan reed love of semi-urban sprawl.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

back in the day wrt federal funding for roads, politicians called them "ten cent dollars" since the feds paid 90% of the cost. But Interstate freeway functions are a lot different from local roads in terms of purpose and funding.

I have never separated out into a single blog entry Signature Streets concept and I was thinking of doing so for the Rt. 7 bus proposal (and WABA's previous Arlington Blvd. proposal) as examples.

Suburban context varies so much.

The idea of Sig. Streets came about because of my working in Baltimore County. It built on previous work (including Barth's-Olmstead idea that streets should be treated as linear parks), but basically it was about acknowledging that a county has a primary mobility network of arterials and that the aesthetic elements ought to matter, because by default, positively or negatively, these places define the community.

(And it tried to solve some other problems--need for $ to buy right of way to retrofit new infrastructure--and linked to other county initiatives on directing investment to inward places and streetscape initiatives. But it came about trying to deal with the roadside characteristics of the one road that the county controlled--most arterials are under state control--that had traffic volumes comparable to major arterials.)

... but wrt transit, it works in some places and not others, because of density, distance to final destination, road network, etc.

There is a piece in the MST about a new suburban bus line in Greater Minneapolis. It has zero riders, and was started because of suburban initiative. But a retired transpo planner was quoted making the point that you have to build demand, there is no network to get from the bus stop to the final destination, service is infrequent, destinations are widely dispersed, etc.

Anyway, not every "suburb" has the same opportunity to be efficient with transit.

So in a lot of places transit is seen as a social service, while in a subset of places it's a service that is effective and efficient for many more people, and a congestion management device also.

This is a long way of saying, yes, "a transportation system is about moving people," but it's efficient to do it in some ways, and inefficient to do in other ways.

And it's also about nuance. In some places, transit is amazing. In most places it is not. But people use the "it is not" places to justify no money anywhere and everywhere, despite the examples of where it can work very well.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I pissed off Suzanne in blowing off a comment she was making. We were talking about San Diego County, which is something like 4700 sq. miles and transit, and she was saying something like "well, in the remote corners of the county, blah blah blah."

I said of course you don't focus on providing transit in remote places with limited ridership and hyper high costs, you focus where it has significantly higher ROI.


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