Steven Dale on ‘Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles’ – The Department of Bollixing?

There’s a joke in here somewhere, but I don’t know where. CC image by flickr user Marika.

Throughout this whole process I’ve dreaded writing about chapter 18 of D&L. It’s not because it’s a long chapter (it is). It’s not because it’s a hard chapter (it works to be). And it’s not because it throws so many ideas at you that it’s hard to keep track of them all (it does).

The reason I’ve dreaded this chapter so much is that unlike the other chapters, it confronts directly that most personal (and controversial) of North American possessions – the private automobile. And as such, there’s no way to write about the chapter without irritating someone. Transportation is the topic everyone knows nothing about but is certain they know how easy it is to get from A to B. Everyone takes it personally, everyone’s got an opinion and everyone thinks their opinion is right.

So here goes …

When you read most of D&L, Jacobs’ talks in ways that empower people to take control of their lives and their communities by taking ownership of their own actions. Her special brand of sideway blows are reserved for institutions, governments and agencies but never against communities and their residents’ behaviors. She wants to see government and planners getting out of people’s way so that they may “struggle with plans of their own.”

But in Chapter 18 her tone changes and her tactics shift. Suddenly a person’s choice to use the automobile must be challenged. Despite qualifiers like “automobiles are hardly inherent destroyers of cities” Jacobs behaves as though they most certainly are. Note how her language is tinged with the language of combat. The entire chapter is peppered with words like attrition, war and conflict.

So while I have no problems agreeing with the vast majority of Jacobs’ arguments against the private automobile I have a really hard time agreeing with her tactics as solutions to the problem.

By way of McGrath, Jacobs’ main suggested tactic for the attrition of automobiles is “bollixing up” the system so badly that “only a driver with a hole in his head” would choose to drive. Problem is the vast majority of people do have a hole in their head that’s about as large and deep as their skull is thick and stubborn (myself included) and no amount of “bollixing” is going to prevent them from using their car because, if nothing else, there are two things every driver knows about traffic: Where the short cut is to get him out of traffic and that no one else but him knows about it.

So while these tactics might work on a micro, street or neighborhood scale, it’s hard to imagine that they’d work on a macro, city-wide scale. Look at any major city in the world and they’re almost defined by their traffic. It’s almost a rite of passage. You don’t really count as a city unless the most commonly overheard complaint revolves around how long the commute into work was.

Yet, strangely, that never prevents more cars from showing up.

There’s an inherent paradox here that’s hard to spot, but nevertheless demonstrates a flaw within Jacobs’ thinking in Chapter 18. Taken to its logical extreme, Jacobs’ theory suggests that a city with terrible traffic and mobility should therefore have no traffic at all as any rational individual would avoid driving entirely. Yet we know that’s not true.

To bollix up the system is both inherently logical and inherently absurd at the same time. Of course the way to remove cars from our cities is to design our cities in such a way as to limit a car’s usefulness. But then why pay to build the system in the first place if only to pay to bollix it up sometime in the future? And whose job is it to bollix up the system? Is there a department for that? How do you explain that to the public? Who wants that job?

Even Rube Goldberg would have a hard time justifying such a situation.

The saving grace here is Jacobs’s assertion that the “attrition of automobiles requires changes in habits and adjustments in usage (but) should not disrupt too many habits at once.”

Fair enough. But still the problem remains: Whose habits need to be changed and who gets to decide whose habits need to be changed? It’s at these moments where Jacobs sounds a little too much like the people she spends most of D&L railing against. That’s another reason I wasn’t looking forward to this part of the book. I know there’s going to be a lot of people who disagree with me on this but I bristle at this chapter because it is characterized by the kind of top-down thinking Jacobs was so vehemently against and I think her tactics are too utopian and antagonistic to ever be effective.

Whether we wish to admit it or not, the vast majority of the developed world get to work by private automobile. We may — in a misguided attempt to keep our urbanist street cred intact — shun the practice, avert our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true.

The problem is a numbers game, pure and simple:

  • Most people of voting age are drivers.
  • And car owners are more likely to have more money than non car owners.
  • And people with more money tend to vote more.
  • And as the majority of commuters drive, it is in a politician’s best interest to appeal to that majority by crafting policy and legislation that’s friendly to drivers.

The logical way to address this problem is by providing high-quality public transportation across any given urban region. But that’s increasingly difficult due to limited public funds which are likely to be spent on priorities other than public transportation as the vast majority of people don’t take public transportation and therefore don’t have any vested interest in its improvement.

Furthermore, imagine you’re a family who owns one (or two cars). You’re making payments, you’re paying for insurance and you’re paying for parking. Those are sunk costs. To not use your car doesn’t mean those costs disappear. To not use your car simply means you’re paying not to use your car. And to not use your car means you suddenly have to incur the cost of a transit pass – which are expensive nowadays.

It’s a vicious Catch-22 with no good solution for any politician or policy-maker.

I’d love to pretend I have some miraculous solution to this problem but I don’t. Like most people (Torontonians in particular) I’m frustrated and annoyed by the state of public transit and don’t know what to do about it. I’m cautiously optimistic about its future; maddened by the incompetence of it; and begrudgingly accepting the fact that I’ll likely need to get my driver’s license sometime soon.

You heard that right. I’m a man in his early-30’s and I don’t have a driver’s license. I’ve had three learner’s permits in my life simply for the photo ID and the option of learning in the future but never a full-fledged-honest-to-goodness-drive-by-myself-drivers-license. I’m a transit user through and through. Always have been, (hopefully) always will be.

The same thing applies to a large swath of my old friends who grew up in the same situation. We all grew up near a metro line in a big city. We walked (during the spring and fall) or took the bus (during the winter) to school and when we wanted to go to the mall we took the subway. When you grow up like that you don’t really see a need to drive.

Maybe Chapter 18 overcomplicates matters. Maybe we just need to find a way for more kids to grow up on a subway line.

Random Thoughts

  • Nice to see Jacobs point out that large numbers of bicyclists can “become an appalling mixture with pedestrians.” I think most would agree that cyclists are far more preferable a form of urban transport (from the pedestrians’ perspective) than the automobile. Wut when amassed in numbers such as in The Netherlands, they can become as tyrannical and overwhelming as any other form of traffic.
  • I know this is the third post I’ve quoted the phrase “struggle with plans of their own.” I love that line and you can expect to see it at least once more.
  • While it’s almost sacrilege to suggest, could the answer to our collective public transit deficit lie with the private sector? I’m hesitant to suggest this simply due to the controversy it ignites, but to ignore the myriad of positive examples of successful public transit agencies co-operating with private interests to build incredible transit (Singapore, for example) simply out of ideological leanings is problematic.
  • The satirical image of an American’s purpose in life being to “produce and consume automobiles” is disturbingly prescient and hilarious all at the same time.
  • The phrase “spaghetti-dish of ramps” reminds me of this.
  • True story: About a decade ago, the little town I live in in Switzerland decided they’d had it with traffic signals. There were too many of them and they were a visual nuisance that overly complicated driving. So what did they do? They pulled them all out. This town of 10,000 people now has not one single traffic signal – and everything works fine. Pedestrians must cross at designated zebra crossings and drivers have a legal obligation to stop when they spot a pedestrian wanting to cross the street. There’s also the unspoken cultural expectation that the pedestrian will give a little wave of thanks to the driver for stopping and the driver will wave ‘you’re welcome’ back. Instead of ‘bollixing up’ the system so badly that everyone is frustrated and annoyed, maybe we should build systems to encourage adult human beings to behave as adult human beings.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Christian says:

    Furthermore,
    When horses ruled supreme, our streets were gummed up with them and their manure – traffic, according to my transportation planning prof, is a sign of economic health of a city, the very fact that there are more cars means people are making money in order to support this “habit”. I’m now going to other options than driving and I think it will be hard to change back from a car, however I think it only takes a brush with death on the highway to change one’s thinking and habits about the supposed “supremacy” of the car in North America…

  2. Matthew says:

    I’m confused by your interpretation. Jane is still attacking institutions in this chapter. She’s attacking the institutions that change cities and make them more automobile friendly at the expense of people.

    The way she phrases it is that you have two choices: either your city becomes eroded from catering to cars, or it remains pedestrian friendly and sluggish for vehicles. Can’t have it both ways.

    Expanding roadways doesn’t help congestion because more traffic comes to fill it up. So, don’t expand them. If you narrow them, you’ll still have congestion — but fewer vehicles in absolute terms. Congestion is simply unavoidable in any attractive location.

    She was way ahead of her time in this chapter. In 1962, Anthony Downs proposed the ‘fundamental law of highway congestion’ (you can’t build your way out of congestion) but it wasn’t for another 30 years that people started listening. Zurich and other European cities are implementing these ideas, and there’s even a push for it in the States.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/science/earth/27traffic.html?pagewanted=all

    1. Steven Dale says:

      I’m not disputing the fact that expanding roadways doesn’t help congestion – that has clearly proven false.

      I think what I have a problem with here is the inherent contradiction in the chapter. Yes, Jacobs does rail against the institutions that design/build cities for the private automobile. But on the flip-side, she’s advocating an institution whose sole purpose is to “bollix up” the system. Either there’s a department for that specifically, or the agencies tasked with making roads usable for automobiles have to engage in some pretty duplicitous cloak-and-dagger planning to gum up the system effectively.

      Imagine the newspaper headlines if it was found that a given city’s Department of Roads and Transportation was tasked explicitly with redesigning their road system to make it more difficult for drivers to get around. Heads would roll.

      I don’t think I’m disagreeing with the idea that to design cities so that they’re “against” the automobile is a bad idea. I’m just suggesting that there’s so many problems with this chapter from a strategic/tactical standpoint that I highly doubt it’s viability.

      1. Matthew says:

        Isn’t that what Zurich is doing?

        To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

      2. Steven Dale says:

        True, but Zurich isn’t exactly the same as most North American cities. It’s barely 350,000 people (metro much larger, but over a much larger scale) and it’s an intensely walkable, dense city. There’s also transit every where that functions remarkably well. Most people I know try to avoid zurich at all costs when it comes to driving. But again, that’s based upon historical precedent.

        I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. What I’m questioning is how one uses the “bollixing” tactic in a North American setting.

      3. Matthew says:

        A department that focuses on improving pedestrian safety and public transportation, with a positive attitude, would also naturally slow down cars. At least, if they conducted their mission correctly.

      4. Steven Dale says:

        But also naturally, a department of roads and transportation (not to mention an entrenched automotive industry lobby) would focus on speeding up cars.

      5. Well in Toronto there are huge neighbourhoods that have clearly been intentionally “bollixed up”, not for the purpose of removing cars outright, but to make most roads useful only to local traffic, leaving only a few useful arteries. Think about the huge residential blocks of the Annex, with their dead ends and one-way streets that change halfway through.

  3. “While it’s almost sacrilege to suggest, could the answer to our collective public transit deficit lie with the private sector?”

    Although it’s an extreme idea, I would propose that it’s not private sector transit that’s the problem – it’s private-public partnerships, because they effectively create monopolies that allow the private contributor to exploit patrons for maximum profit. Such monopolies don’t exist in a strictly private sector situation. Private sector involvement in transit problems would work best if there was a means of harnessing competition and diversity while restricting excessive and destructive duplication of effort (early rail development, anyone?).

    Maybe it’s necessary to adjust our understanding of mass transit – rather than one big line that can move large amounts of people, you could have thousands of small lines that can move large amounts of people. Taxis do this, but are too expensive for patrons to implement as mass transit; however with all the mapping technology and handheld devices available to us now, I’m surprised we haven’t been able to create a similar micro-transit systems where the cost of your trip is shared with other patrons by efficiently coordinating pickup/dropoff points. Think about it: you punch in your route on your smartphone in advance, you get picked up, the driver can pick up other patrons near your route on the fly, attempting to maximize the amount of time that the taxi is shared, while minimizing the length of the trip. You pay full price for the time you’re in the taxi alone, half price while there are two of you, a third of the price while there are three of you; and what if the “taxi” was a van, or a bus? Yes, it would be a longer trip because of the stops, but every stop would make your trip cheaper. It wouldn’t be a silver-bullet solution, but along with other new methods, it might form part of a piece-meal solution.

    1. Matthew says:

      That already exists in the form of shared ride vans, which are really popular in some places for airport transportation (SFO comes to mind).

      There’s various jitney services, I know I’ve read about some in NYC that operate extra-legally, and I agree that it’s silly to continue to enforce a monopoly on transit. I’ve ridden some of the private buses that operate across the GW Bridge and they are a decent option, though I noticed that the driver is more interested in grabbing extra fares than actually moving. Last time I rode one we must have stopped and started a dozen times as additional stragglers came along.

      If private companies could work together enough to form a fare union (at least, in terms of medium) and coordinate schedules enough to make transfers convenient, then it would be acceptable. Of course, that’s typically not what happens around here. Even public agencies refuse to work together in many ways.

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