Locked in Suburbia: Is there life after Autopia?

Something like ten percent of our lonely planet’s population are today thoroughly locked in — or at least think they are — to an “automotive life style”.   While in barely two generations  the earth’s population has  tripled, the automotive age has, step by silent surreptitious step, changed the way we live — and in the process made us prisoners of just that technology that was supposed to make us free forever. That’s a bad joke and bad news. But there is worse yet, and it comes in two ugly bites. For starters, in addition to the ten percent of us already hapless prisoners of our cars, another twenty percent of our soon seven billion brothers and sisters are standing in line eagerly in the hope of getting  locked in as quickly as possible. And as if that were not bad enough, the consensus among most of the experts and policy makers is that our goose is forever cooked, and there is little anybody  can do about it. Well, maybe not. Spend some time this Monday morning with Paul Mees, as he attacks this received belief and suggests . . . Well, why don’t I just get out of the way and let Paul speak for himself.

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the automobile age

Preface


This book is for people concerned about the environmental and social costs of  automobile-dominated cities. There are plenty of books that outline these costs, and the other reasons for moving beyond the automobile age, but few that offer practical suggestions about how the move can be made. We need alternatives to the car, and we need them now, because problems like climate change and insecure oil supplies are urgent.

Public transport is not the only alternative to the car – indeed, walking and cycling are the only truly sustainable transport modes – but it is a necessary ingredient in a post-automobile future. Unless public transport is so convenient that it offers real competition to the car, then schemes to promote walking and cycling, and restrain car use, will founder. But providing first-rate public transport seems too hard in most English-speaking countries: the Swiss and some other

Europeans can manage it, but we can’t. And the task seems impossible in the spread-out suburbs and ex-urbs where most population growth is taking place.

My central argument is that the public transport problem is easier to solve
than people think. We don’t need to demolish our suburbs and rebuild them at
many times their current densities; nor do we need a fundamental transformation  in human consciousness, however desirable that might be for other reasons. The  high-quality public transport found in places like Switzerland has been adapted  to serve the existing urban environment, and a population that shares our faults  and failings.

The critical ingredients of first-class, ‘European-style’ public transport are
planning and politics, the same factors behind public transport failures across much  of the English-speaking world. The idea that compact cities, or consciousness-raising,  or the free market can provide a substitute for getting policies and planning  right has been widespread across the ‘Anglosphere’ for at least two decades. The  results have not been promising. It’s time for a new approach: this book outlines  that approach and the grounds we have for believing it can work.  In putting these ideas together, I have had the assistance of a great many people,  too many to name. But I do want to mention some. . . .

Good public transport requires good planning and policy, along with honest
and competent public administration. These things do not come about by accident;  they require an active, informed community that demands high standards from its  politicians and bureaucrats, and insists that policies be based on evidence rather  than spin. The truth really does matter, no matter how upsetting it is to the powers  that be.

Paul Mees
Melbourne
August 2009

——————————————————————

I.

Public Transport 101________________

MONASH UNIVERSITY

The second university of the Australian city of Melbourne celebrated its 50th
anniversary in 2008. Since the passage of its enabling legislation in 1958, Monash  University has educated over 200,000 students at its campus in suburban Clayton,  granting degrees in disciplines ranging from medicine to literature. But regardless  of their academic discipline, most Monash students over the half-century have been  educated in one unofficial common subject. This subject could be called Public  Transport 101, and it has been offered continuously since the Clayton campus  opened on 11 March 1961.

Sir John Monash, the Australian engineer and general after whom the University
is named, spent much of his early career building railways. In military and civilian  life, Monash demanded the highest standards of planning, organization and  delivery. He might not have been impressed had he tried to reach the university  named after him by public transport. To do so, one takes a suburban train to  Huntingdale Station, some 17km from the city centre. From there, the campus is  just over 2km away by privately operated bus.

Let’s visit Huntingdale Station in the first week of the academic year and join
the students taking Public Transport 101.

The most popular train reaches Huntingdale at 8:40 am, which should leave
plenty of time to reach campus for the first lectures at 9:00 am. The Clayton campus  is home to 32,000 staff and students, and even though most drive, that still means  around 200 alight from the train. They must queue to leave the station, as the  single exit is a narrow ramp, leading to a cramped subway. Passengers emerge into  the station car park, which must be crossed in the open. It’s raining, so they cop  the full force of the weather.

Past the car park is a busy road. On the other side are two bus stops, one for
each route that travels to Monash. Each stop is in a different street, with a blind
corner in between, so if a passenger waits at one and the first bus comes to the
other, they will miss the bus. There is no such problem today: the 8:35 am bus is
still waiting, as a long queue of passengers from the previous train boards, one by one, each required to insert a ticket into a validating machine. Eventually the bus  departs, ten minutes late and packed to the gunwales, leaving dozens of passengers  behind. They are joined by those from the 8:40 train. As the shelter at the stop  only holds five people, everyone else waits in the rain; some take refuge among cars  parked in the undercroft of a nearby factory. The 8:46 bus arrives and eventually  leaves, full, at 9. The last passengers from the 8:40 train reach Monash University  at half past nine.

At quieter times, the problem is the opposite of overcrowding. Some students
stay back at night as the campus libraries are open late, while students living on
campus often go out at night and come home through Huntingdale. Because the
bus and train timetables are not co-ordinated, waits can be up to half an hour. The  main bus stop is in a laneway between the blank concrete wall of a road overpass  and the blank brick wall of a factory. Students are understandably afraid to wait  there after dark.

A visiting Canadian academic colleague returned from a trip to Monash
fuming. The squalid facilities, the long walk in the open and the lack of timetable
coordination astonished her. The visitor was from York University in Toronto,
which is of similar age and size to Monash, and also a few kilometres from the
nearest station. Dedicated ‘university rocket’ express shuttles leave every two
minutes (the frequency drops to every two minutes 15 seconds in the off-peak)1
from the top of the escalators serving the station platform.

As explained in Chapter  6, there are no delays from ticket checking as the bus terminal is inside the station  fare gates. The Toronto Transit Commission is currently planning to extend the  rail line to York University.

My colleague could not understand why things were so much worse at a place
that in other respects was so similar. ‘How long has this been going on?’ she asked  me. The answer is: since Monash opened in 1961. For many years, the main bus  route and the train service both ran every half-hour during the evening: as the bus  actually ran in the evening, it was regarded as good by Melbourne standards. Each  bus reached the station two minutes after the corresponding train left, ensuring  a 28-minute wait for the next train – which was even helpfully shown on the  timetable. This continued until 1990, when the bus company, citing low demand,  scrapped most evening services.

I told the story of the bus missing the train in my 2000 book A Very Public
Solution, but apparently nobody in Melbourne noticed, because in 2006 the saga
was repeated. A second bus route, called ‘Smart Bus’, was introduced between
Huntingdale Station and the university, as part of a government response to
complaints about Melbourne’s privatized, but state-subsidized, public transport.
Smart Buses provide the very best Melbourne has to offer: they even run seven days  a week – which is handy because the Monash library is open every day, including  Sunday. The new Smart Bus ran every half hour on Sunday mornings, just like  the train, with buses departing Huntingdale at 4 and 34 minutes past the hour. As  trains reached the station at 7 and 37 past the hour, each bus missed the nearest  train by three minutes. After 7 pm, trains arrived three minutes earlier – at exactly  the time the buses left. Since even an Olympic sprinter would take two minutes  to reach the bus stop from the station, all this ensured was that passengers could  view the departing bus from the station platform, before waiting half an hour for  the next one.

This story does have a happier ending. I incorporated the printed Smart Bus
timetable, which actually showed the buses and trains missing each other, into a
presentation for the Australian Government’s Garnaut Climate Change Review.
My presentation was placed on the review’s website, where it embarrassed the
bus company into changing the timetable. Smart Buses now connect with trains
at Huntingdale on Sunday mornings and evenings, although not during the day
or most of the rest of the week. The interchange facilities remain as appalling as
ever.

So what have 200,000 Monash graduates learned in Public Transport 101?
Before the end of first semester, the crowding problems at Huntingdale ease as
students begin to desert public transport and drive cars. By graduation, nearly
all of them are driving to campus. The student environment office helps them
by organizing car pooling: even it has given up on public transport. The Monash
Clayton campus is surrounded by a sea of parked cars, and parking shortages are
a constant subject of on-campus discussion.

These same students are among the most environmentally aware section of
the community, concerned about issues like pollution and global warming. They
are avid followers of the Garnaut Review’s warnings about the need to reduce
carbon emissions, including those from transport.2 Monash students take courses  on climate change, insecure oil supplies and other constraints on a car-dominated  future. They learn that a sudden interruption to supplies of affordable oil, or a  serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions from transport, would cripple the  university and the metropolis of Melbourne. Some of the more curious ask why  their city and campus are not better prepared for the future. Why has public  transport to campus been so hopeless for so many years, and why is nothing being  done about it?

The answer students at Monash and other Australian universities most
commonly receive is that their parents’ housing preferences are to blame. Urban
density is the major cause of automobile dependence, so public transport problems  can’t be fixed until Melburnians abandon their separate houses and backyards, and  begin living in apartments like Europeans.

STERNENBERG

Nobody in Sternenberg lives in an apartment. The 349 residents of the highest
and remotest municipality in the Canton, or State, of Zürich prize their rural
lifestyle. Sternenberg’s rustic charms were celebrated by its most famous resident,  the poet Jakob Stutz, who lived there from 1841 to 1857 after being convicted  on a ‘morals charge’ in his previous home town. In Stutz’s time, the municipality  had 1400 residents, but rural depopulation reduced this to a low-point of 297 by  the 1980 census. People live on farms or in tiny hamlets of three or four dwellings  scattered across the municipality’s 9km2. The village centre is a few houses grouped  around the picturesque 1706 church. Farming is still important, but so is tourism,  particularly summer hiking along the Jakob Stutz Way and other trails.3

In recent years, the population has begun growing again, thanks to commuters
with jobs in the City of Zürich and its suburbs. The majority of workers are still
employed locally, mainly in rural industries, but nearly half now travel to jobs
outside the municipality. This reflects a pattern seen across the Canton of Zürich
and indeed across Europe: the City of Zürich, which houses a third of the canton’s  1.3 million residents, has been losing people since the 1960s, while suburban and  rural populations are booming.4

The church at Sternenberg is 42km from the centre of Zürich, but because
of the mountainous terrain, the route by road or rail is longer. It takes an hour by
train to reach the village of Bauma from Zürich’s main railway station, and then
another 15 minutes by bus up the hairpin bends of the Sternenberg-Strasse.
Of the 171 municipalities making up Canton Zürich, Sternenberg has the
worst public transport service – because it’s the only one without an urbanized
population of 300, the minimum required for regular-interval, all-day public
transport (see Chapter 8).5 Bauma, with just over 1000 residents, has two trains
an hour every day of the year, from 6:00 am to midnight, with an hourly all-night  bus service on Fridays and Saturdays. Of course, if Sternenberg was in Australia  or the UK it would have no public transport at all, and Bauma would be lucky to  see a bus a day.

There are seven buses to Sternenberg each weekday, five on normal weekends
and seven on summer Sundays and holidays. Each Sunday bus leaves from outside  Bauma station at 24 minutes past the hour, connecting with trains arriving at 20  past the hour. The bus calls at the church, dropping off hikers, then does a circuit  of the main hamlets collecting locals before returning to Bauma to connect with  an outward train. Once they board the bus, residents of Sternenberg don’t need  to worry about timetables. Each bus meets the train at Bauma, which in turn  connects at the regional hub of Winterthur with another train to Zürich, as well  as departures to Zürich Airport and major centres across the canton. Each of these  trains is met by connecting bus services at stations en route, providing access to  every place with more than 300 residents or jobs.

Sternenberg is about as car-dependent as it gets in Canton Zürich. Only 19
per cent of workers used public transport on census day in 2000; 10 per cent
more walked or cycled. These figures are, however, much higher than the mode
shares of 13 and 3 per cent respectively recorded for metropolitan Melbourne
at the following year’s Australian census.6 They are also higher than every US
metropolitan area except New York, and higher even than most British urban
regions. Public transport is only the second-most popular mode for travel to
work in Sternenberg, but its share of travel is increasing: Zürich is the only Swiss
canton in which public transport’s share of travel is growing, and the increase is
occurring mainly in suburban and rural areas. Only 14 per cent of Sternenbergers  took public transport to work in 1990. The shift away from the car that Zürich  City achieved in the 1980s is now being repeated, admittedly on a more modest  scale, in the rest of the canton.

So if the oil supply was suddenly interrupted, or carbon emissions from
transport rationed, even rural areas of Canton Zürich could cope. Sternenberg
has not yet moved beyond the automobile age, but it is ready if it needs to. And
the hikers could keep coming.

DENSITY AS DESTINY

Nobody in Sternenberg thinks the population density is too low to justify an
integrated, albeit basic, public transport service designed to make travel by car a
choice instead of a necessity. But the dominant view in the much larger, denser
metropolis of Melbourne is that suburban densities cannot support viable public
transport. It’s a local truism that transport policies that work in European cities
could not possibly hold lessons for Australia.

Urban planners across Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand
insist that transport patterns are outcomes of urban form. The way to improve
public transport is through compact cities, new urbanism, smart growth and
transit-oriented design. In the words of one prominent New Urbanist, ‘we have
to earn our transit through urbanism.’ There is much less interest in directly
tackling transport policy, reflecting a mindset among planners that goes back
decades. Transport planning is boring and mathematical; design is artistic and
creative. Planners ‘own’ city design; transport means working with engineers and  economists, who are much better at maths than us. Urban design is what we do;  transport planning is what other people do.

Many transport planners are happy to agree with these arguments. Even
Switzerland has powerful highway agencies that specialize in building new and
expanded roads. The professionals who staff these agencies are intelligent enough  to realize that, as communities become more concerned about the environment,  questions will increasingly be asked about the wisdom of continued large-scale  road-building. The notion that urban form, rather than transport policy, determines  transport outcomes is convenient for these bodies. It can also suit those responsible  for providing public transport, because it pins the blame for poor services on
suburban residents rather than public transport providers.

For two decades, the Australian capital, Canberra, was racked by controversy
about a proposal to build a freeway through the Canberra Nature Park. Hardly
surprisingly, environmentalists and concerned citizens were horrified. They argued
that the funds would be better spent tackling Canberra’s woeful public transport.
In 2001, a parliamentary inquiry was called to resolve the controversy. It conceded
that the freeway was environmentally disastrous, but argued that there was no
alternative:

The committee is struck by [the] major differences between the transport
studies with a car-oriented approach and those making public transport
pre-eminent … the car-oriented strategy is associated with a dispersed
city of mostly low rise buildings; whereas the public transport approach
is associated with fairly dense ‘urban villages’… The committee is not
convinced that the [Canberra] community is ready, or would understand
the need, for town planning changes of the kind associated with the
public transport strategy… These town planning considerations lead
the committee to conclude that the car-oriented strategy … continues
to be appropriate.

The freeway went ahead in the face of legal challenges and protests, opening in
2008. Escalating construction costs helped create a financial crisis that led to
closure of a fifth of Canberra’s government schools. Within weeks of opening, the
freeway was jammed with traffic, and the government announced that it would
be doubled in width.

While the results of the committee’s decision to give the green light to the
freeway were disastrous, it is difficult to argue with the logic. If suburban densities
in cities like Canberra really are too low for viable alternatives to the car, then we
are in serious trouble, because large increases to the density of big cities take many
decades, and may be politically impossible in a democratic society.

Suburbanization is now a global phenomenon. It may have been invented
in the US – although Chapter 6 argues that Australians were the true pioneers
– but it has been successfully exported. Europe’s suburbs house the majority of the
populations of their metropolitan regions, and account for most or all population
growth. Suburban sprawl can be found across the continent, as the European
Environment Agency notes in a 2006 report suggestively titled Urban Sprawl
in Europe: The ignored challenge.8 Employment is also decentralizing, and urban
Europe is becoming increasingly poly-centric. Even if we wanted to see The End
of Suburbia, as the title of a popular documentary suggests, this would require the
rebuilding of entire urban regions – a task that might take a century even if it were
affordable or politically possible.

The difficulty of the task can be seen in the glacial rate of progress in the two
decades since ideas like new urbanism and the compact city became dominant
among planners. The amount of new housing that has been built in accordance
with these ideas is vanishingly small, but more importantly, there is little reliable
evidence that it has produced any appreciable reduction in automobile use. The
slide shows look great, but where are the data on mode share? The new urbanist
solution risks becoming like the new religion lampooned by G. K. Chesterton back
in the 1920s: ‘it only manages to remain as the New Religion by always coming
to-morrow and never to-day.’9

Meanwhile, most transport analysts argue that the task of providing effective
public transport in spacious suburbs is impossible, and should be given up as
hopeless; few have even contemplated attempting the task in the still more difficult
terrain of rural towns and villages like Bauma and Sternenberg.

SOLUTIONS FOR SUBURBIA

The central argument of this book is that density is not destiny. Transport policy
itself has a bigger impact on transport patterns than urban planners have realized,
and suburbs don’t have to be totally reliant on the car. Planners who insist that
car dominance can only be addressed by impossibly large increases in density may
actually be entrenching the problem they are trying to solve.

In recent years, problems like climate change and precarious oil supplies have
led an increasing number of people to ask whether the end of the automobile age is
at hand. As explained in Chapters 2 and 3, there are many good reasons to change
course on urban transport. But problems like global warming and volatile oil prices
are real and urgent: they can’t wait decades for solutions – especially when those
solutions are not backed by solid evidence of effectiveness.

There is an alternative, and Zürich is not the only example of it. In parts
of Europe and some other places, the high-quality public transport previously
found only in dense city centres is being extended to suburbs and even rural areas.
Public transport networks which once catered only for peak-hour commuters have
been reconfigured to serve cross-city, off-peak and – as we saw with the hikers of
Sternenberg – even recreational trips. By providing a complete substitute for the
car, high quality public transport networks also promote increased walking and,
in some cases, cycling. A model of successful public transport network planning
for low-density urban areas is emerging, with evidence of effectiveness to back it.
This is a genuine success story which should be welcomed by urban planners and
environmentalists.

But the story remains a secret. Most of the work building effective suburban
public transport has been done by practising public transport planners, who don’t
have time to write books or travel the world showing PowerPoint slides. Transport
academics have largely ignored the real-world success stories; prestigious journals
are instead filled with endless reports on new technologies and the intricacies of
mathematical modelling. Urban planners, as Chapter 4 explains, can’t see the
gains achieved because there is no accompanying development in the desirable
new urbanist form. The dominant school of economists dislikes these success
stories because they have not relied on the free market (see Chapter 5). Some
environmentalists are so certain that cycling is the answer to the urban transport
problem that they are not interested in hearing about public transport – or in many
cases, walking (see Chapter 11). And for some critics, fixing public transport may
be unattractive precisely because it is easier than demolishing suburbia: for these
people, hating the suburbs has become a kind of moral crusade.

The main purpose of this book is to share the secret of successful suburban
public transport. Chapters 6 to 8 examine a range of very different urban regions
that have managed to provide effective public transport in low-density areas. All
the successful cities have discovered what I call the ‘network effect’. As Chapter
9 explains, this occurs when public transport imitates the flexibility of the car by
knitting different routes and modes into a single, multi-modal network. Making
transfers between the different routes near effortless enables the public transport
network to mimic the ‘go anywhere, anytime’ flexibility of a road system. I argue
that this is a genuinely new model of public transport planning that can be applied
in most suburban environments, and in Chapters 10 and 11 discuss the policies
required to bring it about.

Interestingly, the different cities discovered the network effect independently
of one another. There have been no books or journals in which public transport
planners can read about transfer-based networks. When the Norwegian transport
planner Gustav Nielsen produced the HiTrans guides to providing high-quality
public transport in smaller cities and regions, he reported that ‘the literature search
has not revealed any comprehensive studies or reports that have their main focus
on the topic of public transport network design.’10 Nielsen’s HiTrans manuals are
excellent resources, but something more comprehensive and widely available is
also required; hence this book.

The book is intended for planners, but also for citizens. One of the most
encouraging lessons from the success stories discussed here is the critical role played
by citizens and their elected representatives in bringing about transport policy
change. Technical expertise is very important, but technicians can become set in
their ways and resistant to change, as the story of Auckland in the next chapter
illustrates. Real innovation requires a creative tension between experts and the
public.

This is not the first study to have used a comparative cities approach to shed
light on transport policy questions. The tradition was pioneered in 1977 with J.
Michael Thomson’s Great Cities and Their Traffic, which examined road, public
transport and land-use policies in cities across five continents. Thomson’s book
remains a classic, and his observations are as relevant today as three decades ago.
Robert Cervero’s The Transit Metropolis (1998) is a contemporary take on the
comparative study, with a focus on innovative approaches to public transport. This
book revisits some of the cities studied by Cervero and Thomson, with a direct focus
on the question of creating public transport networks. Some of my conclusions
back theirs, but as will be seen, there are also some key differences.

What follows is not a critique of new urbanism or the compact city. I am
arguing that urban form has been used as an excuse for not directly tackling public
transport service quality, but I am not suggesting that urban form has no influence.
I am certainly not advocating deregulated land-use planning, or urban sprawl – in
the original sense of scattered, unplanned fringe growth that is ‘neither town nor
country’. There are things land-use planners can do to encourage public transport
and walking, and others that will discourage them, although not all of them are
about population density. Many books have been written about these issues and
I am not seeking to add to that literature. My argument is that these policies
should be part of an integrated package of measures that include direct changes to
transport, and will fail if they are pursued on their own.

My own attitudes to suburbs and transport have been shaped by my background.
I grew up in suburban Melbourne, a long stone’s-throw from Pinoak Court,
Vermont South, better known to Neighbours viewers as Ramsay Street (apologies
to North American readers, to whom this will mean nothing). This quintessential
piece of post-World War II suburbia originated as a transit-oriented development:
it grew up around the Glen Waverley rail line, and all the major shopping centres
were adjacent to railway stations. When I was young, many of the fathers in our
street could be seen each day making the long walk to and from the station, but over
time the numbers doing so declined. In fact, it was fiendishly difficult to get around
without a car, except to destinations along the train line, and even that required a
long walk to the station. Monash was my local university, but was actually more
difficult to reach than the older, more distant University of Melbourne in the city
centre.

Most of my peers reacted rationally to these problems by buying cars as soon
as they were legally able to drive. I was more stubborn, particularly once I became
involved in debates over freeways in Melbourne. These debates were heated because
the reservations set aside for the roads usually passed through parklands and river
valleys, just like in Canberra. I read Thomson’s Great Cities, which was particularly
harsh in its judgement of both the quality and honesty of Melbourne’s freeway
planning, and wondered why we could not do better. Why was Melbourne not
learning from the European cities that were moving away from the car towards
first-rate public transport? The answer, I kept hearing, was density: because most
Australians live in places like Ramsay Street, the car will be king forever.

This led me to ask whether there were any places where effective public
transport and lower-density housing coexisted. My PhD compared Melbourne
with Toronto and showed that similar densities had not prevented very different
results. Since publishing this study in 2000 as A Very Public Solution, I have had
the opportunity to study other cities that allow people to enjoy both backyards
and quality public transport. Much of this work was carried out with postgraduate
students, so what you will read is as much the result of their work as mine.

The public transport success stories outlined in this book are a very diverse
group of cities, but they have striking elements in common. They suggest that there
is a general model that can be used to provide effective public transport in suburban
environments, a model that will help us move beyond the automobile age.

# # #

You have just read a good part of the Preface and first chapter of Paul Mees’s just-published book under this title.  If you or your library would wish to order the book directly from the publisher, Earthscan, they have made arrangements to give World Streets readers a twenty percent discount off any Earthscan book at www.earthscan.co.uk using the voucher code WORLDSTREETS.  The order information for Paul’s book is at http://www.earthscan.co.uk/?tabid=92752

About the author:
Dr. Paul Mees (born 1961) is an Australian academic, currently serving as a senior lecturer at the school of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University, previously at University of Melbourne, and has been a consultant to local, regional and State government transport and planning agencies in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.. Originally a lawyer prior to becoming an academic, he lectures in statutory planning and transport planning.

Paul is a past President of the Public Transport Users Association in Melbourne and has been a very high-profile contributor to public debates on transport planning in Victoria over the last decade. Some of the most notable controversies involving Dr. Mees have been his legal actions attempting to prevent the construction of transport projects contrary to his views on good public transport policy. A very prominent example of this was his attempt during the late 1990s to question the legality of aspects of the largest urban infrastructure project in Australia’s history, the CityLink tollway system in Melbourne. More recently he contested the legality of the project to build a marshalling yard and a new tram “superstop” in front of the main entrance to the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus on Swanston Street. . You can contact him at paul.mees (at) rmit.edu.au.

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8 thoughts on “Locked in Suburbia: Is there life after Autopia?

  1. Pingback: Transport for Suburbia | India Streets

  2. Since Eric took to requiring people to click on links if they wish to read the
    full text of postings, I suspect I’ve missed quite a lot owing to the hassle of
    doing this. But one posting which clearly deserved this hassle was the preface
    for the book by Paul Mees with the above title — the link, in case readers have
    lost it, is
    http://www.worldstreets.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/beyond-the-automobile-age

    In fact this is the first time I have ever been inspired by an online extract to
    actually order a book — though unfortunately for technical reasons, which I
    have taken up with the publisher, I have not yet been able to do this.

    I do have one point to make. Neither Monash nor Sternenberg/Bauma looks like an
    archetypical suburban transport problem. Yes, Monash is in the suburbs, but the
    problem of linking it to the nearest station effectively is quite different to
    (and looks a lot easier than) providing similar links for sprawling suburbs.
    Presumably that is part of the message the author is trying to send — if the
    powers that be in Melbourne can’t even get this one right, we really are in a
    mess.

    Sternenberg and Bauma are described as villages. Here the author’s implication
    would seem to be the other way: if the Swiss can get a decent system for such
    places, they must have been able to solve the problems of Swiss suburbs. However
    I do not believe that suburbs are in fact easier to serve than rural areas. The
    point is that buses in suburban areas are usually too slow to be attractive –
    this is certainly true in London, which is one of few areas in the UK where
    buses are taken seriously as a means of transport. By contrast rural buses can
    speed through the countryside and slow down only where there are passengers to
    be picked up or set down. Also they are more likely to be able to run to
    timetables that are not spoilt by traffic congestion.

    It would be interesting to know what the population is of the total catchment
    area of the bus between Bauma and Sternenberg (excluding Bauma itself).
    Similarly the population of the railway corridor between Bauma and Zuerich.
    There are certainly places in the UK the size of Bauma that do have comparable
    train frequencies because they lie on routes linking bigger communities, though
    I’m equally sure that the timekeeping of our trains is not as good — which
    affects the viability of rail/bus connections, where Bauma-like coordination is
    very rare.

    The excuse that is usually given in the UK for our failure to adopt Swiss style
    standards is that there is no money available. I don’t think that in the UK we
    have shed the idea that public transport should in principle pay its way, even
    if in practice both rail and bus need subsidies (though I suspect that rail only
    does so, at least in our more populated areas, because of an unbelievably
    inefficient procurement system). Our new government appears to have actively
    targeted rural buses for cuts, because it has announced the effective doubling
    of the fuel duty they pay and is also planning to withdraw funding from local
    authorities (who have virtually no fund raising powers of their own) for use to
    support bus services or anything else.

    However, I suspect that this excuse is rubbish. How can a bus service that is
    used by more than 19% of the population — this was the figure given for
    Sternenberg, and we were told it was a minimum for the Zuerich area — cost more
    to procure than one with less than half this modal share, which I think is the
    figure for the UK outside London ? True, London buses do need a lot of subsidy,
    but I believe that this is primarily because much of the drivers’ time is wasted
    in traffic holdups.

    Does anyone have anything to offer on this issue ?

    Simon Norton

    Reply
  3. Thanks for those comments, Simon. The total catchment population for the bus to Sternenberg is 349, as the bus only serves that municipality, which adjoins Bauma.
    You are certainly right about the weakness of British excuses for not following the example of the Swiss. In fact, Swiss public transport is not especially heavily subsidised. I give some figures in Chapter 7 of the book, which at the exchange rates of two years ago suggest that the subsidy per passenger in Canton Zurich is around 30p, lower than in London or the [former] Metropolitan Counties.

    Reply
  4. I have now read Paul Mees’s book through and am planning to give a “rave” review of it wherever I can. However I do have some criticisms in matters of detail.

    I think the idea of completely rebuilding our cities at higher densities is a red herring, is anyone seriously proposing that ? The most I think people are saying is that a low carbon transport system would make higher density developments more popular.

    This is related to an article with the title “The People — What will they wear ?” which appeared in the UK magazine Town & Country Planning and which I reproduced in a local newsletter — see . The theme of this article is that the guidelines imposed by our planning system on where houses can be built are at least as restrictive as guidelines that would mandate a low car ownership society, which would have tackled the pressures for sprawl at their source.

    I think that Paul is also a bit misleading when he suggests that anti-sprawl measures would be opposed by suburbanites — my experience is that they are at least as virulent in campaigning against further sprawl in the areas where they live as urban dwellers.

    Jarrett Walker’s proposals for sprawl repair seem worthwhile — I remember that in one of her books Jane Jacobs discussed similar ideas.

    Incidentally, I’m concerned at the use of the autocentric measure “an hour’s drive” for the distance between Fresno and Yosemite/Kings Canyon National Parks.
    There should also be good public transport access to these parks. Perhaps people could make day trips to the parks from LA or the Bay Area — I sometimes travel similar distances for days out using only conventional trains and buses.

    I think that Paul is oversimplifying when he compares raw density figures for cities. Surely there’s a difference between amorphous sprawl (with uniform low
    densities) and a layout with strong centres which can, I believe, help to reclaim the surrounding area — especially if they can be made car-free.

    For example, let’s take a semi-rural area A with 200,000 people, centred on a small city C. Let’s assume that the public transport mode share of A is 3% — not untypical of some of the areas featured in Paul’s book. Let us suppose that a car-free town B, with a population of 10,000, is added, and that this achieves a public transport mode share of 60%. This will of itself then double the demand for public transport.

    However this isn’t the end of it. The extra services put on to cater for B will attract many existing residents of A. If one assumes an service level elasticity of 0.5 (on a logarithmic measure) then calculations show that there will be a further 30+% increase in transport supply together with a 60+% increase in demand from existing residents.

    I also think that 0.5 may be an underestimate. Paul’s book shows that if the effect of extra services is to create a network then they can have a very high elasticity figure. Well, the combination of radial services centred on A and B will create a network over quite a wide area around A and B.

    This explains why I for one get dismayed when every development proposal with which we are presented seems to be “more of the same”. I can point to several developments in my own area which, even without car-freeness, could have added to the connectivity of the local network, but somehow the relevant infrastructure improvements never seem to happen — either the developer weasels out, or while being promised in principle they never seem to materialise — or maybe they will but only when the development has already committed itself to car dependence.

    Incidentally, Paul refers to a fare elasticity of -0.2 for public transport.
    This seemed very low to me. Some time ago I came across a paper which suggested that long run fare elasticities could be larger in absolute value than -1 — see page 16, looking in particular at the long range elasticity for buses in the UK, where the mean figure quoted is almost exactly -1. This means that even a small withdrawal of funding (our government is planning changes equivalent to a doubling of the fuel tax currently paid by buses) can have a snowball effect, especially as the government is also planning to restrict the funding available to local authorities to provide support (or to do anything else, for that matter).

    I should add that our scheme of free travel for pensioners etc. does mitigate the effect of high elasticity somewhat. I think that the result, with a fare elasticity of exactly -1, is that operators can raise their fares in such a way that service cuts are avoided — but what then happens is that every penny the government sought to save is used up in higher reimnbursements to operators (assuming that these are based on a fixed proportion of the fares that would have been paid by the pensioners).

    Simon Norton

    Reply
  5. i haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it, but thank you for calling my attention to it (Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age).

    FWIW, the best urban planning book in the U.S. since Jane Jacobs, in my opinion anyway, is Steve Belmont’s _Cities in Full_. It was published in 2002 by the American Planning Association and it didn’t get much press. The first chapter puts numbers to Jane Jacobs’ arguments. The latter chapters focus on the need for recentralization of housing, jobs, and commerce, in order to have a more efficient platform for transit.

    He distinguishes between monocentric and polycentric transit systems in terms of discussing whether or not transit abets or minimizes sprawl, which is a key issue as it relates to the suburbs, although as is clear from the title of his book, his focus is the center city.

    As far as sprawl repair goes, it’s easy to repair commercial property, because it can be adaptively reused and is along major transportation corridors for the most part, and it’s almost impossible to “repair” housing tracts–single use subdivisions distantly located from activity centers–that are owner-occupied, except on multiple decade timeframes, and even then it is likely impossible.

    Even so, there are plenty of opportunities for improvement, and that includes center cities, where suburbanization has been a particular problem over the last 50 years through urban renewal and other automobile centric planning and development paradigms.

    My focus and primary interest is the center cities although I do deal with suburban issues. It’s hard enough to fix the cities, let alone taking on the battles of the suburbs.

    Reply
  6. 1. WRT your point:

    So to return to my initial observations, it is worth looking inside the conurbation to see where and then to figure out the many complex reasons as to why, in some areas, car use is much lower than average (by definition) and THEN replicating that set of conditions modified as necessary, elsewhere as the opportunities arise. One of these is lack of car parking … and I must sat that one of the best and in many ways easiest ways around that is to issue more parking permits than there are spaces available … as I understand was done in parts of London some 15-20 years ago. The result? Cars not moved … you can tell by the piles of deciduous leaves around and on them …! For those people, the logical step is to either sell the car or park it remotely where if needed, it can be used.

    YES. YES. YES.

    and one of the ways to facilitate this is to come up with neighborhood/district/subdistrict sustainable mob ility plans. In the ped and bike plan I did for a section of Baltimore County, Maryland, I recommended that a sustainable transportation element and procedure and system for creating it, become part of the process of creating community plans. Separately, there is a recommendation for ped and bike plans at the neighborhood/district level.

    http://www.baltimorecountymd.gov/westbikeped

    This is the section on recommendations (the first 17 pages or so)

    Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, Evaluation and Appendices

    recognize that a lot of stuff in the overall plan was excised between the version I turned in on my last day (of the grant) and what was subsequently posted 6 weeks later.

    2. SInce you’re from Australia, I hate to admit that it was just two months ago when I finally read David Engwicht’s book _Reclaiming our Cities and Towns_ which was first published in 1992.

    It has some searing ideas about what we might call reparations from automobile drivers with regard to their impact on transit and other sustainable transportation modes.

    … and other amazing points about cities and their purpose of facilitating all forms of exchange while _simultaneously minimizing travel_. The latter point is key as most urban economics texts treat transportation and movement as value free between modes.

    Getting back to point one and neighborhood/district plans for sustainable transpo, I had my wife redraw and color in the diagram from the book on the “neighborhood loop” or “promenade” although it needs another iteration. (The loop concept is based on the Boulder Trail. I had a similar idea, albeit 15 years, with regard to signage, wayfinding, and amenities.)

    Imagine overlaying programming plans at this level to work to get people to do more trips by foot and bicycle (1/2 of all trips in the U.S. are 3 miles or less) and transit.

    Richard Layman
    DC

    Reply
  7. Some further comments sparked by recent postings to this group.

    I dare say that a good public transport system encourages more trip making but
    does that matter ? The idea that people shouldn’t travel further than they can
    cycle started with Ivan Illich and Mayer Hillman has said that he believes that
    the climate crisis is so severe that even public transport needs to be
    restricted, but I hope we haven’t yet come to that yet. Indeed one of my
    motivations for a quick response to the crisis is to protect future availability
    of public transport.

    In any case, the minimum frequencies that would be required for public transport
    to be able to substitute for the car are probably high enough to cater for
    available demand on almost all routes outside peak times.

    I am prepared to accept that there may be an argument against high speed trains
    on the grounds that they encourage people to travel further, but local and
    regional networks are another matter.

    I don’t think that cramming more and more parked cars into our streets is a
    good idea. If it were, then there wouldn’t be much of a problem because that is
    what has been happening by default in most inner city areas ! I don’t think it
    is stable, because local traders will always argue that without car parking they
    will lose trade to superstores etc., and developers will ensure that new
    buildings have off street car parking which will evade the restrictions.
    Furthermore builders etc. will be unable to bring materials to people’s houses
    to do work on them. And there will be pressure to turn over pedestrian space for
    car parking, also to provide parking on bus routes which will hamper their
    operation. This is already a problem with several bus routes I use regularly in
    London.

    The Jarrett Walker article to which Dave Brook drew attention was interesting,
    bearing out some of the points I came up with quite independently, as were many
    of the comments on the article. However I disagree with the proposition that the
    lack of public transport doesn’t matter in areas where not too many people are
    living — indeed I thought that one theme of Paul Mees’s book was that it does
    matter and it is quite practical to provide it.

    I do however agree with Richard Layman’s advocacy of sustainable mobility plans.
    These would provide a bottom up contribution to plans covering a whole city or
    other local authority area. However there also need to be incentives to ensure
    that neighbourhoods do come up with such plans instead of being satisfied with
    car dependence and relying on sustainable mobility plans from other
    neighbourhoods to solve the congestion problems they experience when in their
    cars.

    Simon Norton

    Reply
  8. Thanks to all for the reference to Paul Mees, Transport for Suburbia, and the discussions. I found the book “Transport for Suburbia” to be useful and a crystallization of many concepts we had discussed at our transit mashups. Three problems-

    One: the network concept for buses could just as easily apply to bicycles. Bicycle Boulevards are traffic calmed streets with priority for bikes and Peds. Diverters and chokers are used to ensure that past a few blocks autos through traffic is diverted. Besides reusing an existing infrastructure for a higher throughput use, bicycle boulevards on a half mile grid frequency in suburbia can deliver on the same pleasant and efficient standards as networked buses and they get around Mees’ concern with shared bus bike only lanes. Providing bike parking, including tricycle parking for seniors and charging stations for the battery enhanced set and video detection for theft deterrence would at much lower cost provide infrastructure that people may want to use. Marrying it with pricing to ensure network bus throughput at the hub areas, which suffers from auto delays, would change behavior. Solar canopies on the boulevards would ensure that riders were dry in the winter and let the street earn its keep.

    Two: There is a brief discussion of the neighborhoods of Vauban and Rieselfeld. This topic of walkable neighborhoods, that have displaced auto trips with sustainable modes, suffers from what Paul Mees notes in the beginning of his book, namely that there are many practitioners of this art but no one has written a book that brings together the policy elements about how to go about designing walkable neighborhoods in suburbia. That said I did notice in the footnotes, R. Tolley (ed.), Sustainable Transport: planning for walking and cycling in urban environments, Woodhead publishing, Cambridge. It’s 299 US $, but at the transportation library at Berkeley and I have to make time to head over there and check it out. The urban component of the title doesn’t give me much confidence. If someone on this list can provide a review thanks. Cervero has noted the off site solar parking structures and the higher openspace per capital ratio of these neighborhoods. http://stc.ucdavis.edu/outreach/UTC-Caltrans-Materials.php

    Three: The problem with transport as Illich notes is speed. A network of slow 15mph streets with associate parking at the hubs would entice neighborhood electric vehicle and NEV shared trips, etc etc. Again existing infrastructure is reused to benefit all road users. These could be green streets with water catchments and permeable surfaces, as these issue are addressed through clean water regulations. Faster scooter, smart, and motorcycle traffic could be restricted with video tickets.

    Gladwyn d’Souza
    Belmont, CA

    Reply

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