Monday, June 25, 2012

The sustainable city: Public transit isn't just for tree-huggers

A couple months ago, I wrote an overview of my vision for the sustainable city, launching a series where I'll explore individual components of the idea in periodic posts. Here's my first installment, covering the importance of municipal public transportation from a slightly different angle. People like me love to talk about transit in the context of how it saves the planet. But why else is it so important? Read on for my thoughts.

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The Renaissance Center on Detroit's riverfront
is a case study on how tall, fancy buildings
don't make for sustainable cities.
(The Detroit People Mover is an elevated
rail line that runs from this complex, and is,
incidentally, a case study on how not to do
mass transit, which I'll discuss in the next post.)
Not too long ago, I borrowed a great book from a friend called "The Triumph of the City" by Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University. It's a fascinating read. I highly recommend it for anyone who's interested in urban planning and development. (I'll talk more about it in depth in future entries.)

For the purpose of this post, however, Glaeser makes one key point throughout the book that really stuck with me: Cities are people, not structures.

It seems so obvious, but urban planners seem to forget it all the time. So do I. When I drive into a city that looks impressive from the freeway, like Chicago, I often forget that the skyscrapers and design of the urban landscape mean little without the people who live there and help to create it all.

The health of a city depends first and foremost on the prosperity, opportunity, and overall well-being of its people. You can't hope to build or revitalize a declining urban center with glitzy, glass-and-steel towers, while residents continue to suffer from staggering unemployment, racial tension, and a lack of resources by which to improve their circumstances. It's like giving a fresh paint and wax job to a car that won't even run.

The most dynamic skyline in the world won't create a sustainable city. Only a population that enjoys physical, social, political, and economic health — resources that functioning cities are uniquely positioned to deliver — can do that.

Of course, no single solution will achieve this unilaterally. A city with thriving, educated residents is produced by a combination of various civil and social services and infrastructure — including an established and expanding mass transit system.

Why is transit so important? Simply put, it provides access to the city's aforementioned resources for everyone, regardless of economic or social status. Transit helps bridge the ever-growing gap between those who can afford cars (or other private modes of transportation) and those who cannot.

I hate it when public transportation is discussed strictly in terms of quality of life or environmentalism. Don't get me wrong — both are completely valid points. Good public transportation makes cities less congested, less dependent on cars, more environmentally friendly, and generally more desirable places to live. There's no question about any of that.

The problem is, these are First World arguments that don't tell the whole story. In other words, they're invariably the primary points made by people like myself who can easily afford to never use public transportation in the first place. We always talk about it as a "nice-to-have" service, not a "need-to-have" one.

I'll take the bus or the light rail if I'd rather not stress out about finding (or paying for) parking, or if I'm going to a place where I'll be drinking and don't want to worry about driving home afterward. Maybe I'll even opt for mass transit if I'm simply feeling cheap and don't want to drive, because I feel like I'm being raped every time I buy gas. (OK, I admit — that's almost always the reason.)

These trolley buses are the best for the environment, because
they're quieter and run on overhead electrical lines that don't
produce any emissions. But people who can't afford cars
value them for a much different reason.
But let's face it: I have a car that I can drive anywhere I want, anytime I want, and I have the means to pay for it. So I can afford to make self-righteous, fashionable arguments about how I'm saving the environment or not contributing to traffic jams or greenhouse gases. I, at least, have that choice to make.

Many other people aren't so fortunate. For them, it's not about tree-hugging or being able to say that they're hip, progressive city-dwellers. For them, an effective mass transit system is key to maintaining their livelihoods. They depend on it. It's a necessity, not a luxury.

About a year ago, MSNBC ran an article that talked about how many American cities, like Pittsburgh, are making drastic cuts to public transportation in the face of revenue shortfalls and an ongoing recession. The story discusses the human toll of such cuts: One man interviewed for the piece suffers from multiple sclerosis and relies entirely on bus service to get around, often finding that several buses are too crowded to board because of service cuts. Another works a job that goes until midnight, but the bus route he depended on to get home was eliminated, so now he has to spend several hundred dollars per month on cab rides, which makes up a big chunk of his salary.

These types of stories reinforce the notion that mass transit isn't just about environmentalism or livability concerns, noble though those causes are. It's also a safety net that provides all residents of urban centers — not just those who can afford to buy and maintain a car — with access to the assets, resources, and human capital that draw them to their cities in the first place.

Some depend on buses or trains to get their jobs (and might very well be unemployed otherwise). Others depend on them to get to the grocery store or their medical appointments. Maybe, as was the case with the disabled man interviewed for the MSNBC article, they rely on them to get anywhere.

Take away this safety net, and you're undermining the well-being of residents who make up a city's identity — which means you're undermining the well-being of the city itself.

Wealthy people can afford not to use mass transit. But a successful city doesn't just accommodate the rich, and one that begins to take such an approach won't remain that way for long. A sustainable urban center does not simply generate social and economic opportunities for its residents; it ensures that all can access them.

So we've settled that an effective mass transit infrastructure is critical to the overall health of a city — and not just for environmental reasons. But how does a city achieve such an infrastructure? What makes for a good — and not so good — public transportation system? I'll tackle those questions in my next post about the sustainable city. Stay tuned (if you want).


  1. I was one of those people who viewed effective urban mass transit simply as a quality of life factor, something that contributed to preserving the environment and to greater general convenience for urban dwellers and visitors. I hadn't considered how important effective mass transit is to economically deprived people in relation to their having access to jobs and services. This piece has broadened my perspective.

  2. Let's also not forget that the population is aging and, although an 83-year-old may have the means (car and money) and the need (groceries and doctor visits), we don't want him (this would be your grandfather) driving, so it is also a safety issue.

    1. Good point. I hadn't thought of that.

  3. I like how you feature a photo of Detroit's Renaissance Center as an icon of failed urban revitalization. Some Renaissance for Detroit that facility has turned out to be! In fact, it's the proverbial pearl on a pig's butt, a gleaming structure surrounded by blight and decay.