About 100 years ago, when interests in the new-fangled motor coaches began pushing for their proper place on the roads and streets of cities, one line of argument they used was the future, modernity. You can’t fight progress, you horse-and-buggy rubes. Get out of the way (literally), a new world is dawning! Only cavemen wouldn’t want to be behind the wheel of this shiny new mode of transport, the automobile!! Continue reading
I spent a couple days in Irvine, California last week. It was the longest 4 hours of my life!
But seriously, folks…
I went to Irvine last week to visit what is considered to be one of the best examples of a “planned-community” there is in post-war North America. It is full of green space and bike trails, nationally ranked schools, good paying jobs, a robust economy and all the other good and positive things you read in local brochures. Which made the gentleman’s suggestion at the Chamber Tourist office that I go to Newport Beach if I only had a few hours in Irvine somewhat strange.
I’ll confess. I am suspicious of these master-planned communities. They elicit thoughts of Disneyland, and its real world manifestation, Celebration, Florida. Not so much communities as enclaves, escapes from the world around them instead of additions. This is my bias that is more visceral than well-thought through.
The city of Irvine itself was something of a reaction against the ill-planned and wild west suburban development that haunt urbanists’ dreams, the types of formless suburban tracts then encroaching upon Irvine, spreading in all directions out from the city of Los Angeles. This particular area of land was owned by one family, the Irvines, natch, who successfully ranched and farmed it for about a century before turning their eye toward urban development. The idea, initially, was to carefully construct a city of 50,000 people, radiating out from a University of California campus, Irvine, natch, sitting at its centre.
Irvine is now a city 5 times that size, the university campus an integral part of but not at the centre of the city. Irvine is, according to the Chamber’s 2015 Community Report, “an economic powerhouse…the address of choice for Fortune 500 companies and start-ups in cutting-edge industry sectors like life sciences, advanced manufacturing, information technology and digital arts and media.” The city regularly tops lists of the country’s most liveable and safest cities. It’s young, with a median age of 34, and fairly well-to-do, a median household income of over $90K.
Depending on your perspective this can be seen as either a) simple civic boosterism; b) more or less geographically correct; c) damning with faint praise.
It dawned on me during my brief Irvine outing that cities are built (in a planned manner or ad hoc) not primarily to be visited but to be lived in. To really get a sense of the place, I should’ve brought my bike down south with me, tried out the off-road trails that, apparently, would connect me to everything the city had to offer. Evidently, I was missing something.
Here were all the progressive fundamentals taught at architecture and planning schools since the 1920s (earlier if you count Ebenezer Howard): superblocks, pedestrian paths, mixed uses, integrated landscaping, public amenities. Here were concepts championed by Catherine Bauer, Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein and other reformers, in the decades when suburbs were not yet reviled as soulless bedroom communities. And here was this vision built, lived in, mature, and thriving. Even as I remembered the intellectual planning history, my reaction was primarily emotional. Before me was not a theoretical treatise, but a real neighborhood with real architecture rooted in good principles: logically planned town organization, the useful integration of nature, multifaceted community, variety of choice. Its pleasures were obvious.
This was the assessment of Irvine by architect, historian and resident, Alan Hess, back a couple years ago. The article, at least in part, evoked a city I didn’t really catch a glimpse of. Its pleasures may have been obvious but were fleeting.
Certainly, the views out over the Little League baseball diamonds in the parklands abutting the Irvine Civic Center were fantastic, looking as they were toward the Santa Ana Mountains. A path between a couple of the fields led to a bike trail running along some sort of culvert, the San Diego Creek, perhaps? There was a bridge across it to a hockey rink, playing Kanye West over the loudspeakers, All of the Lights/All of the Lights.
Without a bike, however, I got back into my car to head off to my next destination, one of the early areas of development in Irvine, although developed independently of the “plan”, Northwood. It was about 6.5 miles away and if I wanted to get there really, really fast, I could, barring any adverse road conditions. In Irvine, there are arterial roads where you can drive between the various “villages” as they’re called, at 55 miles per hour! That’s right. 55 miles per hour. In a city.
Bringing me to the crux of my discomfort with a planned city based on the primacy of moving people in cars, easily and speedily. I know that concept doesn’t appear stated anywhere. Mr. Hess writes of the “logically planned town organization” with its “superblocks, pedestrian paths, mixed uses, integrated landscaping, public amenities.” From his townhouse, he can walk to a library and grocery store.
So where are all these pedestrians, I wondered, gunning down the street like Sammy Hagar. Could they be tucked away, out of sight, off-road, going about their daily lives? Granted, it was a Monday afternoon, so maybe Irvinites had other things to do aside from just walking around, enjoying the good life. In my travels, I did stop at a park near a schoolyard that was full of kids, and their parents, waiting by their cars to drive them home.
Another detour took me through a couple of these dizzyingly laid-out neighbourhoods where, if you didn’t know your precise destination or lacked a keen sense of direction, could turn you around and have you discombobulated in no time. Interestingly, in one of these neighbourhoods, the streets had no stop signs, no traditional visual guideposts. It was almost as if I’d stumbled into some secret, magical place of complete streets. With no obvious right of way, no authoritative directions on how to negotiate the streets from behind the wheel, I naturally drove far more cautiously, slowly.
Which left me crawling along empty daytime streets, not quite sure where I was going, rounding every corner in the hopes of catching a glimpse of some speeding traffic on a nearby arterial road where I could reorient myself and collect my bearings.
Having arrived in Irvine, unprepared to take advantage of the natural attractions of the place, the biking, the hiking, I was ultimately left with one thing to do if I was unwilling to go to Newport Beach. Head to the mall. The Spectrum, to be a exact, in the eastern part of town, not far from what will be the Orange County Great Park on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
As far as malls go, the Spectrum is a nice mall. All open air with most of the familiar franchise shops you’d recognize. There’s a ferris wheel, merry-go-round and train ride around the place. Still. It’s a mall.
It seems to me that as well-intentioned and as well-executed as your planned community or city or neighbourhood is, if it’s planned around the automobile, ultimately, you end up driving to a mall. For all the talk of ‘logically planned town organization’, ‘superblocks’ and mixed uses, Irvine struck me as single-use as any suburban development I’ve been to. Maybe, back in the early days, when Irvine was a town of 50,000 residents, most people could walk to their local library and supermarket. If you live in one of those houses today, maybe you still can.
That’s not what most of the city felt like currently, at least to this outsider. All your recreational needs are within an easy car ride, a longer bike ride, a walk maybe, if you don’t have anything else planned for the day. The automobile is the key integrative element to any sort of successful flow in Irvine.
The best laid plans will not mask that. No amount of green space will change it. Or will having the best school system in the world.
At some point of time, there will have to be a reckoning. That’s just basic math.
— touristly submitted by Cityslikr
The rumblings have died down somewhat from January’s LA Times article about the recent dip in public transit ridership in Southern California. “For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.” How is that possible? transit advocates wonder. You’ll never get people here out of their cars, confirmed drivers assert.
There’s been pushback to the article, unsurprisingly, Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker for one. Starting with Perils of Transit Journalism I: Don’t Let Trendlines Confuse You and going forward to his response to the anti-transit triumphalism of Randal O’Toole at the Cato Institute, Mr. Walker forcefully and thoroughly makes the case why the Times’ story is actually less than it seems. I’ll leave it for you to get into the meat of the argument but one significant thought popped out at me.
“A broader point here is that ridership, and especially ridership trends, are meaningless unless they are compared to the service offered to achieve them,” Walker writes.
This echoes the common fallacy that transit ridership is generated by infrastructure.
In fact, transit ridership comes from operating service. Infrastructure is mostly a way to make that service more efficient and attractive, but its impact on ridership is indirect, while the impact of service is direct.
Or, as he sums up in a later post: “What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”
This is key, as municipalities rush in to build out their transit networks with the latest and shiniest technology. Here in Los Angeles, one LRT extension opens next month, another in May. A subway line is being added to in the slow march toward the coast.
Toronto too is suddenly all abuzz with new plans for expanded subway and LRT lines. Finally! We are joining the 21st-century.
“What matters is not what is built but what is operated.”
Los Angeles, like almost every North American city that isn’t New York, has a transit system heavily, heavily dependent on its buses to keep it operational. 74% of transit users here, I believe it is, use a bus. Most riders have to get to the higher order transit lines cities like Los Angeles are investing in. The only way to do that, both economically and from a built form standpoint, is by bus.
One of the reasons floated for the drop in transit numbers here was a recent fare increase combined with bus service cuts. The same situation the Toronto mayor, John Tory, faced when coming into office back in 2014. Forget Build It and They Will Come. Don’t Run It Properly (and Charge More For Doing Less) and They’ll Stop Coming.
This was a very theoretical argument for me, living where I do in Toronto, with my easy access to non-bus transit. But I’ve become a bus rider while in Los Angeles, and things look quite different from the seat (or not) of a bus. This is the defining public transit experience for a solid majority of transit users. You want to increase ridership? Make taking a bus a better way of getting around.
I’ve been taking the Wilshire Rapid back and forth. It’s an express version of the local service, running from Santa Monica in the west, east to downtown. Stops are further apart, meaning less time with ons and offs. There’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, for fits and starts along the route that is, more or less observed, depending on how heavy the car traffic is.
The ride has worked for me more than not although it is still a small sample size. My time hasn’t been of the essence on any of these outings, so an extra 10, 15 minutes or so wasn’t not an issue. If it had been, I would’ve left that much sooner. Another luxury I have getting around.
Bus travel, at least along the Wilshire Boulevard route, isn’t all terrible. But is that any way to sell people on it, to increase ridership numbers? Take the bus. It doesn’t suck.
Except when it does. When you’re packed tight, standing for close to an hour in close quarters with strangers, that woman, nodding off in her seat, keeps dropping her open beer can on the floor, adding to the cloying fragrance. Is that Axe that guy’s wearing?
The Wilshire “Rapid” grinds to a further halt as it crawls into mixed traffic at the Beverly Hills city limit because it doesn’t care for dedicated bus lanes, like the city’s been fighting to stop a subway running below it. It’s not lost on any passenger who’s able to see out a window that this part of Wilshire Boulevard is lined with luxury car dealers. BMW. Ferrari. McLaren.
If bus service is integral to a properly functioning transit system, and it is for almost every transit system, and if your goal is to get more people using the transit system and out of their cars, and it should be for every major city, road hierarchies must change. That is the key rather than — or an important addition to — building high end transit infrastructure. Buses must run regularly, on time, and as convenient and pleasantly as possible.
The only way to do that, until at least until we’ve invented flying buses, and that takes us back to big ticket transit projects, is to start squeezing cars, making it more expensive to drive them, taking road space from them and giving it over to the smooth and efficient operation of buses. I sometimes wonder if those like Randal O’Toole claim to be bus “champions” because they realize the only way for a bus dependent transit system to fully function is at the expense of the private automobile. Assuming that’ll never happen, not in their lifetime, not if they have their way, it means public transit will always be a second rate way to get around, never a question of choice but necessity.
As long as that remains the case, the lowly bus as the afterthought in transit planning, building ridership will always be an uphill battle.
— bussily submitted by Cityslikr