Macrodestinations and Microdestinations

In her book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs complains that freeways as built are good at getting people to macrodestinations (downtown) but not microdestinations (particular addresses within city center). In her example from Toronto, this is correct, but in general, each mode of transportation will be good at serving microdestinations in an urban form that’s suited for it. Cars are not good at serving an intact city center; but equally, transit is not good at serving suburban sprawl, and regional rail that’s not integrated with urban transit is not good at serving urban destinations away from immediate train stations.

The idealized job center in an auto-oriented city is the edgeless city. Even the edge city, as explained in Lang and LeFurgy’s now-paywalled article Edgeless Cities, is too dense, and becomes congested too quickly; indeed, Tysons Corner is infamous for its lunchtime rush hour conditions. Ideally, cars drive from low-density residences to low-density office parks, primarily on freeways but with fast arterial connections at both ends; the freeway network in the auto-oriented city serves an everywhere-to-everywhere set of origins and destinations.

In such an environment, transit can’t do well. The distance between suburban attractors is too great for an easy walk, and the roads are too wide and fast for a pleasant walk. Buses and trains can serve a general macrodestination (“Warwick Mall/CCRI”), but not individual microdestinations, not without splitting and cutting frequency to each destination or detouring and raising travel time. The buses serving Warwick Mall and CCRI have hourly frequency, and are a long, uncomfortable walk from the hotel in Warwick I needed to go to. Judging by the frequency, I’m not the only person who chose not to use them, and take a taxi instead; everyone who has a car or who isn’t extremely price-sensitive does. The only way transit can serve such a destination is by concentrating development near the station – in other words, making a mini-transit city in the sea of sprawl, which generally conflicts with the goal of easy station parking.

In a city, the opposite situation exists. It’s easy to just pronounce transit more suited to dense city centers than driving, but the situation is more complicated. Transit, too, thrives on good connections to microdestinations. It can’t serve employment that’s dense but evenly dispersed in a large area – people would need too many transfers, and the result would be service that’s on paper rapid and in reality too slow. Instead, it works best when all destinations are clustered together, in an area not many subway stations in radius.

In this view, one failure of urban renewal is its failure to recognize that most people who visit city centers are going to do a lot of walking, and amenities should make it easier rather than harder. Traditional urban renewal would build cultural centers and other projects at the fringe of the CBD, to help its growth: Lincoln Center just north of Midtown, Civic Center just southwest of the San Francisco CBD, Providence Place and Providence Station just north of Downcity. In New York and San Francisco, there’s at least rapid transit serving those destinations, mitigating the effects. In Providence, no such thing exists. It’s an inconvenient walk from Kennedy Plaza to the mall and the train station – it’s not too long, but it crosses Memorial Boulevard right when it turns into a freeway on-ramp. Walking to the Westin, immediately adjacent to the mall, is practically impossible without rushing across roads without crosswalks. Even the walk between the station and the mall, which were built together and are close to each other, is much worse on the street than on a map, again involving crossing auto-centric roads.

Organic city amenities do not look like this. If they cluster at the same location (for example, 125th Street in New York, or Thayer Street in Providence), they tend to be along roads that facilitate rather than hindering pedestrian movement. And if they don’t, they are all located along a rapid transit network in its shared service area, where it is still a tight mesh rather than a network of radial lines.

In view of the recent emphasis on parking policy, due to Donald Shoup but now mirrored by other urban planning and transportation experts, the observation is that in any city center, on-site parking is difficult to find. Even in cities that make downtown parking relatively easy to get to, people can’t hope to park at every single microdestination, so instead they trip-chain, driving into the city and parking but going to multiple points within the city, all within a short and easy walking distance from one another. This is roughly the urban geography of the French Riviera, which combines easy parking with a dense, lively center in Nice and a fair amount of urbanity on some streets even in auto-oriented secondary cities such as Monaco and Menton.

The connection to regional rail is that, historically, it descends from intercity trains, and therefore the conception of connecting the suburbs to the city is very macrodestination-driven. To name two egregious American examples, the Boston’s north side lines and Caltrain both connect many suburbs to the city while also connecting people to the suburban tech job corridor, but in reality miss the biggest job centers at both ends. North Station is two subway stations north of the CBD, and as a result ridership underperforms the south side lines; 4th and King is far enough outside the Market Street CBD that it’s not close to the CBD jobs – the proposed Transbay Center site, which is, is located near more jobs than all existing Caltrain stations combined. And if microdestination-level service to an already transit-oriented CBD is bad, then service to other urban destinations is worse: urban station spacing is wide, there’s no attempt to develop near stations, and the poor integration with local urban transit ensures that even people who could be willing to make the last-mile transfer don’t.


  1. Emily Washington

    Glad to see you bringing up the Tysons example. If you haven’t been there, the mall is divided into two parts, the Galeria and Tysons II. You’d think that the mall, if no other part of Tysons, would be pedestrian friendly, but it’s easier to drive between the two than walk across blocks of parking and a major road. It really is an absurd urban form.

    • Alon Levy

      I’m surprised they don’t plan these malls with skywalks. I hear a lot of cities with mall cultures have skywalks or underground passageways – for example, Singapore has underground connections between the four malls at the Orchard/Paterson corner, where the busiest subway station is located. Even Providence has a skywalk between Providence Place and the Westin; it’s practically impossible to get from one to the other on the street, and the only entrances to the skywalk are in the buildings rather than on the sidewalks, but at least one can walk from one to the other.

    • Alex B.

      The mall isn’t divided in two parts, there are two separate malls. But yes, walking between the two is to take your life in your hands.

      The Metro line under construction will have a station directly between the two malls, with a skyway connecting to Tysons I at least.

    • jim

      Malls are macrodestinations. One drives to one, with its acres of parking, and then walks from store to store. The two malls at Tysons are different macrodestinations (even though they’re relatively geographically close). The original mall (situated in the triangle formed by the two roads that meet at the eponymous crossroads and the Beltway) aimed at the median Fairfax household. The newer mall (built there because the popularity of the original mall caused VDOT to massively upgrade automobile access to the area; which is also why there’s been so much office building development in the area) is aggressively upscale: it’s anchored by a Neiman-Marcus. While there’s some overlap, to a great extent the customer base of the two malls is distinct. If one of the malls is your macrodestination, it’s unlikely the stores in the other will be one of your microdestinations.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Ya mean someone who is going to Macy’s Galleria won’t have the urge to go to Macy’s Tyson’s Corner Center!

        • jim

          They’re actually merchandised differently to cater to different customer sets. Just because they’re both Macy’s doesn’t mean they’re cookie cutter copies.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Been in one Macy*s you been in them all. But then I don’t see a great difference between Neiman’s and Nordstrom’s or Bloomingdales or Lord and Taylor’s or…

          • Alex B.

            I submitted another comment, but I guess I was eaten in moderation.

            Jim is right: The Macy’s in Tysons Corner Center was never a Macy’s originally, it was a Hecht’s. Now that it’s been re-branded as a Macy’s, it contains a very different product mix compared to the one at the Galleria. Furthermore, if you look at the store directories for the two malls, the only commonalities that I saw in a quick browsing are Starbucks and Sunglass Hut.

            So, yes, the two malls are indeed two separate macrodestinations.

  2. Beta Magellan

    As a native of Boston’s northern suburbs, my experience roughly parallels the travel patterns you describe in southeastern France—despite living in close proximity to the MBTA’s Andover station, my family never used it, always driving to a destination in Cambridge or Boston and then walking or taking the T from there. I think it’s also pretty close to the case in mid-sized American cities that have dense, walkable pockets but uncompetitive transit—when I lived in Milwaukee I’d drive from dense neighborhood to a dense neighborhood, but after finding parking I’d do a lot of activities on foot (partly thanks to the relatively difficult parking situation on Milwaukee’s east side).

    • Alon Levy

      This is similar to how my family lived in Tel Aviv, too. In my previous post’s typology, it looks like a feature of walking/car cities as well as car/transit cities, for opposite reasons – in both cases transit fails at serving non-work trips, but there’s some dense core within which walking is easier than driving.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    Ideally, cars drive from low-density residences to low-density office parks, primarily on freeways but with fast arterial connections at both ends

    But the ideal never lasts long. They build one more office park off the arterial and one more housing development at the far end of the freeway and it becomes congested. So they widen the highway. which encourages a mall and another housing development. A vicious never ending cycle.

    • Beta Magellan

      I’ve heard that some of Chicago’s edge city developers plan their surface parking lots in ways that allow for easily replaced with additional buildings later on—I can’t identify a single example of where this actually happened, though, and even in this (possibly hypothetical) scenario you’d still have structured parking and segregated uses.

    • Alon Levy

      In principle, it does end. In cities with declining populations, like Rochester, the problem isn’t too much congestion, but too little traffic, leading to excessive speeding on some freeways.

      That said, although both cars and transit have the same problem with needing to build constant infrastructure to prevent crowding – this is called induced traffic for cars, and overcrowded rush hour trains for transit – with transit this stops when the city stops growing. Transit cities without much population growth manage to do without adding a lot of infrastructure. This is not true of cars and the sprawl that’s still happening in the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester.

      • Adirondacker12800

        If getting around to building a piece of the Second Avenue subway just in time for the 90th anniversary of it’s proposal can be considered “constantly”

        • Alon Levy

          New York’s transit city parts stopped growing in 1930. I was thinking of cities that didn’t spend multiple decades shrinking their rail networks and leveling neighborhoods with the wrong demographics to make room for expressways.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Partly because they were fully developed by 1930. Partly because by 1930 they were going to build parkways and expressways hither thither and yon so everybody could drive everywhere. A place without traffic jams, smog or high fuel prices.

  4. Benjamin Hemric

    Alon Levy wrote [added numbering is mine — BH]:

    [1] In her book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs complains that freeways as built are good at getting people to macrodestinations (downtown) but not microdestinations (particular addresses within city center). In her example from Toronto, this is correct, [2] but in general, each mode of transportation will be good at serving microdestinations in an urban form that’s suited for it. Cars are not good at serving an intact city center; but equally, transit is not good at serving suburban sprawl, and regional rail that’s not integrated with urban transit is not good at serving urban destinations away from immediate train stations.

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Hi, Alon! So far, just from your various posts, I can see that you’ve read “Death and Life . . . ,” “Economy of Cities,” “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” and, now “Dark Age Ahead.” (And, you’ve read all of them, if I recall correctly, since last fall too!) Thus, you are one of the very few people who discusses Jane Jacobs who actually has read a number of her books — although I think there are, perhaps, “professional,” generational, or cultural “lenses” that often distort their meaning for you.

    In the case of “Dark Age Ahead,” however, I think it is the only one of Jane Jacobs’ seven “major” books that is just poorly written — and as a result it is her weakest book by far. And, because of her uncharacteristicly “poor” or “sloppy” writing, it takes far more “work” on the part of a reader (any reader) to figure out what it is exactly that she is trying to say.

    Nevertheless, upon much reflection, I do think the book has many good — and important — things to say, and it is thus worthwhile to try and figure out. It’s also useful, I think, to figure out how it fits in with her earlier, and better written, works. (And, thus, part of what I hope to do with this comment is work out my own understanding of what Jacobs is trying to say here, and how it fits into her previous works.)

    I haven’t reread “Dark Age Ahead” in its entirety for a while, so in my comments I may be a bit “off” too, but if I remember the book correctly, in Jacobs’ discussion of “macro” vs. “micro” destinations, she isn’t really making the points that I understand you to to be making in section [1] of your post. And, as a result, section [2[ of your post isn’t really relevant to “her” discussion of macro and micro destinations. (This isn’t to say, of course, that you, or any reader, is not entitled to have your own discussion of macro and micro destinations. And that’s not even to say the Jacobs’ may be sometimes in agreement, or sometimes in disagreement, with some of them.)

    Also, it seems to me that what you say further down in your post (e.g., Lincoln Center) runs contrary to Jacobs’ thoughts regarding transportation and macro and micro destinations. (I hope to address this later, but may run out of time.)

    From a quick look at “Dark Age Ahead,” Jacobs major discussion of macro and micro destinations is on pages 71 through 79, particularly 74-79, in a chapter entitled “Science Abandoned.” Very briefly and roughly, in this chapter Jacobs is mainly criticising professionals and academics (traffic engineers) for being all show (credentials) and little work (actually understanding). It seems to me that the point of bringing up macro and micro destinations into the conversation, here in this book, is mostly to point out that traffic engineers have, essentially, overlooked these important concepts in much of their work. In other words, it’s a good illustration of her larger point that our civilization should be wary of abandoning true science.

    I don’t think her point here in this books, however, is really to argue across the board in favor of one mode of transportation versus another, as you seem to be suggesting. (Although Jacobs does, of course, believe that private automobile usage has, in fact, been over emphasized to the detrement of our cities and civilizations, see quote from page 79, further below.)

    On pages 77-78 she writes [text between brackets is mine — BH],

    Misconception One [the second Misconception being that a proliferation of one-way streets is a way to solve a cities’ traffic problems] is expressed in the elevated limited access highway [which she had used in her example of traveling by taxi from the airport to a micro destination downtown] and its ramps, whose designers should have asked themeselves, “How can we help this great diversity of users reach their great diversityof micro-destinations most directly?” Instead, they apparently asked themselves, “How can people reach a macro-destination, downtown, most speedily?”

    When my taxi enters the downtown grid from the north or west, which are not furnished with limited-access expressways, my trip within the downtown is so much more economical [as the taxi meter has been recording the distance traveled? — BH] than when I enter the grid from the expressway at the south[,] that the entire trip is more economical despite my avoidance of the small expressway stretch.

    On page 79 she writes:

    The fact that university students in this so-called discipline are not informed of evidence that has long been available tells us that such evidence is uncongenial to their teachers. The cherished but deformed paradigm is poison that harms everything it touches — damaging community life; wasting time, energy, and land; polluting air; and vitiating the independence of countries with large oil reserves. This is also a “perfect” example of antiscience masquerading as the science it has betrayed. . . . . It the meantime, each year students have poured forth from universities, a clear, harmful case of education surrendered to credentialism.

    Thus, in this chapter, she is pointing out that that traffic engineers have professinally overemphasized the “Zoom, Zoom, Zooooom!” [[g. 79] of traveling across empty highways and “forgotten” that such a blindered mindset ultimately is not very helpful in dense cities unless one is the extremely rare traveler who is starting out at the entrance ramp of a limited access highway and traveling only to just the exit ramp of the same highway.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., February 25, 2012, 6:10 p.m.

    P.S. — I think Jacobs’ own answer to the question (pages 77-78) she feels traffic engineeers should have asked themselves, “How can we help this great diversity of users reach their great diversityof micro-destinations most directly?” is, essentially, unlimited access, multi-purpose, two-way boulevards and a proliferation of two-way local streets.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, I read those four books, though much earlier than you think. I read The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and Dark Age Ahead in 2007. I forget when I read The Death and Life – it was later, but it can’t have been later than about 2008 or maybe early ’09. And yes, I agree that Dark Age Ahead is her weakest. It seems to overgeneralize from the poor state of urban planning in most of North America to a general decline of society. I think The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations are the strongest – I can’t remember which of the two has the gems I remember the best (for example, that New York created the Erie Canal instead of the reverse), though I suspect it’s the former.

      You’re right that I’m not just describing Jacobs’ views here. The cars-suburbs, transit-cities connections comes from a different strand in urbanism, one that’s by now so widespread I couldn’t even tell you where it comes from. But Jacobs’ discussion of macro- vs. microdestinations is what motivated my thinking here. The reason why freeways don’t work in cities with a traditional urban center is precisely that the urban street network does not have the capacity for everyone to be driving; once a car enters the street network, it slows to a crawl. Another issue is the recent focus on parking availability, due to Shoup; in similar vein to what Jacobs was writing about street network, in a dense urban setting there’s not going to be enough parking for all or even most people.

      My point is not to argue for the superiority of transit to cars – not here at least. Rather, it’s that transit works a lot better in a city with any sort of density. Most cities where the majority of people get around by private cars need to be very low-density, because cars don’t have high capacity. Occasionally, there will be some higher-density cities with a weak center, a lot of auto-oriented edge city employment, and frequently incomes too low for mass motorization; Tel Aviv and Kuala Lumpur are the main examples to me. If you think about dense-city streets that are friendly to both cars and pedestrians – say, First and Second Avenues on the Upper East Side – these exist this way only because most people do not use them, instead taking the subway. Two-way boulevards are a good thing, but not because they’re friendly to mass motorization; they work for cars when most people do not use cars but instead ride the bus or the subway – essentially, treating cars as special high-cost luxury transportation filling in gaps in the transit network.

      • Adirondacker12800

        in a dense urban setting there’s not going to be enough parking for all or even most people.

        … well if you have enough parking for everybody it’s not going to be dense. Cars are the ideal transportation for destinations few people want to go to when few people want to go there.


    Fantastic. You nailed the problem with Boston. There’s a similar problem in NYC (Penn to GCT), however, the microdestinations around both stations (and rapid transit connections) are so diverse that it still works. North Station in Boston is surrounded by an abyss, mostly due to the destruction created from the central artery. There was an opportunity to up-zone the undeveloped parcels around North Station, however, the BRA failed to deliver high density zones. It’s an unfortunate failure – Boston, once again, fails to embrace its urbanize. The same is true for Downtown Crossing – another failure.

    • Beta Magellan

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the main culprits in the decline of Downtown Crossing were changing trends in shopping and the department store sector in particular—mainly the general decline of the downtown department store and corporate consolidation (no more Filene’s).

  6. Zmapper

    A case where transit does fairly well serving microdestinations are American “main streets”. Those streets have the advantage of a long linear array of destinations, the layout transit does best serving. As an example, consider Colfax Ave in Denver. Despite the corridor not being very dense, it manages to have the two of the busiest bus routes in the system, the 15 and 15L, both running every 10 minutes.

    The biggest problem with the “main street” model is the travel time. Because of all the traffic, those streets tend to be the slowest for both buses and cars. One way to solve that is to create one-way streets parallel to the main street, which Denver has done. Those in the know use Colfax if they are only going a few blocks, and 13/14th and 17/18th if they are going a bit further.

    • Matthew

      Good for cars, not so great for residents in the area who have to deal with two mini-highways blocking access to the main street.

      • Zmapper

        Personally, I don’t find the residential one-way streets to be much of a problem. For one, they can move more cars with fewer lanes, so instead of needing an 8 lane boulevard you can have the same capacity with 2 6 lane streets. Furthermore, near-perfect progression almost always exists, allowing for drivers to have a high average speed without an excessive top speed.

        Denver installs “dummy signals” every couple of blocks in order to keep the traffic in tighter waves, making it easier to cross the street. Generally, if the traffic is in a wave, the pedestrian yields to the cars. If it is a single car, the car yields to the pedestrian.

  7. Nathanael

    So *that’s* why Ithaca’s preservation of its downtown worked. Sure, we have three parking garages downtown, but it’s totally impractical to drive from one errand to the next once you get there; you just park and walk around from point to point all day. Surface lots are minimal and almost all parking longer than an hour is metered or charged for within downtown.

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