Last week, Strong Towns ran a piece complaining about what it calls “go big or go home” transit. Per Strong Towns’ Daniel Herriges, rail expansion takes 20 years and reflects an obsession with megaprojects, so it’s better to look at small things. Strong Towns’ take is as follows:
“After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life.”
Boy. If this sentence doesn’t perfectly capture the folly of our megaproject-obsessed transit paradigm, we don’t know what does.
Here’s a better idea: Ask transit riders in Durham and Chapel Hill what’s the next, small step you could take that would improve their commutes *this* year. Then do it. Then next year, ask the same question. There are so many pressing needs going unmet while our cities focus on shaky silver-bullet efforts like this one; what do we have to lose?
It’s a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong with more traditionalist attitudes toward urbanism and green transport, and I want to explain why.
Short-term thinking – “what could improve this year” – does not scale. The Strong Towns article talks about scalability as a reason to improve bus service and add sidewalks rather than adding urban rail, but the reality is the exact opposite. Incrementalism works in cities that have 35% transit mode share and want to go up to 50% – and since, in the first world, all of these cities have rapid transit systems, getting to 50% means building more lines, as is happening in Paris and Berlin and London and Stockholm and Vienna and Copenhagen, and the last three don’t even have that many more people than the Research Triangle, where the rail link in question is to be built.
The Research Triangle does not have 35% transit mode share. For work trips the share in the Durham-Raleigh combined statistical area is 1.4%. All the things that year-by-year incremental progress does do not work, because improving the bus network increases ridership in relative numbers to current traffic.
Strong Towns understands this, in a way. It uses the “what do we have to lose?” language. And yet, it recommends not doing anything of importance, because building big things means megaprojects. Megaprojects involve doing something that visibly involves the government, requires central planning, and is new to the region. They empower planners whose expertise comes from elsewhere, because the local knowledge in a 1.4% transit share region is 100% useless for offering transportation alternatives.
It’s a mentality that seems endemic to groups that romanticize midcentury small towns. Strong Towns literally names itself after the idea of the old small-town main street, in which cars exist but do not dominate, back before hypermarkets and motorway bypasses and office parks changed it all. It’s an idea that evokes nostalgia among people who grew up in cities like that or in suburbs that imitated them and dread among people who didn’t. And it’s completely dead, because it’s too small-scale for transit to work and too spread out for a developer to have any interest in reproducing it today.
Transit revival doesn’t look like the 1950s, and planning for it doesn’t involve the same social groups that dominated then. That era between World War Two and the counterculture was dominated by an elite consensus that built megaprojects, but the middle-class elements of said consensus were precisely the one that bolted to the anti-state New Right, with its ethos of mocking the idea of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
In a metro area that wants to get from 1.4% transit share to a transit share that’s not a rounding error, a few things need to happen, and none of them will make nostalgists happy. First, planning has to be for the long term. “What can be done this year?” means nothing. Second, extensive redevelopment is required, and it can’t be incremental. If you want transit-oriented development, look at what Calgary did in city center and what Vancouver did around suburban stations like Metrotown and Edmonds and do it in your Sunbelt American city. Third, wider sidewalks are cool and so is more bus service, but in a spread-out region, interurban rail is a must, and this means big projects with an obtrusive government and a public planning process. And fourth, people will complain because not everything is a win-win, and the government will need to either ignore those people (if they’re committee meeting whiners) or break them (if they’re Duke, which is opposing the light rail line on NIMBY grounds).
American transit reformers tend not to know much about good practices, but many are interested in learning. But then there are the ones who cling to traditional railroading, mixed-traffic heritage streetcars, village main streets, or really anything that lets them portray the car as an outside enemy of Real America rather than its apex with which it annihilated groups it deemed too deviant. It’s an attractive mythology, playing to a lot of powerful notions of community. It’s also how American cities got to be the car-choked horrors that they are today, rather than how they will turn into something better.