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  • A Fascinating Travel/Urban Planning Website

    Posted by Jonathan on February 19th, 2008 (All posts by )

    Via Maimon Schwarzschild comes this site that offers thoughtful perspectives on important cities, without the pro-central-planning and anti-automobile biases that are often present in both travelogues and discussions of urban design:

    Urban Tours by Rental Car offers perspectives on urban development obtained by automobile tours through urban areas. Rental cars are not the favored method for visiting cities, especially those outside one’s own country. Instead, tourists and urban planners favor packaged tours or local public transport systems. Both are splendid ways for seeing the city as it used to be — the very reason for most tourist visits. The historical core areas contain monuments, prime government and religious edifices and quaint neighborhoods that are often centuries old. This is particularly important to tourists from the newer urban areas of the American, Canadian or Australian West, where history extends not far before World War II. It is further understandable that few tourists travel thousands of miles to see the newer suburban areas that look very much like home. But most tourists do not profess to be students of the urban area.
     
    For the urban planner interested in understanding the whole urban area, it is not enough to study the core alone, regardless of its architectural attractiveness, romanticism, history or affirmation of an individually preferred life style. No one, regardless of the depth of their education can develop reliable conceptions from an unrepresentative sample, and urban cores are the very essence of unrepresentative samples. Both public transport and packaged tours miss the larger part — the expanse of sprawling residential and business development that rings virtually all major urban areas. They may be of little interest to many urban planners, but they should be.

    This is refreshing stuff for those of us who don’t think that automobiles are necessarily bad or that high-density living and socialized mass-transit are necessarily good. Check it out.

     

    18 Responses to “A Fascinating Travel/Urban Planning Website”

    1. renminbi Says:

      Interesting photos in the links.Thanks.

    2. Tatyana Says:

      Something I’m definitely not going to use.

    3. Tatyana Says:

      Maybe I should clarify my prev. comment.

      You seem to think that having car-friendly cities and diminished density will provide more liberty for urban dwellers. I think it’s the opposite, as it is now the case with most of American cities. It strips people of transportation choices, and in my book – the more choices a person has, better for individual libery.

      If someone doesn’t have an ability to drive (by any reason), or just doesn’t want to – (s)he has no other options for transportation in cities like Detroit, or majority of places in NJ, etc etc.

      And yes, contemporary cities are bigger and include more than their hystoric cores – but who is interested in them besides urban planners?

      What you call “high-density living” means, simply, a city. If it’s something extended and random, it’s not.

      I’ve been reading a travel book on Miami and what’s strange to me, is that this city, whose entire economy is dependent on tourists, has no tourist-oriented consistent transportation system. Without a car, can I get from any of the beach resorts between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to the South Beach hystoric district? Or even -is there convenient transportation between the small islands and downtown? Couldn’t find any clear explanation of it, not on the city’ sites, nor in the travel guide.
      That’s what i call “diminished liberty”.

    4. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      It strips people of transportation choices, and in my book – the more choices a person has, better for individual libery.

      You make a very interesting argument, one I had not considered. In think about it, however, I think you may be missing something.

      As a practical matter the inherent tradeoffs in total infrastructure i.e. roads, tracks, housing, factories, offices etc required for each form of transportation make car based or efficient mass transit an either or proposition. The population and infrastructure densities that make mass transit efficient and widely used make owning a using a car difficult whereas the dispersed infrastructure that makes cars attractive make mass transit a virtual joke. So, in the end, people in mass transit areas really don’t have the option of mass transit AND cars. As evidence, 3/4 of all American’s who routinely use mass transit live in New York City and (IIRC) only a little over 20% of adults their have drivers licenses.

      I think car based systems provide more liberty for people based on the simple evidence that people vote with their feet and move away from high density areas and into low density car based environments. When millions of people sum all the hundreds, if not thousands. of little tradeoffs required in judging were to live, they chose the car based environments. Given that people usually chose environments that provide more freedom, I think people vote for the freedom tradeoffs that cars give.

      This may be a regional thing. Being from the southwest, I just assume I will be renting a car wherever I travel. I just plan it into the budget assuming I don’t just drive in the first place.

    5. Tatyana Says:

      Show me the evidence that people actually move from the cities because they favor car-rich environment. That people who live in Detroit and pay for 2 cars per family, no matter their income, and then get stuck in traffic on Woodward for hours at a time, twice every day, do it by choice.

      I know otherwise: they have no other options.

      People move where the job is, where they can afford to live, where they can live safely, where their kids have a chance for undisturbed crime-free environment, etc etc. I don’t know anyone who would move westward from New York because they were just dying to say goodbye to the subway.

      This experiment is crooked. The correct experiment would be this: a man is given a choice of 2 new jobs, paying equal money (with corresponding buying ability [sorry, forgot the correct term at the moment]), with a chance to rent/buy same level housing in 1hr commute time from the job, in two cities in the Midwest, same distance from NY or Boston. First has 3 kinds of public transportation and second – none.

      If significant percentage of test subjects will choose the latter option, only then you can say that people are voting with their feet.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      Tat,

      There are different kinds of places. Some of them are better suited for mass-transit and others for car travel. You can travel by public transit in Miami or by automobile in Manhattan, but in each case the journey will be slow and full of inconveniences. These are simply parameters of travel, determined by population density, mass-transit and road infrastructure, etc.

      South Florida has buses and trains. They work fine. The problem is that the distances are long and the population is widely dispersed. There is no central area to which people commute; there are multiple destination areas. Train and bus routes are long and have many stops, which makes travel slow, yet are not heavily used. Most people prefer to drive, even when train service is free or nearly free, which means that mass-transit infrastructure is extremely expensive relative to how much it is used, and especially in comparison to roads.

      I like the car-tours site because it is unconventional in the best sense, giving a side of the story that is not usually presented. I like the fact that it does not unthinkingly accept urban-planning dogmas about the evils of automobiles, and instead simply presents what is. The reality in most places is that people want automobiles as soon as they are able to afford them, and that it’s difficult to get a full sense of an urban area without driving around it. I agree that this is unfair to people who don’t drive, but that’s like saying that life is unfair if you don’t know the local language. Or to put it differently, if you can learn how to drive many possibilities will open up for you. It would be nice if driving were not necessary, but it is necessary in many places and I don’t know how it could be otherwise.

      It is not difficult to get around within Miami Beach without a car. Distances are short and there are buses. There are also buses between MB and downtown Miami. There are buses and some trains to other parts of the area, but they are slow. Fort Lauderdale is quite far from MB unless you are driving. If you aren’t driving, it is probably best to stay in MB. It may be that the reason you can’t find clear information about transportation is that everyone assumes that visitors who don’t drive will stay in MB and that visitors who want to see the broader area will drive.

    7. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      People move where the job is, where they can afford to live, where they can live safely, where their kids have a chance for undisturbed crime-free environment, etc etc.

      And jobs, affordable housing, safety, crime-free environments etc all strongly correlate with car based, dispersed infrastructures. In many cases, the cause and effect are easy to see. Cars make it harder to mug people, for example. In Texas, street crime is virtually unknown because it requires laying in wait for a small number of people walking from their cars into an immediately adjacent building. It’s also harder for criminals to find a large crowd to fade into. With the exception of one car jacking ( a criminal fad that did not last long in this pistol packing state) all the people I have ever known in Texas who experienced a mugging were actually mugged while visiting a dense urban core up north.

      This experiment is crooked

      But is the only kind we can perform. Perhaps your theoretical experiment would prove your point but we can never run it in the real world.
      You can’t just pluck out transportation from the intricate, multi-dimension decision matrices that people used to manage their lives. Transportation choices feed into and out of all other life factors. All we can say is that net internal migration in the US is away from dense and mass transit friendly urban areas towards dispersed car based areas. That suggest that all factors integrated, cars make people more free and happier than mass transit.

    8. Tatyana Says:

      Shannon,
      Of course you can’t perform my experiment -American countryside is already heavily biased towards automobile culture w/o other convenient means of transport. It would be difficult to find a city in Midwest complying with test requirements.

      It’s a false correlation, between cars and lack of street crime. Every security expert I ever heard always says – criminals attack on isolated people, in places where others can’t see or hear your cries for help. You like the isolation of your car? Why not get walled in some cabin in the woods, even farther from interacting with humans? I’m sure, some (like Unibomber) will find it a wonderful life.

      All we can say is that net internal migration in the US is away from dense and mass transit friendly urban areas That’s what you say – but, again, you present no proof of it.

      Jonathan,
      with your metaphor of language you proved my point. You have no incentive to learn new language if your life does not depend on it – in other words, when you have other languages serving communication function. When your chances to get a good job, find crime-free neighborhood to live, a good school for your kids depend on knowing English (or Spanish, or Thai) – you will study that language even if you, personally, find it boring/unmusical/etc etc. When your easy and quick access to shopping/work/pharmacy is contingent on using a car, of course you will use it.

      Car became a necessity in US because there is no freedom of transportation means. Just don’t tell me people are more free because they have fewer choices.

    9. Tatyana Says:

      Oh, and I want to add – I really, really don’t like your new comment system.

    10. Tatyana Says:

      Something else, since I still have 4 minutes before leaving for work.

      Why, do you think, there exist urban-planning dogma about “evils of automobile”? Why you discard opinion of specialists who studied the subject – because you like the way you live and the convenience a car gives you?

      [in South Florida]rain and bus routes are long and have many stops, which makes travel slow, yet are not heavily used.
      Of course not: it’s poorly designed, it’s government-staffed and managed, it’s socialistic. Make it private, give the entrepreneurs freedom and incentives (as established for private car infrastructure) to make it convenient,pleasant, safe and quick – who knows, maybe all those people who now save pennies to buy their own rusty junkbox will not do it. But we don’t know, because nobody tried.

      Also, driving a car is extremely risky. One split-second – and your life might be extinguished. Sure, some people still want to be able to control the matters themselves – others rather give this task to a trained professional (people like me, f.ex). There are other specialists skillful in dealing with matters of life and death – surgeons, for example – would you advise people to be their own Doctor (not to mention, in lesser danger degree, architect, cook, teacher, etc)? Sure. Yes we can! (sorry) We are all different in our abilities. The biggest danger on the road, as I see it, is the idiots who can’t drive; but they are still in your lane – because they have no other choice.

    11. Shannon Love Says:

      Tatyana,

      Of course you can’t perform my experiment -American countryside is already heavily biased towards automobile culture w/o other convenient means of transport. It would be difficult to find a city in Midwest complying with test requirements.

      Prior to the development of the automobile, people migrated from the dispersed country side to the dense cities. Even after the introduction of the automobile it took several decades for the trend to reverse itself. I argue that the evolution of dispersed, car based cities and people’s pronounced preferences for them is the actual experiment on whether, on the whole, cars give more freedom.

      We have to study this problem the same way we would study an ecology by using different times as our controls.

      It would be difficult to find a city in Midwest complying with test requirements.

      Not true. Virtually all midwest cities had extensive trolley systems well up until WWII. Even cities in Texas had them. Austin, TX boasted one of the first electric trolley systems that ran from downtown to the then suburbs of Hyde Park five miles distant. Mass transit died out not because it was not available but because people stopped using it. Again, the undirected evolution of the auto city over the course of several decades points to a pronounced preferences on the part of the people.

      Phased another way: Dispersed cities didn’t just drop from the sky ex nullo, They are not natural features of the landscape that people are forced to adapt to. No central planner decreed there existence. They evolved slowly as people chose cars and the infrastructure and lifestyle that went along with them. I argue that if cars actually reduced net freedom factoring in all the tradeoffs in all areas of an individual’s life, then dispersed cities would have never grown up in the first place.

      All we can say is that net internal migration in the US is away from dense and mass transit friendly urban areas That’s what you say – but, again, you present no proof of it.

      Far enough here is the U.S. Census Bureau’s Migration Across Regions, Divisions, and States: Domestic Net Migration in the United States: 2000 to 2004 [PDF]. See table 1. Short story: People migrate out of dense urban areas and into dispersed ones. If it were not for immigration, places like New York. L.A. and similar cities would be rapidly depopulating.

      Car became a necessity in US because there is no freedom of transportation means.Just don’t tell me people are more free because they have fewer choices.

      No, we chose to abandon diverse means of transportation because the car allowed a lifestyle that granted us more freedom overall in all facets of our lives. Living in a dense urban core might provide more transportation choices (a point I might quibble about) but it reduces choices in other areas of life. For example, with my car and workshop, I can chose to either buy or build furniture. If I lived in the city I would just have to buy it.

      You can’t have tunnel vision about transportation. Its the sum of freedoms in people’s lives that count. Not the freedom in one narrow part of life.

      Why you discard opinion of specialists who studied the subject – because you like the way you live and the convenience a car gives you?

      No, it’s because I don’t trust specialist who work in a field where there is no empirical testing. Urban planning is one of those fields that looks like engineering but in reality no one can tell if any particular idea succeeded or failed.

      First, It takes decades for the cumulative effects of such planning to manifest themselves. Urban planners are often long dead by the time anyone can collect enough data to say if the idea worked. Second, even if sufficient time has passed so many new variables will have entered the system that determining the worth of the original idea is usually impossible. Third, urban planners focus on few narrow goals. For example, I could not afford to have a garden or a garage workshop in dense urban environment. No urban planner will ever ask if my freedom to chose such options is a good thing.

      As a result, urban planners make their careers by cleaving to fashion and telling their customers, almost always politicians, what the customer wants to hear. The type of politicians who favor command and control urban planning in the first place are the same types of politicians who don’t like the freedom and chaos of a dispersed city so urban planners cater to their biases. Urban planners are more akin to interior decorators than engineers. Specialist they may be but the area they specialize in is intrinsically untestable and unknowable.

      Make it private, give the entrepreneurs freedom and incentives…

      You’ll get no argument from me that we should definitely allow this but I just don’t see people swarming to mass transit anytime in the next few decades. I rode mass transit and biked during my college years and my experiences strongly suggest to me that few people will chose mass transit over cars. Have you ever stood waiting for a bus in 104F weather. Ever, walked four blocks in a hail storm? I’ve had to do both because the mass transit schedule pays absolutely no attention to the weather. You have to get off the bus when it reaches your stop even if a tornado spawning thunderstorm is raging outside. In a car, you just park and wait.

      Also, driving a car is extremely risky.

      As is not having a car based infrastructure. Ambulance response times are a real problem in dense urban areas. Again you have to look at a complex web of tradeoffs. For example, on the whole are people in dispersed cities more or less likely to die from accident or disease than those in urban areas when we control for all other factors?

      but they are still in your lane – because they have no other choice.

      No, you do have a choice. You can chose to live in a dense urban core with great mass transit but in order to do so you must make tradeoffs in non-transportation areas of your life.

    12. Jay Manifold Says:

      Returning to the topic of what is actually presented on the website, I can report that the KC chapter, The Kansas City Advantage: Livability (warning: 1.37 MB PDF), is as good an assessment of life in this area as I’ve ever read. The quality of life enjoyed by a median-income household here would require 2-3x as much money on the coasts. Commuting, in particular, is exceptionally easy, to the point that the report notes: “Approximately 1.1 percent of Kansas City commuters use transit to get to work, well below the national figure of 4.6 percent. The imperative for local officials would appear to be to make automobility available to the small percentage of households still without it, so that the area’s lower-income households and the overall economy might be more prosperous.”

    13. Tatyana Says:

      Shannon, you seem to have quite a low opinion of urban planners (and even lower of interior decorators – interesting to hear, as being one is part of my professional duties)- overlooking the fact that the site in question, as I understand it, is comprised by and for urban planners.

      I can argue further with your every point, which to me, has a sort of upside down logic. But I don’t think it’ll change your mind, so I’ll just save my breath.

    14. david foster Says:

      “Cars became a necessity in US because there is no freedom of transportation means”…much of the early adoption (post-Model-T) of cars here was by people living on farms, whose previous transportation means had consisted of a mule or horse, and in some cases a carriage. There were a lot of people who suffered greatly from rural isolation and who found the automobile very liberating.

    15. Jonathan Says:

      Tat,

      I would love it if mass-transit were privatized. Nobody would buy the current mass-transit system in a place like South Florida, because there is no way that that system could be run at a profit. (That’s the whole point about population density and the lack of a central destination area to which most people commute: there aren’t enough commuters to cover the enormous fixed costs of trains, and with 50-passenger buses there are too many stops and too few routes to provide quick service from point to point.) But what if a private mass-transit system were created from the beginning? It would probably consist mostly of vans and shared-ride taxis that provided door-to-door service, perhaps going from one part of town to another without intermediate stops. It would use roads, as drivers do, because routing is flexible and allows door-to-door service. Private transit services of this type have always existed, and still do on the margins, but are generally suppressed by local governments.

      But even if such services were available most people who could afford cars, except in the cores of a few large cities such as NY, would prefer to drive. There is now, near where I live, a subway-style train system that runs along side one of the major commuter roads (Rte. 1). This road is jammed during peak travel periods, yet few travelers choose to take the train. Similar situations exist in other cities. Most people prefer to drive if they can, and planners routinely ignore the revealed preferences of the drivers in favor of theoretical benefits (which never materialize) for mass-transit.

      Also, some people prefer not to live in dense cities. How are such people supposed to live without private vehicles?

      BTW, I echo Jay’s comment that the car-tours website’s description of life in South Florida is “as good an assessment of life in this area as I’ve ever read.”

    16. David Foster Says:

      I just put up a post on “The Trolley–A View From 1902,” inspired by this thread.

    17. Tatyana Says:

      Jon,
      I never said cars should be banned. People who want them, need them (by any reason) or simply love them (or love getting stuck on jammed commuter roads) should, by all means, have this option available to them.

      Others, who don’t want them, don’t live in endless suburbia or on a farm (thank you, David) and don’t need them, or simply don’t like the cars should have other options available to them, too.

      I also have no prescription as to what kind of mass-transit is preferable, I imagine that is determined by what’s economically feasible in any given city. Private passenger vans, running express on pre-determined route, is actually what I had in mind, too (by example I know), but there could be a combination of various sorts. A funny example – but increasingly popular here – is so called bike rickshaws. [Or they were popular – until the Mayor decided he wants a bite of their incomes, and they had to raise prices. – But I digress.] And why not? As long as there is a demand…

      Otherwise, in absence of varied and dense alternative transportation, it looks like a car is not so much a tool for liberation, as you all trying to convince me, but a tool to FORCE me to be liberated. Thanks, but no thanks.

      In any case, I suspect cons [or owning a car] might overcome the pros when/if the price of gas will grow to European levels. And maybe then I’ll finally come to visit Miami.

    18. Susanna Says:

      Tatyana (CC: Shannon),

      I want to go back to your defense of the urban planning field. As a person studying urban planning as a profession, I would agree that we are specialists in a field of unknowns. Our specialty would be better described as professional consensus builders and politicians for community needs. That said, I do not think this is a superfluous responsibility, and to study the many options cities have–the density of New York City, the sprawl in the Midwest, South or West, or the mix found in sprawling L.A.–provide current planners options as they try to create grander schemes of what would create the best utility of livability.

      On the topic of cars, I, once again, agree with Shannon that cars and public transit are a “and/or” issue that can only be decided by the community members and/or their politicians. I do not think anyone is decrying automobile use; what we are decrying is that public transit is the end-all, be-all answer to the sprawl of America. The other argument I bet these same people would have is if “sprawl” is that bad at all, since it is a choice.

      On the latter note, though one can subjectively note if it is “good or bad,” sprawl is a rather inefficient use of infrastructure resources, likely causes more pollution and decreases the sense of community or culture that people seek to find pride in. I personally do not find sprawl to be an evil, but only a reality which which we must deal, just as our automobile issue is just a reality which which we must deal.