Sunday, August 1, 2010

97> PRT and Suburban Sprawl

Will faster, longer range PRT simply promote more suburban sprawl?
In the U.S., the dream of affordable home ownership, a culture that celebrates the freedom of cars and unfettered free enterprise, (wherever it leads) and a well-oiled system for expanding highways has led to the phenomena known as suburban sprawl. Part of the problem has been that as traffic increased on freeways we have been quick to add lanes. This in turn makes the commute out of town faster and therefore more attractive again, so development resumes with renewed vigor farther out of town. This, in turn, creates still more traffic, which creates more lanes, which creates more out of town development, and so forth. It is a vicious cycle. Will PRT, if extended out to the suburbs, exacerbate, or even amplify this trend? I have been a proponent developing PRT systems that have utility outside of the city centers, systems capable of higher speeds and longer distances. I want PRT to serve the suburbs. Am I proposing a “solution” that will, in the end, be counterproductive? That’s a question worth asking.

Once upon a time, in the old days before superhighways, cities had to mix residential, commercial, industrial and entertainment centers much more closely out of necessity. There simply wasn’t the option of dumping a whole bucket of gasoline into your gas tank to make a 15-mile journey home in under a half hour. Now many of us are addicted to it. Ironically, the farther you drive, the more appealing gas-guzzlers get, because they usually offer greater comfort. A bucket in the morning, and maybe another at night, made to seem benign by silent, odorless, high-speed gasoline pumps and cavernous gas tanks. One remedy would be to simply tax gasoline to the point where people would be forced to live closer in. Or simply ignore the traffic and never expand the roads. In the U.S. we have all seen the “urban decay” that was the result of the flight to the suburbs. Is it time now to institute policies that will result in “suburban” decay and flight to urban areas? I think not. Those suburban homes are the American families’ nest eggs, and real estate has taken enough of a beating already. But nudging ourselves back toward urban life is a must, because energy and environmental costs are just to high to do otherwise.

Above is a picture I snapped the other day through my windshield. Six miles from downtown, this road was widened less than 5 years ago. It makes my head spin to think about all of the gas and productivity that is wasted when traffic slows like this from just a sprinkling rain. But consider this: None of these people care that they are going somewhere where nothing is within walking distance. They have their cars. All of these people are on their way to congest some other area. What if some of them were to arrive without cars? Those people would then want to have their needs met much closer their to destination. That, my friends, is the seed of a community. I can think of very little else that could revitalize cities as much as piping in the suburbanites as pedestrians instead of as drivers.

And what about the on the suburban end? Won’t this just make it that much easier to live far from town? Well it will make it more affordable, efficient, and earth-friendly, that’s for sure. But contribute to further expansion of the sprawl? Maybe a bit. Keep in mind that on the suburban end there are subdivisions full of homes that are not within walking distance of anything, and no one can seriously suggest PRT for every residential street. Unless we’re talking about bulldozing, these people are going to use their cars. But to where? Typically every big residential area has a nearby supermarket, drugstore, bank, etc. In other words, the seeds of a town. These need not, currently, be in close proximity to each other. Would PRT become the glue that would turn a suburban “strip” into a walkable “Main Street?” It wouldn’t hurt. After all PRT, by definition, delivers pedestrians, not cars. Would new, more rural developments be encouraged by PRT’s proximity? Although presumably a developer could request PRT service from the inception of a project, PRT deployment will generally lag WAY behind road development, so this fear seems misplaced. After all, there are other remedies for sprawl that we just haven’t used. Like the tax codes. After all, if there were a smaller spread between the value of undeveloped and developed land, developers would look elsewhere for profits. If we undervalue the earth as nature made it, we can only expect more of the same regardless of transportation method. There is already precedent for this, in tax law as it now stands, but nearly every time I see a piece of raw land for sale it has been recently bulldozed, so it can be viewed more easily, I suppose. Clearly the tax penalty for this behavior is not a sufficient deterrent.

This is a road construction site I pass often, and I just had to get out and snap a picture. I must say it is truly massive. I fret about differences in track size in the inches, but a section of that PRT track laid down on this expanse would be absolutely lost. I added the map to show how this relates to sprawl, and I’m not sure I have drawn any conclusions. The first thing to note is that it is not a road leading out of town, but rather the final segment of a loop. But look at the undeveloped green space around the area. That won’t last. Also notable is the proximity to the airport, (between Humble and Aldine, to the left of the arrow) the 8th busiest in the country. Behind the arrow is name Atascocita, which, it turns out, is the 44th fastest growing community in the country, at 8% per year. The North/South road leading into town is new and wide, making the area just minutes from downtown, with relatively little traffic, yet. One point worth mentioning is that sprawl is greatest in the fastest growing cities. Cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta all grew over 23% during the 90s. ttp://
It’s hard to absorb that many people in the city center in that length of time. High-rises for over a million in a decade? I don’t think so. If there is an opinion I’ve formed, mulling all of this over, it is that satellite communities are probably unavoidable, but all communities, large and small, need to shrink in landmass to become more efficient, functional, and livable. People’s jobs change often, and moving rather than commuting is often not practical. I tentatively maintain my stance that higher speed PRT has a positive role to play in the mix. What do you think?


Ryan Baker said...

The points you make about why PRT is unlikely to encourage more sprawl than the status quo, automobile system are good. Yes it's additional development. I think roads may be more expensive, but then PRT doesn't 100% replace roads. I think the odds are in favor of PRT creating more urbanization, but it's still worth some caution, especially where it may be possible to do some intelligent things with zoning, tax and other codes to tilt that further in the right direction.

My experience in Chicago raises two questions though. First is I disagree that bringing suburbanites to the city would the the start of a community. I know a lot of people that work with me in the city and live in the suburbs. Even for those that take the train in every day the vast majority know the names of maybe 4 downtown streets. In addition, if there wasn't already a community where the suburbanites were going, then they would not be going there. The start of a community involves have jobs, housing and services in one area. I think what you describe may only be the start of a shopping center.

The second experience is that Chicago does have a fair number of "train stop" communities. I don't know how fair it is to compare these to anywhere else because for the most part they predate the move to sprawl, but they continue to evolve and thrive. Could PRT threaten that? That I think would depend on how PRT development is done. It could be a tool to create more such areas. What if you put the parking lots at least one block away from the PRT station? I'm sure a set of business would spring up in the area. It may have a chance if the parking is under the station.. but less. You could make sure there are awnings so no one complains about the rain, and the inconvenience is just a couple 100ft of walking.

I'll say one last thing. I've thought quite a bit about the possibility of suburban decay, and I've come to the conclusion that it's unavoidable. The question is how it's managed. So much of the suburban infrastructure is unsustainable that it's not possible to keep all of it. There's talk of infill development, but if you were trying to infill all of the United States' suburbs than you should probably expect the population of India to move here tomorrow. Obviously that is not going to happen, nor something we want to happen.

Think of it like a company that has grown too fast and no longer has the resources to pay the salaries of all these recently acquired employees. There's only so much you can do in terms of reorganization before you have to resort to layoffs. This process can be done right and wrong. In the wrong mode, people get kicked out the door with no warning, no support, no severance pay, etc. But it's also possible to manage it so an ugly situation is a little less ugly. That's the major reason for all those unemployment laws.

It's kind of a side point but it's not impossible to imagine a developer building the PRT connection during development like they often build the roads. Of course even if they build it they still need zoning approval to do so.

akauppi said...

I think you're into a vital thing, here.

Conditions for making PRT a success in the US may not have much to do with technology. They may have everything to do with the concept of "good living" and restructuring the way the infrastructure works and people live.

In fact, this would only be a reverse to maybe pre-1950's before the highways and cars finally took over. Living *after* it won't be bad at all. Transition is the hard part.

What could be the driving force here? The exactly *same* forces that caused this to happen in the first place. Land ownership and pricing. If one can change those money-rat minds to not want cars and sprawl but to want community and clean transit, that would be it. How to get from here to there? No idea.

To give some encouragement that change can happen, here's a TED video I enjoyed watching:

Also - though these cases are from Europe, Egypt etc. - this series seems great:

Really. Have a look at one of their 20 minute clips. I.e. the Velolib episode about how shared biking is taking up in Paris. :)

cmfseattle said...

PRT has so many advantages over currently-used (and so far, over any other currently-proposed (in my opinion, at least)) transportation methods that it's either bound to happen or it never will. I think we just have to put our best feet forward and trust we'll do more good than harm.

cmfseattle said...

cmfseattle said...
Jerry Roane invented TriTrack, and is one of several Texans active in that discussion group.

Dan said...

Dan the Blogger is back!

Ryan, how do people get from the train to their jobs? Is the routing in town extensive or has the city developed around the tracks? I also wonder how the train-stop communities deal with job change. I mean, isn’t it possible, or even likely, that a change of jobs would mean that the train would no longer work as a viable way to commute? Then what do they do? Move? Take the train and a bunch of buses or switch to a car? Actually I guess I could look all of this stuff up…It sounds like the train is a success story worth examining.
One note on suburban decay. Developers will develop, and the new stuff will be more desirable than the old, but inevitable decay is not a truism if the population is growing fast enough. (Not that I suggest this as a solution, mind you, just that it is too important a factor to ignore. There is very little of it here, for instance.) Also, I had to smile recently when someone bragged about how effective the highway system is in Buffalo. I was a teenager when most of that was built and then environmental laws forced half the industries to shut down, so everybody left town. Traffic? What traffic?
Akauppi, the culture here could really use some awakening. Our houses are too big and we spend too little time with our families, and we use new-car-smell for aromatherapy to deal with the stress of our overwhelming debt. All kidding aside, certain aspects of culture worldwide need to change, such as the tie between wealth, status and a huge environmental footprint. Living in a mansion is not something that we should all try to achieve, if we know what is good for us, anyway. Notice how ownership of handcrafted objects has been largely replaced by the accumulation of slickly marketed manufactured items as a way to establish social status? Bigger, shinier, newer “in-your-face” stuff. How do you fight primate behavior? Religion?
Cmfseattle, that is a weird, thought provoking, concept… that game theory business. I hope I get the time to really sit down and mull it over. How do we harness the “Nash Equilibrium” to break through this logjam of timid bureaucrats?
As for the Transport Innovators site, I am aware that sometimes my posts are brought up in those discussions. I have exchanged emails with many of those guys. I would post myself, but, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I don’t even have the time spend on my own blog. By the way, Texans are a proud and independent lot, but I am not sure I would call myself one. My views on many things are at often at odds with the locals, which leads to many spirited debates. My buds down at the machine shop… Now THEY are Texans. They pretty much are for Texas seceding to become in independent nation! I, on the other hand, ended up in Houston because it was a boom-town that was dead center between my two favorite places, Veracruz and New England. I would still like to retire to that migratory lifestyle, which I enjoyed for many years.
I like many aspects of TriTrack, especially the simplicity of the track. (also “RUFF” or whatever that European design is called) I think that is what ULTra (or any automatic car) would have to move toward to get speed. I like that the switching problem is combined with the dual-mode, so no switch is needed, and the battery-mule scheme is very inventive, although battery and capacitor technologies may render it unnecessary.

Ryan Baker said...

Dan, I missed your response (and questions), sorry.

In Chicago, there a fair mix of solutions. In the very center of the city, where the real skyscrapers are is an area called "The Loop". It's called that because there is an elevated train system "The El", that runs in a loop around it. It's more or less a square 3/4 mile across. There are also two lines that at least in this area are underground. All the el lines either run around, through or under the loop. In many ways that's bad because it's so centralized, which may be part of the reason why Chicago is the major city in the US that took the hardest serious look at PRT so far.

The El plus an extensive bus service run by the CTA however give you a reasonable method of getting from any point in the major of the metropolitan city to any other from early morning to late evening. If it's 2 am, then you'll have to be willing to take a cab or do some walking for plenty of spots, but there's still plenty covered at all hours.

The metro is only about half the city, and the CTA is only about half the transit system too. The suburbs are served by bigger trains. You may not be familiar with the concept, but it's a lot closer to an Amtrak train than NYC subway. Like the El though, they all run into the central city, stopping at one of three train stations all in or just outside the Loop.

The majority of the people who commute into the city from the suburbs work in or near the Loop. That may sound limiting, but there's probably as many jobs in that area as any average city has total.

People switch jobs yes, but transit is a factor in their decisions in a lesser but similar manner to a job being in a whole different city. Sometimes someone may move from one part of the city to another for a job, but I don't hear of that frequently. I hear of many similar things in super-sprawl cities like LA.

As far as the rail communities go, no there isn't any in town routing. Generally those areas are walking towns surrounded by standard suburbia. I'd guess the vast majority of the people living there own a car, but they may not drive it every day, since they may walk to work.

I kind of like the oasis concept, but I'd like it much more if it was surrounded by woodland rather than suburban housing. If done right it could be like a modern version of the New Hampshire/Vermont town clusters, but to accomplish that you'd need some very innovative land use policy to prevent the land between the oasis from becoming filled by McMansions. Not only is that something we shouldn't all try to achieve.. it's something none of us should try to achieve.

Ryan Baker said...

It's a mildly old topic, but ran across this and found it relevant to the discussion: