Paul Mees’s new book, Transport for Suburbia: beyond the automobile age, arrived at my place yesterday and I have made a brief start on it over the last day and a bit. I suspect that as I make my way through this book there will be a number of worthy bits of it to blog about, and perhaps a few diagrams to post for discussion. Of particular interest is that I noticed there are about 10 pages of the book dedicated to Auckland’s transport situation. It will be interesting to see what Mees has to say about Auckland.
The central argument of this book appears to be that top quality public transport is very much possible to provide in low-density suburban cities – such as Auckland, Melbourne and most other places in North America and Australasia. Mees doesn’t necessarily argue that land-use planning is irrelevant when it comes to creating a city that is more public transport friendly, but rather that low-density suburbia shouldn’t be used as an excuse by transport planners to write off public transport. Indeed, it seems as though this book focuses on providing a range of examples where top quality public transport is provided in cities with relatively low population densities.
A few particularly interesting paragraphs that I’ve found in the first chapter takes a critical look at those who focus on land-use planning exercises to improve public transport, instead of simply focusing on improving transport policy and planning. Here they are:
“Urban planners across Australia, the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand insist that transport patterns are outcomes of urban form. The way to improve public transport is through compact cities, new urbanism, smart growth and transit-oriented design. In the words of one prominent New Urbanist, ‘we have to earn our transit through urbanism’. There is much less interest in directly tackling transport policy, reflecting a mindset among planners that goes back decades. Transport planning is boring and mathematical; design is artistic and creative. Planners ‘own’ city design; transport means working with engineers and economists, who are much better at maths than us. Urban design is what we do; transport planning is what other people do.
Many transport planners are happy to agree with these arguments. Even Switzerland has powerful highway agencies that specialise in building new and expanded roads. The professionals who staff these agencies are intelligent enough to realise that, as communities become more concerned about the environment, questions will increasingly be asked about the wisdom of continued large-scale road-building. The notion that urban form, rather than transport policy, determines transport outcomes is convenient for these bodies. It can also suit those responsible for providing public transport, because it pins the blame for poor services on suburban residents rather than public transport providers.
At first glance it might seem as though Mees is taking a different position to where I sit. I strongly believe that there needs to be better integration between land-use planning and transportation planning, and I do think that land-use changes can drive transport changes. But really, I don’t think Mees is arguing that’s not the case. His main point is that transport planners need to stop making excuses that their cities are too low density for public transport. In this corner of the world we can clearly see Mees’s point being shown as true: with Brisbane and Perth having significantly lower population densities than Auckland, yet significantly higher per-capita public transport usage. Why? Because they’ve invested in their networks and they’ve got transport planning right.
The other critical matter to consider is that if we’re relying on land-use planning changes to “fix transport” then chances are we’re going to be waiting a very long time. While there has been something of an ‘urban revival’ of inner city areas in many cities around the world – perhaps due to movements promoting Compact Cities, New Urbanism and so forth – it would seem as though most urban growth in developed world cities continues to be via sprawl. Mees picks up on this point:
Even if we wanted to see the end of suburbia… this would require the rebuilding of entire urban regions – a task that might take a century even if it were affordable or politically possible.
The difficulty of the task can be seen in the glacial rate of progress in the two decades since ideas like new urbanism and the compact city became dominant among planners. The amount of new housing that has been built in accordance with these ideas is vanishingly small, but more importantly, there is little reliable evidence that it has produced any appreciable reduction in automobile use. The slide shows look great, but where are the data on mode share? The new urbanist solution risks becoming like the new religion lampooned by G.K. Chesterton back in the 1920s: ‘it only manages to remain as the New Religion by always coming tomorrow and never today.’
Just to make the point clear – Mees does not advocate for sprawl and does not say that urban form has no influence on transportation outcomes. He notes that there certainly are things that land-use planners can do to encourage public transport use, as well as more walking and cycling. However, in the end it’s no match for actually doing the immediate job properly – and that’s planning transport the right way. And actually this is very good news for Auckland. While there are many reasons for Auckland to intensify around its transport corridors, and this will make a difference in the longer term, Mees’s argument is that we don’t have to wait 30 years to have decent public transport if we sort out how to plan it properly. Our relatively low population density does not mean that we’re destined to have poor public transport. Density is not destiny.
There is certainly more to come!