There have been so many excellent books about transport and planning come out in recent times: perhaps with Straphanger and Human Transit the two most exciting books for 2012 in that respect (at least in my opinion). But the book I’ve been reading recently is a little older, first published in 2000 – called “How Cities Work: suburbs, sprawl and the roads not taken” by Alex Marshall.
I’m rubbish at doing book reviews, so I’m not going to try. Instead there are a few really good passages in this book which give us a hint of its flavour – a flavour that I like. One of the really interesting elements of the book is the author’s distaste for “New Urbanism“, which is interesting because generally I’m quite a fan of New Urbanism though I found myself agreeing with many of the points made against it – such as below:
As it stands now, New Urbanism is more destructive than not in its effect on city planning and design. It often represents the worst of America in its hucksterism, in its promise of avoiding difficult choices, in its proffered option of buying one’s way out of problems, in its delivery of image over substance.
Many New Urbanists resist recognising that the communities they admire and copy were produced by transportation systems that no longer exist. One cannot copy the design of such communities – Charleston, Annapolis etc. – without copying the transportation system that produced them, or building some modern facsimile of it. A neighbourhood of place lives within the transportation system that spawns it, and can no more escape this dynamic than a creek can escape the watershed it is part of.
These two paragraphs encapsulate, I think, why it seems we seem to end up with bad urban outcomes no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Just look around the recently built (and still being constructed) parts of Auckland and you can see these points at work:
- Stonefields has a nice internal street grid and many other “new urbanist” design elements but it’s still horribly disconnected from the city around it and therefore feels isolated and somewhat claustrophobic.
- Flat Bush will also have a great grid street pattern in the future, clever use of open space, a town centre that’s designed down to every last little detail but this can’t hide the fact that it’s in the most car dependent part of Auckland and therefore ends up with massively wide roads and exceptionally poor options for those without a car.
- Addison near Takanini has every good design detail you could hope for from a recent subdivision but hardly has a single thing within walking distance so you still need your car for every single trip.
I do find myself ascribing to the general belief that transport drives land-use outcomes far more than the opposite. This is a really major theme of How Cities Workand comes through perhaps most clearly towards the end of the book:
The layout of a region’s internal transportation will determine how people get to work, how they shop, how they recreate, how they live. The standard choice today of lacing a metropolitan area with big freeways for purely internal travel means we will have a sprawling, formless environment. Simply getting rid of freeways – forget mass transit – would establish a more neighbourhood-centred economy and dynamic. But we don’t have to forget mass transit. Laying out train lines, streetcar tracks, bus lanes, bike paths, and sidewalks – and foregoing freeways and big roads – will mean a more place-oriented form of living. Both the drawbacks and benefits of such a style dwell in its more communal, group-oriented form of living. You will have the option of not using a car. But to get this option, you have to accept that using a car will be more difficult.
That last two sentences capture the crux of the issue perfectly and lays bare something that I think we are often too afraid to confront. If we want a city with a better range of transport options, where people have a genuine choice of not driving everywhere, it is inevitable that driving will be a bit less pleasant. While the intelligence of public discussion on transport issues seems like it has come a long way over the past few years, the trade-offs are something that we still shy away from – but I wonder at what cost (both financial and in terms of damage to the kind of city it seems most people want Auckland to be) this unwillingness to confront tough issues comes at.