The author of “Sprawl” returns

Generally speaking, I find the kind of broad “Cities: Yea or Nay?” culture-war debates pretty exhausting and pointless. And it is, for the most part, a culture war, fought by people who disdain or feel threatened by the social influence of others. Data point: the subhed on Robert Bruegmann’s recent op-ed in Politico, which reads: “Why urban yuppies have it all wrong.” It’s a tempting rhetorical trap, because so many people have chosen sides – or have had their side chosen for them – and because reducing transportation policy to a culture war allows everyone to feel like all they need to know about it is their own personal experience and feelings. It’s also, obviously, a totally symmetrical phenomenon: for every “urban yuppies” jab there’s an urbanist who makes some throwaway reference to suburbanites being fat, or rich, or whatever. It’s all very stupid, and as a general rule we should all stop judging each others’ choices. (We should also be more aware of the extent to which people don’t get to choose what kind of community they live in.)

If you want to live in a weird giant circle, that’s cool.

Anyway, I clicked on and read Bruegmann’s piece mainly because he’s the author of Sprawl: A Compact History, the reading of which I attempted to liveblog last fall. (See parts one, two, and three.) And I’m writing something about it partly because I’m too busy to write the longer thing I’ve been working on for a while, but also because I think there’s a really basic flaw to the column that’s both extremely important and not at all obvious to the casual reader.

Basically, Bruegmann’s argument is that sprawl is fine – good, even – because car travel is more efficient, timewise, than public transit, and so Atlanta shouldn’t be worried about its recent designation as the most sprawly city in the country. It certainly shouldn’t attempt to fix its problems with sprawl and congestion by building more public transit:

In any case, the remedy for the problem of traffic congestion is not some massive transit-building program… Atlanta, like virtually every American city, would probably benefit from an expansion of the transit system, particularly to accommodate those who cannot, for one reason or another, drive. Even a major expansion, however, is unlikely to alter in any fundamental way the fact that most people except for those traveling to or from a few very dense nodes are going to do most of their travel by private automobile because in greater Atlanta, as in greater New York or greater Paris, the automobile is simply so much faster and more convenient everywhere except at the very center. [my emphasis]

This is a really remarkable paragraph for a person who is an emeritus professor of urban planning to write, and then publish, without immediately requesting a retraction or addendum or something.

The reason, if you think about that bolded part for a just second, should be pretty clear: what Bruegmann is referring to as “the very center,” where “the automobile is simply so much faster and more convenient,” varies a crazily huge amount between New York, Paris, and Atlanta, both in absolute size but also more importantly as a proportion of the entire metropolitan area. That’s obvious to anyone who has been to these cities, or is even casually familiar with them, but we can get a pretty good estimate of how big each “very center” is by looking at each metro area’s mode share: the percentage of people who choose to take public transit to work. Presumably, after all, people choose transit mostly because it’s the most efficient way to get where they’re going, with some consideration also for the fact that it saves a ton of money.

In the Atlanta area, about 3.7% of people take public transit to work; in the New York area, it’s about 30%. Paris is skewed somewhat because a huge percentage of people walk, but the drive-transit split works out to about 67-33. So we can very roughly estimate that the “very core” makes up, respectively, 4%, 30%, and 33% of these cities.*

Why the huge difference? Because a much larger percentage of the New York and Paris metropolitan areas are built at a reasonably dense, pedestrian-friendly scale where it makes sense to walk to the nearest bus or train stop, and where, when you get off that bus or train, you are likely to be able to walk to your job without too much trouble, either. In those cities, what Bruegmann refers to as “a few very dense nodes” make up, in fact, a continuous fabric of urban neighborhoods that are home to a huge percentage of the metro area’s residents.

In other words, Bruegmann forgot to talk about land use. At all. He forgot to mention that Atlanta, like basically everywhere else in the country (including metropolitan New York!), has basically made it illegal to build neighborhoods that resemble the transit-friendly nodes that, in Atlanta as elsewhere, are some of the most popular parts of the metropolitan area. As a result, as greater Atlanta has grown over the last few decades, it has failed to produce the kind of neighborhoods that allow people to choose not to drive, regardless of the quality of the public transit network.

Midtown, an attractive neighborhood with a thriving retail, restaurant, and housing scene, as well as a decently-used MARTA station, is one of the only parts of the Atlanta region that has been allowed to develop like this.

Which makes the whole finger-wagging at urbanists pretty silly. It may be the case that Atlanta needs more roads; I don’t know. It seems very clear – as Bruegmann himself admits, pulling the kind of rhetorical underhandedness that bugged me in his otherwise thoughtful book – that Atlanta needs better public transit. But without spending hardly any money at all, it could make what transit it already has much more useful simply by changing its land-use laws and letting people build more housing and jobs around major bus and rail lines.

It’s a measure of just how invisible land use policy is, though, that Politico would publish an op-ed on urban form and transportation choices without thinking that it needed to spend a single word on the subject. It is my hope that one day this will not be possible.

* Obviously the Paris number is ridiculously low, since it’s unlikely that the 40% of people who walk, if they had to choose between driving and transit, would mostly choose to drive. But whatever, the broader point stands.

11 thoughts on “The author of “Sprawl” returns

      1. Thanks! I didn’t actually know the answer to that one. The things you find while Googling illustrations for your blog posts at 11 at night…

  1. Nitpick on the Paris numbers. Your source is for all trips, not just commute trips. Which is why “by foot” is so high (local trips to the neighborhood store would be on foot). Île de France is roughly the Paris Metropolitan Area, the commute split is roughly 50:50 car vs transit after excluding walking (7.8%) and bicycling (4.6%). The NYC metro would be about 1/3 transit after removing walk/bike (6.4%).

    The Paris – NYC difference is mostly from the outer parts of NYC being so much car oriented, the inner parts of both have similar transit usage. Non-center city commutes also get a higher driving share in NYC, partially because the Paris rail system is better at serving non-center city commutes.

    I do agree with the first part of Bruegmann’s paragraph: for a sprawling city like Atlanta it’s unlikely that even with good transit coverage, transit use would be that high. Many of the times I’ve read on blogs X city has terrible transit. It’s unreasonable to expect any city built like Atlanta to have good transit. It’s not the transit, it’s the layout. Which is kind of the point you made. A bit disappointing that the author of what could be an interesting book made such silly statements.

    1. Yeah, the Paris numbers are kind of dumb, as I tried to gesture at in the footnote. But I was unwilling to really dig for comparable stats because the point I was trying to use them to prove – that the “transit-friendly” area of Paris is a wildly different proportion of the total metro area than it is in Atlanta – is so blindingly obvious.

      I think it’s definitely true that the failure to think about land use is nearly as big an issue on the pro-transit side as it is among the antis. Bigger, maybe, since a lot of antis associate public transit, especially trains, with dense, “Manhattan-like” neighborhoods they want no part of, even if they don’t understand the non-transit regulations that make those neighborhoods impossible.

      “Sprawl” is still worth reading, probably, but you do need to be on the lookout for a lot of this sort of sleight-of-hand that Bruegmann, given his background, really ought to be above.

  2. It takes about two days of time spent in Atlanta to figure out that it is a transit disaster. I visited Atlanta twice last year – first for a national convention held at the downtown convention center and later for a one day business meeting held in a northern suburb about 25 miles north of downtown. The initial shock was for convention when not only my out-of-town colleagues stayed in the conventional center hotel but also staff from our Atlanta office in the northern suburb. Downtown was no more convenient for business purposes to them than to me traveling from Milwaukee. Four to six hours of commuting were the price that might be paid for an Atlanta employee to attend the conference but to not stay in the hotel (with a 2-3 hr commute each way).

    On the second visit, I had a 7:15 pm flight home Our meeting ended at 3:00 pm, but I hung around for a while to socialize with staff with whom there was a rare opportunity to meet face to face. Around 4 pm, it dawned on me that there was a significant possibility that 3-1/4 hrs might not be sufficient time during rush hour to make my flight – even though the trip to the airport was a journey only about half way across the metro area.

    From downtown Milwaukee, I can make it to O’Hare in about 1 hr and 15 minutes in good conditions and perhaps 2 hrs in heavy traffic. Downtown Chicago is reliably 90 minutes from downtown Milwaukee in any traffic conditions (via Amtrak). Even though Chicago also has terrible sprawl, the major highways are still functional (in particular the tollways) and these are supplemented by the 3 rail based transit systems.

    A point is that Atlanta’s transit system is so horrid, that 75% or more of the non-essential trips that people might like to make (such as going to a new restaurant downtown) are likely not made. I can live in another state and in a completely separate metro area and more reliably enjoy the attractions in Chicago that someone in an outer suburb of Atlanta can enjoy similar attractions in distant parts of their same metro area. In fact, given the significant number of direct flights from Milwaukee and Chicago to Atlanta, there’s a possibility on some days that I could make it to downtown Atlanta in the same number of hours from Milwaukee as my suburban Atlanta colleague from the outer ring suburb.

    1. Thanks for that. I spent a summer in Atlanta in 2010, but didn’t get much of a chance to explore. I did take the train a few times, and was impressed with how extensive it was and yet not actually very useful. It’s sort of like if every line were the Orange Line in Chicago, where you have to take a bus from the station to get anywhere – except everything is ten times more spread out and buses come half or a third as often.

  3. Hey Daniel, cool blog! As everyone knows, LA’s transit coverage is pretty awful. You mentioned how the notion of a city’s “center” varies substantially from place to place. Unless you want to count LA’s relatively small downtown, the city really has many centers and no center. But to my surprise and pleasure, I was able to beat rush hour traffic the other day using the sparkling new Expo light rail line from Downtown to Culver City (which they’re extending to Santa Monica currently). Not to say LA transit is anything to brag about, but I find it interesting that here of all places contradictions exist to what that author wrote.

    1. Cool. Thanks! LA definitely is impressive in how much it’s getting done, even if it got a late start.

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