The Limits of Cute Transportation

This is a draft I saved back in November and then forgot about. I figure I must’ve accidentally published it for a few minutes, because more than one person has emailed me asking where it went. So, here it is.

So here’s the east approaches to the Marquam Bridge, in Portland.

Roll up to a long-range planning meeting and you’re liable to hear idle talk about tunneling or removal or somesuch. It doesn’t matter what the actual likelihood of this happening is. Dislike of the Marquam bridge is sort of a litmus test for serious Portland movers-and-shakers. Not only is it a freeway, it’s ugly. Or that’s the official line anyway. What’s not ugly? The Streetcar.

Cute. With a cutesy sign in the background to emphasize the cuteness. But, not particularly useful. The streetcar is actually slower than equivalent bus routes (though the existence of rail bias produces a decent amount of ridership) and is best thought of as a land development tool. What does a useful, modern urban rail line look like?

Super useful. Carries nearly 800,000 people a day. Trains reach 60mph between stops. The Metro is the very key to the District’s success; without it, you simply couldn’t have continued to locate major government and office buildings inside the Beltway, and the residential blocks would not have followed either. But note that we’re way outside of “cute” now, and into 70’s modernism. Exceedingly well-executed modernism, which has held up surprisingly well. But not cute.

What does an even higher level of service look like?

That’s the Sanyo Shinkansen, a couple of miles outside of Shin-Osaka. That’s about a 1km radius curve, acceptable only in close proximity to stations where all trains stop. Get a bit further out and the curves are substantially broader. But now we’re back to the Marquam bridge, we’re back to the “ugly.” The sort of thing that right-thinking NIMBYs would oppose as a blight on the landscape.

When you read criticism of urban highway networks, you see a fair bit of criticism that highways and cars are “out of scale” and “don’t fit” in an urban context. This kind of talk is synonymous for “highways are not cute.” Well, quality rail infrastructure isn’t cute either. If you’re triggered by the sight of a multi-deck freeway interchange, you’re not prepared for high speed rail either. Cuteness shackles you to forever move at the speed of surface light rail.

So you need to have the ability to rise above cute. Houston does. Vancouver and Toronto do, but Montreal doesn’t appear to. New York used to, but whether they can still go big and brutalist remains to be seen.

To keep improving the transport network, you need a citizenry that’s cool with concrete. And it’s this reason why I’d wager we’ll see at least three true high-speed rail systems in operation (California, Texas, and a third – maybe Florida, maybe NC, maybe DesertXpress, maybe electrified Cascades) before we ever see major capacity expansions in the Northeast, such as an inland route from NYC to Boston via Hartford. Beyond the capital and political issues, you have a citizenry that isn’t equipped to appreciate the aesthetics.

6 thoughts on “The Limits of Cute Transportation”

  1. The Shinkansen line has a several times higher capacity than an elevated freeway of equivalent size/ugliness. It could also have been built underground without encountering some of the issues of underground freeways (like ventilation). It may be hard to build such a line through US cities nowadays, but it is even harder to build a freeway of equal capacity through a populated area.

    It is hard to tell from your streetcar picture how long the streetcar is. Streetcars are more inflexible that buses, but that is of minimal importance if they have separate lanes. Since they can be 3-4 times as long as a typical bus, they can have much higher capacity and lower labor costs when the traffic level is high. Therefore, it is accepted practice in Europe to substitute streetcars (“trams”) for buses once passenger volume surpasses a certain threshold. This is for utility, not “cuteness”. An underground subway is of course even more effective at carrying passengers than a streetcar, but the construction cost is also much much higher, so it is justified only in limited situations. European metropolitan areas of under 1 million people typically have no subways (though this is changing with recent advances in automated driverless subways), while larger cities, except for the very largest, only have subways on a few core arteries. And that is with the higher European level of public transit ridership.

  2. “When you read criticism of urban highway networks, you see a fair bit of criticism that highways and cars are ‘out of scale’ and ‘don’t fit’ in an urban context. This kind of talk is synonymous for ‘highways are not cute.'”

    No, it essentially means usability. Urban areas built to human scale make daily tasks by pedestrians easier. For example, a city may have several squares that act as market hubs that are spaced a mile apart. This way, anywhere one chooses to live, they have access to a store within a half-mile walk.

    Highways, as they are built in Houston, serve as the main means of a person’s access to businesses that serve daily tasks. These are not on a human scale.

  3. I think “ugly” is an extremely subjective terms of urban planning. Whether it’s blocks of apartment buildings, some ratty buildings strewn across a dated highway (seriously, Hempstead Road), cookie-cooker subdivisions, or soul-sucking downtowns. It’s all hideous depending on what view you look at it from.

    Highways get unfairly singled out for everything.

  4. Lots going on here between the post and comments… I agree with the basic premise. When I first moved to LA from the East Coast, I was impressed with the scale of concrete being poured – both highway and transit. Something that is routine in LA – like say, the Expo Line overpasses at La Brea, La Cienega, and Venice – would ignite an interminable firestorm of NIMBYism in Boston. In fact, in LA, they complain when you don’t grade separate everything.

    Regarding Eric’s comment on streetcars: most of this response can be outsourced to Jarrett Walker but note that what we have in the US is not the useful European implementation of a streetcar, i.e. to increase route capacity, but an attempt to imitate European transit forms without the requisite land use changes. Portland’s streetcar runs on headways of about 15-20 minutes – it’s not even close to maxing out the capacity of a bus line. Like the proposed Downtown LA streetcar, the logic is not “let’s build a streetcar because existing bus lines are tapped out”, the logic is “let’s build a streetcar because World Class(TM) cities have streetcars”.

    Regarding Derek’s comment: “human scale” is often synonymous with “cute”. There’s nothing human scale about the NYC subway – most people would consider the elevated sections to be pretty crummy streetscapes – but it is incredibly useful. There’s nothing about freeways that means nearby neighborhoods can’t be walkable… like, say, this.

    Which brings us to PS3D’s comment about highways getting blamed for everything: yep. And it’s the other side of the streetcar coin. The land use schemes prevalent in most cities drive the possible transportation options. Zoning issues seem to be getting more traction lately, but there is still a weird fixation on forcing the “right” transportation outcomes.

  5. Half of the NIMBY battle is a reasonable fear of noise, both for highways and elevated rail. The Muzha (brown) elevated line in Taipei was built over a busy street thru some very nice neighborhoods. It’s very quiet. From inside my hotel room, I could hear the trains but the cars on the street were always louder.

    If you spend a lot of money on what an elevated track’s support structures look like, they could conceivably be attractive. In theory. If the choice is whether to build at grade or build elevated at three times the cost of grade or to build a subway at seven times the cost of grade, spending an extra 30% to make an elevated line attractive might be the way to go.

    You can choose to accept ugly and loud, but with transit you don’t have to if you’re willing to pay a little more.

  6. I sincerely hope Florida does HSR- we certainly are the state where it makes the most sense- security theatre has made Florida a state with a lot of 3 and 5 hour drives that have no alternative (amtrak is 2 trains per day, and they take longer than driving).

    All Aboard Florida is doing a higher-speed rail (110 mph) from Miami to Orlando because it’s gotten so bad. We’ve also got a commuter rail that’s a full-on 60 miles for the first phase- because I-4 is a parking lot and what little room remains on the medians is HOPED to eventually be used for HSR.

    What we need is a spine from Homestead to Jacksonville via FEC track, or I-95, or A1A or U.S. 1- basically the atlantic coast. We need something along I-4, and I-275 around Tampa Bay, Tampa bay to naples (probably along I-75) and something along the Tamiami Trail ro Alligator alley (preferably the former) from Miami to Naples.

    That misses our capital and flagship university, but I honestly think it would be easier to move those institutions than to build rail out to the middle of nowhere where they currently are.

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