For this sentimental season, I thought I'd post the first epilogue that I wrote for Human Transit. It got mixed reviews. Friends in architecture and urban policy loved it, while my friends from the literature world, who have a keen eye for literary truth, panned it with great affection. Fortunately, my editor at Island was of the latter group, so the book came to have the epilogue it has, rather than this one. (I also tried this as the basis of the epilogue, to similar reviews.)
All that is for the best. This thing is sentimental, as befits the season. Read it when you want a sentimental read, as we all do now and then.
If you don't know what I mean by "plumber," you'll figure it out from context. (It means you haven't read the book!)
Happy holidays. [And don't forget: early bird registration for my Washington DC short course (1/17-18) closes 12/28. Registration opens Wednesday for the Portland OR session on Feb 7-8. Hope to see you there.]
What if we learned to listen to our plumber? Suppose that every time we were confronted with a hard choice between different things that we value – a choice that’s geometrically unavoidable – we took a deep breath, and chose? We would need to make these choices as individuals, but also as communities, urban areas, and nations. If we did, what might be possible by the middle of this century?
Helen has just turned 75, but she’s lived many lives and plans to live a few more. Raised in a mining town in the Australian tropics, she's worked all over the world as a missionary and foreign aid worker. She married twice and raised three children, all of them as self-reliant as she is. When she was widowed in her mid-sixties, she moved to a small island in Indonesia to start a new school. It was a struggle to convince her to retire at 72, and come home to Australia.
She returned to a big house on a quarter-acre block in Theodore, a distant suburb of the Australian capital, Canberra. It was the house she’d grown up in, and she assumed she’d live out her life there, just as her mother did. But just after she turned 74, she nearly had a bad accident while driving. Looking back on it, she realized that she couldn’t react fast enough anymore, and that it was only a matter of luck that she hadn’t killed someone.
So she sold her car, and let her license expire. Now, her house in Theodore was a prison. To get anywhere, she faced a 500m walk to a bus stop, and then a bus only every half hour, none in the evening.
Back in 2015 her mother had dealt with the same problem, in the same house. For a decade her mother wrote letters and went to meetings to complain about how far she had to walk from her cul-de-sac house to a bus stop, how infrequently the buses ran, and how unfair that was. Whenever Helen visited her mother in those days, she heard all about this campaign, its frustrations and small victories.
As it happened, Helen had been dating a transit planner at the time. One night, over drinks, he talked her through the geometry proving that her mother’s cause was hopeless. He showed why very low-density suburbs with lots of pedestrian barriers could never generate enough ridership to support extensive transit service, even if the politicians were inclined to favor them.
The problem wasn’t the bus company’s failure to innovate, as her mother claimed. At one point he put it starkly: "If you want to know what quality of transit to expect, ask this question about your neighborhood: 'How far would transit have to go to serve 1000 people?'" Of course, in the labyrinth of Theodore the answer was several kilometers, while in Canberra's inner city it was just a few blocks.The problem was sheer geometry. It made sense.
So Helen looked at her options, and noticed that a place called Ainslie Village had just been redeveloped as a retirement complex. Formerly, it had been a cluster of temporary housing for the homeless located on a hillside cul-de-sac that precluded public transport. Now, however, it would now extend down to a nearby main street, Limestone Avenue, and would include a mixture of towers and small cabin-like units. The towers were cleverly arranged so that people could use their elevators to climb the hillside to the upper parts of the village, though of course many seniors preferred the exercise of climbing the hill.
The frequent transit line in front of Ainslie Village was the direct link between the city and the airport. Helen liked this feature. She still wanted to go overseas a couple of times a year, and to welcome visits from the friends she’d made all over the world.
But what also sold Helen on New Ainslie Village was the back side, where it faced a nature reserve. She could walk just a few hundred meters and feel immersed in the native woodland. At night the kangaroos would come down around the village to graze, just as they did in Theodore; Helen had always found tranquility in the patient curiosity with which kangaroos gaze at humans.
Helen seems to have achieved the dream that’s motivated so much suburban development, the desire to be in the city and the country at the same time. But it wasn't just good fortune. It was her own willingness to look at her choices, understand their consequences, and choose.
Mia, 35, lives with her two children and her mother in a mobile home on the east edge of Las Vegas. She manages the housekeeping department for a hotel-casino, and after saving for years, she finally put back enough money to buy a mobile home.
She grew up just a mile from here. Her mother lost her house to foreclosure in the Crash of 2008 and had to move the family into a small apartment. In 2010 their old car finally broke down for good, and there was no money to replace it. So she and her mother walked to the bus stop most days, and those walks are one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.
The stop for buses into the city was right outside her bedroom window, but there was a long, high wall blocking the way, built by a well-meaning developer who thought that even though they couldn’t afford a detached home, they’d still appreciate the feeling of a “gated community.” Thanks to the wall, she and her mother had to walk for ¼ mile through the streets of their development, then through the so-called “gate,” and then ¼ mile back along the fast boulevard to the bus stop.
The boulevard was built for speed, so the lanes were wide and the sidewalk was narrow. Her mother would try to talk with her as they walked, but every time a car flew past they had to pause, their lives interrupted. Soon, Mia learned to hold her breath briefly in those moments, so she wouldn’t get a lung full of exhaust. Even so, it was dusty and hot in the summer, while in winter rains they’d be drenched by the mud kicked up by passing cars. On this narrow sidewalk between the traffic and the wall there was nowhere to escape it.
Of course, that got them only to the stop for buses to the city. Coming home, the bus would drop them on the opposite side of the boulevard. There was no safe place to cross anywhere near the bus stop, so they simply had to run for it. Trying to dash across the fast lanes, they felt like criminals, as though simply living their lives was illegal.
So when Mia was able to buy her own mobile home, she looked hard for one that would be better than that. Realtors still pointed her toward “gated communities” of mobile homes. Things had improved in these communities since she was a child; some of them now had little mini-bus services that wound their way through the twisting streets, so there was an alternative to walking out to the fast boulevard. A realtor gave her a big pitch about how great these little buses were, with pictures of the plush interior and the cute paint scheme, but she just asked to see the timetable. Sure enough, they were too slow and infrequent to be useful to her. She needed to be close to a frequent transit stop, and it had to be safe to cross the street right at the stop, so that she could get to the stops on both sides.
Obviously, she also wanted places she and her children could walk to, not just the little playground of their mobile home park but also a larger park nearby and a grocery store. She liked the location of the grocery store next to the bus stop, so that she could buy fresh food for dinner on her commute home. That’s why she chose this mobile home park over a number of others.
She also made sure that the bus line is likely to be there for a while. She still remembers hearing, as a child, that she couldn’t go to see her best friend on Sundays anymore, because their Sunday bus service had been cut. Fortunately, since then, the transit agency has identified certain lines as its “core frequent network,” where they, and the city governments, want to encourage the most intensive ridership. That’s part of why her mobile home park, and the grocery store at her bus stop, were built where they are. The Las Vegas economy is still prone to big crashes, so the transit system has to cut service now and then, but she knows that while there are no guarantees in life, the service she relies on is likely to survive, because so many people ride it.
Mia’s life may never be as secure as she’d like, but she’s found a place that she can afford, where her children can grow up safely getting around on bicycles, and where her mobility feels as permanent and reliable as anything can be in this fast-changing city of illusions.
Kurt, 45, loves his cars. He has two, both four-wheel drive, and his wife has another. As a realtor, he likes his hybrid jeep for getting around to the suburban homes he sells, but he also has a big, rough, high-riding thing he calls Monster. He talks about it as though it were his dog, and he takes a rebellious pride in its dreadful fuel-efficiency and 1990s styling. Monster is his best friend when he gets up into the Rockies, especially off-road.
Three years ago, Kurt took a year off work to build a house with his wife and two teenage sons. It’s on an acre of pine trees on a gravel road five miles from the nearest town, 40 miles from downtown Denver. He feels a surge of pride every time he comes home to it. Now and then, his eye will fall on a particular joint or beam and he’ll remember the day they set it in place, and how good that felt. Just as important, he feels that the project solidified them as a family, and helped his boys learn focus and discipline.
There’s no transit anywhere nearby, but he wouldn’t expect there to be. It was a hassle until his boys got drivers licenses; they always needed rides to the nearest bus stop, five miles away, or even to the nearest rapid transit station, 30 miles away. But as they turned 16, he bought hybrid motorbikes for them. Now they’re fine on their own.
Kurt’s life is not as expensive as it looks, at least not as measured in dollars. Even with fuel at $10/gallon, the hybrid jeep is an efficient way to get around. His workday involves many short trips in low-density suburbs (a market that transit could never serve well) so the jeep’s fuel is just part of the cost of doing business. He spends a fortune on fuel for his weekend trips with Monster, but this is the family’s main recreational expense, and he’s budgeted for it. As for his house, it would have been expensive to buy. But by building it himself, he saved at least as much as he lost in salary during the year off. So he feels he came out ahead.
Kurt hates the city. He drives his jeep into Denver now and then to visit his mother, who lives in a tower downtown. She loves it there, but when they sit in the coffeeshop downstairs from her apartment, he’s always a little on edge with all the random bustle of strangers. He also hates parking there, all that pointless circling in concrete parking structures. His mother keeps telling him he could park at a light rail station and take the train in. It doesn’t sound like fun to him, but his wife doesn’t mind doing it. Maybe he’ll try it sometime.
But really, he’d rather be driving Monster into the Rockies, with his boys, and some fishing rods, and the sky.
Helen, Mia, and Kurt are different people with different goals, situations, and resources -- but all are citizens of free democracies in the mid-21st Century, societies built on the notion that adults should make free choices and accept their consequences.
Kurt doesn’t expect the approval of transit experts like me, but I have no quarrel with him. Like Helen and Mia, Kurt chose his living situation with a full awareness of what it would mean for transportation, as well as for other aspects of his family's life. His choice imposes some burdens on the environment, but he pays prices – at the pump, certainly, but mostly in inconvenience – that capture the cost of those burdens. He has no reason to feel guilty about his choices.
At times, as the 21st century unrolled, it seemed that freedom without guilt was a dying dream. The crises bearing down on humanity seemed to be dragging everyone into embittered dependence on strangers. So many problems needed complex solutions requiring lots of government action, while big corporations perfected the art of evading responsibility for their behavior. Perhaps most depressing, it was becoming clear that no matter how free a citizen tried to be, how much responsibility she took for her own life, you could still run numbers that showed she was somehow subsidized, freeloading. It made everyone suspicious.
But that last insight was the way out. Eventually, a critical mass of people got stopped getting angry when they were told they were being subsidized, and started asking “okay, how much?”
The movement started in transportation, in cities. People started figuring out that by sitting in traffic instead of getting where they were going, they were paying time to save money. Why, they asked? After all, money may not be abundant, but it’s a renewable resource. Time is the least renewable resource of all.
So people started demanding the right to pay money to save time. It started in the early 2000s with the London and Singapore congestion charges, and gradually spread to the idea that parking costs should rise and fall with demand, so that there would always be a free space, and you’d never drive in circles forever looking for one. On the freeways, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes offered a faster ride at a higher price, calibrating the price carefully so that the traffic in the lane never got so heavy as to obstruct the buses using it. Those buses were important, because they ensured that everyone had the freedom to move quickly along the highway, even if they didn’t want to pay the toll.
There was plenty of blowback. Less wealthy people feared that they’d be left with abandoned infrastructure, much as, in the late 20th century, they had been left with substandard schools. Governments responded with market interventions to ensure that the housing market responded to low-income needs, not just through subsidies but also through good urban design. For example, Las Vegas did the work of “sprawl repair” so that Mia could find a house she can afford that wouldn’t force her to depend on a car. “Affordable housing” gave way to “affordable living.” Governments and lenders no longer encourage poorer people to live in places where the housing is cheap because mobility is poor, and where they’ll feel trapped into owning a car that they can’t afford. Instead, the whole mix of housing and transportation costs is considered before a home is deemed affordable.
There were fights and compromises. But over time, enough people realized that accurate pricing was the only fair way to achieve both sustainability and freedom. So the price of scarce things was allowed to rise. Fuel got more expensive as oil supplies declined, which motivated the development of cleaner car technologies.
Still, no innovation could change the scarcity of road space in cities, because that was a geometry problem. Humanity had tried a supply-side solution, by building more sprawling cities, and had found that this just doesn't work. By building more road space they had just motivated people to drive further. Some still imagined that we could escape into the third dimension, via flying cars, but most people understood at once that it’s scary enough to have car accidents on the roads, without worrying about them happening over your head.
Once all this became widely obvious, things changed fast. Work continued on big, expensive rapid transit lines, but work began, urgently, on transit options that could be developed faster and could spread quickly across big cities. The Los Angeles Metro Rapid buses had been one such experiment, and though they became overextended and had to be cut back for a while, they helped usher in an era of innovation in street-running transit options and were now considered essential features of the boulevards that they plied.
Now, with more consensus, tools could be deployed to match the scale of the problem. Suddenly, on-street transit lanes became common – in fact, they became the most reliable way to travel in many parts of big cities. As more people cared about the quality of transit vehicles, those vehicles got better. Bus and light rail technologies converged on a long, sleek, high capacity vehicle that could slide efficiently along a transit lane, carrying people beyond their walking distance without ever making them felt that they’d left the street.
All this became possible, in part, because people started measuring their own mobility, and making choices that would improve it. With tools inspired by the WalkScore.com and Mapnificent.net travel time maps from back in 2010, people began to see where they could get to easily, and where they couldn’t, and if they couldn’t, they asked why.
As this happened, many people lost interest in symbols of mobility, such as rails in the street that symbolize permanence and airplane-like noses on streetcars that symbolize speed. Instead, they began insisting that cities spend transit money on creating actual mobility – projects that would reduce their travel time to their jobs, their friends, and all the riches of the city. Others continued to prefer to focus on the style, feel, and sense of fun in a transit service. So there was a debate about those things, and compromises that suited the culture of each community.
These clear and bracing debates transformed the housing market, but not as much as some people feared. Density is rising along major transit lines, for people who want high mobility, but away from those lines you can still get a little bungalow, or a big house with a pool on a quarter-acre, or even a house like Kurt’s in the woods, if you’re willing to accept the costs that come with each choice. You can also get many things in between, like the transit-friendly mobile home where Mia lives. Mia is what some transportation textbooks would call a captive rider, but she’s shown that even if you’re poor, your choices matter.
At every stage in this process, communities had to work, through government, on understanding their real choices. Patiently, over and over, they were asked the same kind of question: “Do you want more of this, or more of that? You have to choose.” Planning professionals started focusing on making these “plumber’s questions” visible, so that everyone could see they were unavoidable, instead of letting them hide inside other debates. Elected officials began to accept that they were paid to make these hard choices, after honest conversations with their constituents.
The conversations were hard. People wanted to hide from them. But they had to happen. The choices had to be made, so they were. As a result, Helen, Mia, and Kurt are all free to make their own choices, and to bestow that same freedom on their children.