I continue to hear concerns from some in the environmental community that world population will overtake us and cause ecological collapse. On the other side I hear concerns that environmentalists will force population control upon us. The pity of this back and forth is that population isn’t really the problem. Cartograms of world population and world consumption suggest that total consumption has little relationship to population particularly in the areas with the youngest, fastest growing populations like Africa and South America.
What the cartograms make clear is that one “solution” to the ecological problem is poverty. Of course that’s not a solution that most would find desirable. So the real challenge moving forward is not how we control population, but how we can bring billions out of poverty sustainably. The good news is that some of this is self-correcting. Wealthier, more educated families tend to have fewer children. As millions in the third world “urbanize,” Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, touts the idea that “cities diffuse the population bomb,” i.e. that city dwellers have slower birth rates. Cities also happen to be where people in the developed world have the lowest energy footprint. (Note: The United Nations definition of “urban” also includes suburbs.)
China may be one of the most challenging places because they are a huge population with a quickly growing middle class. They are unfortunately copying some of North America’s worst habits such as sprawling suburban residential areas and mass car dependency. This the real challenge.
Alongside skyrocketing population China, India, and other developing countries have been intentionally or by neglect giving more of their street space to the least efficient form of urban transportation, the single passenger automobile. This has happened in cities with a strong history of urban cycling like Beijing and Shanghai. This serves both to endanger those continuing to use the more efficient forms of transportation (walking, cycling, and public transit) and encourage anyone with the means to get a private car as soon as they are able. Fortunately this seems to be turning around in Beijing perhaps as China turns to more modern examples of U.S. planning such as the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policy in New York City.
Of course there is more to consumption and sustainable living than transportation. In the area of food there is also clearly room for improvement before we start worrying about population growth as a fundamental problem. Nonetheless transportation is a great example demonstrating that how we live is as important as how many of us live on the planet.
“New Yorkers, widely considered to be tough and selfish, are suddenly eager to share cellphones, drink beer with strangers at their local bars, and to cook meals at home — since without subways there is no way to go out for dinner and get home easily.”
Mitchell Moss, CNN.com, October, 30 2012
The statement that a New Yorker can’t go out to dinner without the subway is perplexing, all the more so in that it comes from an NYU professor of Urban Policy and Planning who presumably has spent some time living or at least working in Manhattan. The comment was a footnote in a much longer article which had an entirely different focus, but as a former Manhattanite it was enough to catch my eye. In a city with a Walkscore of 85 (99-100 on most of the island) you can hardly step out your door in many neighborhoods without stumbling into a restaurant or at least a take-out joint. Of those neighborhoods that lack restaurants within walking distance most also lack quick access to a subway station. The idea that the subway is necessary for most New Yorkers to “go out for dinner” is odd claim. Was this a quickly written oversight on behalf of the professor? Perhaps he is just exceedingly picky about which restaurants he frequents. You could presume he meant go out to dinner with friends but then the issue would be more the location of his friends than the location of the restaurant and cooking at home wouldn’t solve that problem. I should note of course that his account accurately reflects that for many city residents taking the subway to your favorite pasta or to catch up with an old friend over fries is much more convenient than taking a taxi or driving a car (if you even have one). However for the many residents who bypass the kitchen on a daily basis, when it comes to simply getting fed, nothing beats walking down to the end of the block.
The subway closure has been labeled “debilitating” and this is in large part true. Thirty-seven percent of New Yorkers rely on the Subway system daily to get to work. In addition to the 1.6 million who live on the island, another 2 million commute into Manhattan from elsewhere (I couldn’t quickly turn up a commuter number for the whole city). For some Manhattanites, taking the subway is as much a convenience as a necessity. Ten percent already walk to work. On an island 2 miles wide and 10 miles long, many more likely live within a 20 or 30 minute walk of work or school, which is quite a luxury in a country where the vast majority of citizens are lucky to live within a 20 minute walk of a bus stop. And of course many could take the bus (the horror!); granted the number of buses required to get every New Yorker to work would be unwieldy as evidenced by the overcrowded buses Wednesday morning.
Certainly the subway is the lifeblood of the city’s economy (and to some degree the nations as home to Wall Street other national headquarters). But the daily chores of those who actually live in the city limits, as represented by visits to the grocery, the diner, a few local shops, the hardware store, local schools, playgrounds, and usually at least one decent sit-down restaurant, can actually go on without much fuss without subway because the city is composed of a dense web of walkable neighborhoods. Of course other storm issues such as power outages and delivery delays may prevent those local businesses from actually providing service during a crisis, but the issue is not the lack of a subway to get residents to the door.
What kind of impact will this event and its media coverage have on the hearts and minds of potential transit users and car ditchers across the country? Will some fear becoming too reliant on public transportation? Manhattan always makes a good news story so there’s an over-reporting bias that risks leading some to believe they have abundantly more challenges than the rest of us. Of course suburban systems are vulnerable too. When Hurricane Hugo hit my suburban neighborhood 45 minutes inland in 1989, downed trees made it impassable by car. Schools remained closed for up to two weeks. We were thrilled when we regained power and were given the green light to drink tap water without pre-boiling. There are certainly huge implications of the subway shutdown and any sort of long-term closure would be hugely disruptive, but the picture that all elements of daily life are disrupted by the closure is misleading. Perhaps part of the problem is that the city that never sleeps, and increasingly the country that never stops working, expects normal life to resume so soon after disaster strikes.
One thing I think we can all agree on, it never hurts to be within walking distance of your local bar & grill.
Update: A fellow urbanist, John Massengale in New York, informs me that going out dinner is in fact an issue for those living south of 40th street due restaurants suffering from “no electricity, no refrigeration and a shortage of staff.” There are also issues with credit card processing and ATMs. Store shelves in lower Manhattan are sparse. Of course as another colleague noted if the restaurant on your block doesn’t have power, your kitchen probably doesn’t either. Uptown in contrast the restaurants are full and the shelves are stocked. Downtowners do have the option of walking a few miles uptown, cabs are available and buses are returning. If you have a gym membership a walk uptown could also mean a hot shower. I would also note that Moss’s distinction between beer and restaurants may be valid. Better drink it before it goes sour! Highlights and challenges: A brick oven pizzeria in the Village able to operate without power gives away free pizza. A restauranteur considered opening by candlelight but deciding against because of lack of functioning bathrooms.
Articles & Updates on City Life During and After the Storm:
- Storm Aftermath: New York Times Live Updates (“Where the City of Darkness Meets the City of Light,” “New York Restaurant Industry Takes a Hit”)
- Cities Are the Best Places to Ride Out a Hurricane (cached)
- Unlike the Chains, Local Businesses Stay Open in Sandy’s Wake
- NYC Small Businesses Open after Sandy
The author is a former resident of Manhattan and weathered Hugo in Summerville, South Carolina.
Last night in downtown Orlando (which is not in top 50 bike cities and not really a college area) I saw about a dozen bicyclists after the July 4th fireworks during my five block walk down a side street. But then anecdotes about how many cyclists one person observed on a particular day are statistically irrelevant.
Here are some actual statistics: Nationally 0.55% of adults bike to work (ACS 2009). That’s the primary information given to us by the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Of course it can be further broken down geographically and demographically. That’s a statistic but does it show the whole picture? It doesn’t count students (grade school or college), it doesn’t count non-work trips (85% of trips are non-work according to NHTS) and there are other grey areas like commuters who bike to work a few days a week or those who bike to or from a transit station. It also doesn’t take into account occasional users; for example, while only about 2% of adults walk to work (ACS), 41% took 4 or more walk trips in a survey week (NHTS 2009 Profile). There are even concerns that lower income citizens and apartment dwellers are systematically under-reported.
Nationally about 1% of all trips are made by bike (all trips, not just commute trips). That compares to 1.9% of trips made by transit and about 10% by walking (NHTS 2009). Now that National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS) statistic has some problems of it’s own. It still does not include trip chaining (riding a bike to or from transit), though that data is available elsewhere in the NHTS dataset. It condenses “recreational” with “social” biking (this is partially addressed in the extended survey). There’s a substantive difference in riding down a recreational trail for exercise and going out to dinner, especially in the needs of those bicyclists, but it would seem that the NHTS conflates these two which is particularly problematic given these account for 60% of bicycle trips (and before you assume that all those trips are exercise rides, note that 25% of trips by car are dubbed “Social/Recreational”).
The next logical step would be to break out to break out urban/rural, central cities, regions, etc. In certain cities and neighborhoods the bicycle percentages are much higher and in other cities and many suburban/rural areas bicycles as transportation are virtually nonexistent. The good news is that bicycling is higher in center cities where space is at a premium. This is good because a parked or moving bicycle takes up less space than a car. It’s also challenging because the political competition for space in center cities is incredibly high.
To give a taste of what we might find if we went further into the statistics, Portland has the highest bicycle commute percentage in the U.S. with 5.8%; impressive by cycle commute standards but low enough to draw grimaces from skeptics. If we assume that Portlanders bike share of non-work trips is similar to the national statistics, then we can reasonably expect that number to nearly double to an even more respectable sounding 10% or more. Keep in mind that there are also people walking, biking and taking public transportation, so it’s not as if bikes are the only trade-off to driving. Frankly I don’t think getting people in Manhattan to switch from walking or taking transit to biking is necessarily a big win. In fact people who bike to work may walk to lunch; or people who drive to work may bike to lunch. It’s important to look at both the percent of people who cycle and percent of trips by bike. The percentage of people who bike for some trips shows a willingness, ability and interest in biking when the conditions are right. The percentage of trips actually taken by bike gives a fuller pictures of how people travel our streets on a daily basis.
As an added transport statistical tip, if anyone tries to compare bicycle or walk statistics with driving statistics on a per mile basis, tell them to go take a hike! The 10.4% share of trips which are taken on foot plunges to a 0.7% share when considered on a per mile basis. Why? Because no one takes a 10 mile walk trip to go out to dinner unless they’re incredibly athletic or desperate! Similarly, bikes go from 1.0% to 0.2% when considered in miles. It makes all the sense in the world that average walk or bike trip is shorter than the average car trip. Most people who have access to all three modes will choose the car for the longest trips.
There’s plenty more to be statistically analyzed, especially at the geographic level. Alas my time for delving into transportation statistics has expired for the day so I can’t get into specific numbers. Hopefully I have at least instilled in you a healthy skepticism for bicycle and transportation statistics, so that you can ask the right questions about the data presented to you.
We’re going back to the future. The Congress for the New Urbanism started as a hard-working, interactive meeting of the minds where the few hundred attendees were actively engaged in moving forward the mission of urbanism. As the years wore on and the Congress grew in numbers, education became more central to CNU’s mission and the annual Congress started to look more like a classroom than a parliament. Fast forward to CNU 20.
The dynamism is back. Rapid-fire “Open Innovation” presentations in the “basement” play to a packed full room and when time permits overflow into debate and discussion. Panels are conversations rather than just a series of related presentations. New designs are critiqued in the hallways. The Open Source room is constantly abuzz with conversation. The Art Room has hands-on demonstrations. Member-led initiatives to solve problems and spread new solutions to larger audiences are popping up left and right.
CNU is offering more free content. In conjunction with this increase in interactive content, CNU is posting more of the “presentation” style content on web for free. Several of the plenaries were broadcast live on the web and we expect to see the slides with audio from most of the breakouts going up on the web soon. In addition we’ve had great video content going up from First + Main and others. This is a momentous development. In this new age holding intellectual content close to the vest is not necessarily the best way to maximize revenue for the organization so they can continue their important work and is certainly no the most efficient way spread our message. We, as urbanists, want as many people as possible to understand our mission and so they might be partners in future projects and change the built environment for the better.
And it’s good timing. The world of information is rapidly changing. Planners and Architects are getting their continuing education credits from free webinars. TED.com is a leader in intellectual content offering high quality, well-produced content “Free to the World”. People don’t need to buy cross-country plane tickets to hear educational content. What they do need to cross the country for is dynamic, compressed, interactive work-shopping of the ideas that will carry their practice and our movement forward in the following year.
In order for the Congress as an event to stay relevant the model must evolve, and it is doing so. Attendees need to be present for the tumultuous exchanges that are difficult to capture on podcast and to contribute to those debates. New participants need to learn by engaging and getting their intellects in gear. They need to make non-digital eye contact with the people who have the potential to be their colleagues, friends, and workmates for the next decades. Even if we see much more of our engagement moving to the digital sphere, shaking hands with your re-tweeter or listserve sparring partner enhances the digital experience, defusing tension, and helping participants to understand the personalities and perspectives they are engaging with when they return to the web.
My next post will get into a little more detail on the new types of content at CNU and how they’re succeeding. In the meantime, hats off to CNU for recognizing the changing world and being nimble enough to meet it.
Rapid-fire, open topic presentations with faces new and old from an open call for proposals:
In Room 1J during all Friday and Saturday breakouts.
Friday, May 11th, 2012:
10:30am | From Balanced Roads to Transit Oriented Development
– Incorporating Feeling and Habit into Bicycling Advocacy
– Tracks to TOD in Somerville: One Community’s Approach to TOD Planning
– Fare-Free Transit
Saturday, May 12th, 2012:
10:45am Tactical Urbanism, Economics and Community
– Tactical Urbanism Workshop
– The Importance of Local Infrastructure Financing
– Economic Incentives to Reduce Sprawl
– Killing the Civic Inferiority Complex
– Randall Anway – Deep Placemaking
For questions or feedback about the Open Innovation Track, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am running for the national board of the Congress for the New Urbanism!
Find out more here.
If you’re a member, vote here (for Eliza Harris).
I would write more but I think the above links contain my thoughts and I’m pretty busy right now trying to do my part for CNU 20, running CNU Orlando, trying to contribute to a Sprawl Retrofit event and of course my wonderful job!