Saturday, January 30, 2010

three paths to a low-car city

Well, I believe that Fort Wayne is primed to eventually be on this list.

An obvious caution: These are incorporated cities, which are things of very unequal size and shape bearing little relation to the organic form of urban regions. For example, Los Angeles at #49 would score much higher if the vast low-density San Fernando Valley were not part of the incorporated city, and high-density innermost suburbs like East Los Angeles (#39) were included instead.

If I then look across the whole list and try to identify factors that seem to explain, in different mixtures, each city's presence on the list, it seems there are three: age, poverty, and dominant universities (i.e. universities that are large relative to the size of the city). We might posit that these are the three most reliable paths low car ownership at the scale of an American city of 100,000 or more. Other things matter too -- obviously, it helps to be part of a larger urban agglomeration that delivers more transit service and adjacent activity. But every city's presence in the top 50 has an obvious explanation in one or more of these three factors.

Most cities on this list display two or more of these factors, but a few are models for just one of them. San Francisco on the list because of age -- a rare western city largely laid out before the car-dominated era, and thus by far the densest big city in the west. Berkeley is there because it's small city with a big university. And many cities are there because of relative poverty, including most of the cities that would be on everyone's list of America's toughest urban reinvention challenges.

It looks like the most common path to low car ownership is to be an old city. Many big cities on this list seem to be ranked by the sequence of urban settlement: northeast first, then midwest and south, then west coast, with just the oldest cities of each region rising onto the list. An American city that reached its present shape by 1940 is going to be similar in form to a lot of European cities of the same age, both in the range of urban ideas expressed in the city's design and in the transport modes for which it was optimized. Urban form determines whether owning a car is essential, or just helpful, or a nuisance. Obviously, urban forms that make car-free life easy are found most reliably in cities built when nobody owned cars.

The rest of the story Here

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