The Nimblest City
Slate readers' best ideas for making city transportation more efficient.
Certain modes of transit punched above their weight given their actual share of U.S. commuting. Cycling ideas were heavily represented, which perhaps speaks to the sense of political engagement by cyclists (and their ascendancy in certain urban transportation departments). High-speed rail, which is rapidly transforming Europe—air travel is now acquiring rail's onetime reputation for being unpleasant and inefficient—also had its partisans. (As did conventional rail: "Garl" argued that "there remains the need for efficient railway operations which fall someplace between streetcars and bullet trains.") But there seemed to be less of a clamor for a less glamorous, but no less potentially transformative, technology: bus rapid transit. As described by Robert Sullivan, the bus, an unfairly maligned (and decidedly unsexy) symbol of traffic congestion, has in some urban areas been "re-engineered," now "driving in lanes reserved exclusively for buses and … speeding through cities like trains in the street. They are becoming more like subways." But they're much cheaper, of course, which helps explain the popularity of BRT in the developing world. At the exhibit Our Cities Ourselves at New York's Center for Architecture, in which 10 architects imagine "sustainable" transport systems for 10 cities, BRT—either existing or proposed—was apparent in exhibits about cities ranging from Jakarta to Johannesburg.
A recurring refrain of that exhibit, as it happens, is the difficulty of merging highway and automobile infrastructure with a livable urban fabric, and it was noteworthy that there weren't many suggestions in the Nimble Cities forum for trying to redesign the city to further accommodate the car—a mainstay of postwar planning. Instead of Futurama, the future is likely to look more like Disneyworld—bus networks, walkable streets, streetcars and maybe a monorail or two. (While we're on the subject, I'm wondering why we are not seeing a big push for the return of pneumatic tube systems for shipping goods in crowded cities, like those still found at Disneyworld itself and Roosevelt Island, N.Y.) Projects like Mexico City's Segundo Piso, the second deck added to a section of urban highway (a project which was said to consume nearly half the city's transportation budget in the first half of the decade while serving only 1 percent of its population), seem less in vogue than projects like Seoul's Cheonggye Freeway teardown and subsequent revitalization. While the car, particularly in America, will continue to dominate the broader transportation picture, some suggest that we have already seen the peak of car use in cities and that the future of the urban car is smaller, safer (in particular for those outside the vehicle), and shared.
If one had to try to sum up the submissions as a whole, I would say the emphasis was on making city transport smarter—with more optimal routing and matching of supply and demand; more real-time knowledge of departures and arrivals and travel times and congestion; more dynamic, market-based pricing; funding that more accurately matches use; forging better connections between development and transportation; making better use of existing road space; and, in essence, bringing some of the lessons and technologies of our electronic networks to our human transport networks.
Paying more to travel faster, as drivers from Florida to California are now doing via high-occupancy toll lanes, is, after all, not unlike the "freemium" services on the Internet; e.g., pay a bit of money to Pandora, which offers a free music-streaming service, and you get better sound, no commercial interruptions, and other perks. And while most of the recommendations were evolutionary rather than revolutionary, who knows when the next great transportation change might come along? After all, within the span of a few decades in the late 19th century, the world was rocked first by the bicycle (whose partisans brought us the good roads we thought the train was going to make obsolete) and then by the car. Who's to say blimps, air bicycles, or even intra-urban roller coasters won't play a part in the city of the future?
Read the introduction to our Nimble Cities Hive here. Read about how eliminating parking spaces could improve urban transportation, how bicycle highways could increase cycling, and whether airport-style moving walkways could be useful in cities. Read about the most popular entries here. View all contest entries by clicking the button below.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.