Slate readers' best ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

The Hive
Collective wisdom.
July 14 2010 6:45 PM

The Nimblest City

Slate readers' best ideas for making city transportation more efficient.

All the votes have been tallied, the loose chads swept off the floor, and "Nimble Cities," the latest in Slate's "Hive" series, has drawn to a close.

I challenged readers to channel their inner Campbell Scott, or rather the idealistic transportation planner he played in the 1992 film Singles, and come up with innovative solutions for the increasingly pressing problems of moving people around and between cities in an efficient, safe, and perhaps even pleasurable manner.

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Yesterday, I sifted through the top three vote getters: narrow cars, smart buses, and bike stations. But there were myriad other ideas, ranging from calls to restructure property taxes or change zoning laws; to ideas to encourage pedestrianism, such as doing away with "no-gun zones" (one feels safer on one's one walk when strapped with a Glock, you see) or distributing free umbrellas (not a bad idea per se—nor, come to think of it, is distributing free walking shoes or free lemonade—but wider sidewalks and better crossings would probably rank higher on most pedestrians' lists). A few things struck me. One was the number of reader pseudonyms based on characters in novels by Ayn Rand (that patron saint of chat-room ressentiment).

But I was also a bit surprised that readers didn't suggest more ideas already being enacted in places around the world. In the last few weeks, for example, I've observed some interesting schemes in Hoboken, N.J., and Bogotá, Colombia. In the former, the "Corner Cars" program combines Bici-style bike-share immediacy and the backing of a big rental-car company (Hertz) in a Zipcar-esque program that utilizes dedicated on-street parking—so 90 percent of the city is no more than five minutes away from a car. The latter city has become deservedly famous for the Trasmilenio, its bus rapid transit system, but it also has a plan, similar to one in Mexico City, called pico y placa, that bans cars from the city on certain days based on their license plate number. (Those who can afford it simply buy another car, but the Mexico City program has nonetheless had an effect.)

Slate V: How To Beat Traffic

Perhaps people in those cities don't think these schemes are worthwhile, or all that novel, or perhaps they simply don't pay attention; whatever the case, readers tended to focus on what could be rather than what's out there. Automated cars, for example, were a favorite idea. These certainly have the potential to iron out some congestion (particularly in highway driving) and improve safety, though it's less clear that urban vehicular congestion is going to be solved simply by taking human control away from the wheel. "Car trains," which combine the personal mobility of cars with the efficiency (and chance for a productive commute) of train travel, were suggested by a few people—certainly an interesting idea, but one wonders, among other things, what sort of vast infrastructure would be required for boarding and disembarking.

Given the intractability of urban congestion, it's not surprising that another popular idea was to simply do away with commuting altogether, whether by living closer to work or telecommuting or having "staggered" work times (an idea that has been discussed since the early 20th century). Indeed, moving bits is a lot cheaper and faster than moving people, but given the acknowledged productivity benefits of working in physical proximity, it's unclear how far we can go in doing away with human congestion (although at least one person, in a radical Jeffersonian vein, suggested we decamp from large cities altogether).

Other ideas that found traction were raising the gas tax (something that actually hasn't been done since the age of Singles, even though doing so would surely dampen the nation's growing annual mileage and help make up for huge funding gaps in our wobbly road infrastructure). There were, similarly, a lot of calls to increase taxes on parking or reform municipal parking codes (as previously discussed). On the flip side, there were many calls for making public transit free—to essentially make it a big loss-leader for cities, the costs of which would theoretically be recouped through higher productivity, more economic activity, etc. (Several cities have already put such programs in place.) And old standby ideas, like HOV lanes—and carpooling in general—had their fans. It's been estimated that if one in five solo drivers simply got out of their own car, rush-hour congestion could be eliminated. But at the moment, cities don't make it easy for informal carpoolers.

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.

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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.

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