Friday, January 29, 2010

In America, our priorities are a bit messed up. Each of the three things in the title of this post are very important to our country’s future, for different reasons, yet their importance has yet to be fully appreciated. More importantly, all three are deeply interrelated. It is hard to have one without the others.

Why Transit Matters:

As China gains more and more of a share of the world’s automobiles, a larger and larger share of the world’s oil will go there as well. While America currently subsidizes gasoline at a price that makes it viable for nearly everyone in the country to drive everywhere, that will become impractical in the near future. Gas prices will go up. Even in the unlikely event that China’s auto share does not increase dramatically, America’s infrastructure is getting decrepit at such a rate that at some point in the near future, it will be necessary to make a major investment in it in order to keep the country running at close to our current standard of living. One of the most commonly proposed ways to fund such a large investment is an increase in the gas tax. Currently, America’s gas tax is 18.5 cents, and has been at that level since 1993. Simply due to inflation, it should increase, and will probably increase substantially. Suffice to say, one way or another, gas prices are probably going up. That will ultimately make it financially impossible for an increasing proportion of the population to own, service, and drive one or multiple cars, as they currently do. In addition, a larger proportion of the low-income population of America is moving to the suburbs, as cost of living in cities is increasing beyond their means. Thus, poverty is steady or declining in cities as it increases in suburbs. Mobility is already a problem for those of lower income and only becomes a bigger problem due to the mobility issues common in the suburbs.

The answer to all these problems is better public transit. America now has some of the worst public transit in the developed world, though it had some of the best early this past century. Rather than improve the systems to accommodate recent record growth, as well as anticipate future needs, America is currently cutting transit service across the board. For example, here in Chicago, the CTA is the second largest public transit system in the country. On February 7th, it will be cutting 14% of its service. Despite serving 1.6 million people per day, it is considered OK politically to let this occur. Even New York City, as transit-dependent a city as exists in America, with 10 million riders per day, is facing massive cuts.

For preservation, decreasing transit options has instant negative effects. Because most preservation and adaptive reuse projects occur in deeply urbanized and dense areas, these tend to be older areas that were built before the age of the car in America. The advantage of such areas is that they tend to be walkable and physically the kind of place that people will pay a lot of money to live in. However, these areas tend to be very dependent on transit. Without buses and trains (formerly streetcars, usually), these areas would need massive parking garages, which to be built would necessarily destroy the small scale sense of place and character that defines many of the areas that we preserve. Thus, the parking garages have not been built, and parking remains hard to find. And, for the most part, that is a good thing. In a few years when less people are driving and many hulking concrete parking garages stand empty, these areas will be glad they were not built. But transit needs to remain strong for these areas to work.

Both preservation and transit relate directly to sustainability, or being “green.” It is such a buzzword nowadays that people have little idea what it really means. Recycling is great, but if you carry your recycling to the dump in an SUV, that kind of negates the good effect. The same hypocrisy is evident in many aspects of the modern green movement. For example, tearing down a green building to build a new LEED-certified building is a joke. It will take that new building at least 30, perhaps more like 70, years to make back the amount of energy wasted by sending that old building to the landfill.

Both preservation and transit are intensely green. There is a saying in the preservation movement that says “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” There are few greener options than renovating an existing building. There are few more harmful options to the environment than sending an old building to the landfill. By demolishing and carting away an old building’s remains, not only is the energy saved that would be used to build the new building, but a massive amount of energy is saved that would be used in demolition and in either burning or recycling the waste.

Transit is “green” in several ways. Biking or walking are as green as they get. No energy is wasted. However, many people use trains and buses. There is a huge caveat to this. Despite common wisdom, transit is not necessarily, in the United States, greener than using a car. YET. The average ridership in a car is 1.6 passengers or so, the average ridership in a train car is about 22 passengers, and the average ridership in a bus is 9 passengers. At that ridership, the three modes have about the same energy-efficiency. However, given that trains and buses tend to be very full during rush hour, at least in Chicago. Thus, at that time of day, they are 5-6 times as energy efficient as a car. So, for your typical commuter, transit is much more green. At night, not necessarily, but to foster a society where people can be dependent on transit, those late night and half-full trains and buses are necessary. However, Australia, Europe, and Asia don’t have the same problem. The energy-efficiency of transit there is 2.5 to 4 times that of cars. Why? Because ridership is so high there that buses and trains don’t run half-empty like they do here. So, the answer in America is that transit will be green when it is more heavily used at all times of day – ie. When more people start depending on it. Another problem is that much more energy-efficient buses are available than are often used currently, but they are not yet widely used because of a lack of will to spend the money on them. Thus, transit is very much part of our green future, even though the statistics don’t show it yet.

This was a wide-ranging post. I suppose it came close to a rant, but I felt it was important to get my philosophy on urbanity out there, especially given the threat of deep transit cuts in two weeks. All these are topics central to the future of design, city planning, architecture, and preservation, so I will mention them from time to time in the future on this blog, hopefully in more digestible portions.

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Posted by Posted by The Loosh at 10:58 AM