Saturday, July 5, 2008

Has it finally become time for a little T-O-D?

You cannot escape the rising gas prices these days: either on the real road or here, in what you might consider the safety net of the information superhighway. But media outlets, bloggers, pundits have a never ceasing output regarding OPEC and the rising cost of driving.
Some recent articles posted on Planetizen this past week had me thinking of something I had written last year as part of the text I wrote for my master's thesis. The articles discussed the mass exodus that is, and will continue to, take place from America's streets as gas prices impede on people's self-mobility. The article discusses that the mass exodus will hit the low-income commuters the most:
Over the next four years, we are likely to witness the greatest mass exodus of vehicles off America’s highways in history. By 2012,there should be some 10 million fewer vehicles on American roadways than there are today—a decline that dwarfs all previous adjustments including those during the two OPEC oil shocks (see pages 4-8). Many of those in the exit lane will be low income Americans from households earning less than $25,000 per year. Incredibly, over 10 million of those American households own more than one car.

Soon they won’t own any.

In the development of my thesis, which focused on new prototypes for mass transit interchanges in Atlanta, GA, one of the driving forces behind it were the social inequalities that arose in automobile based urban environments. When I wrote it, and was doing my research two years ago on the subject, the inequalities were severe, but mass transit had an opportunity to reduce them if it became more efficient and more pervasive. At that time gas in Atlanta was below $2/gallon but rising fast--now it's at $3, still rising, with the potential to get as high as $7.
With these types of numbers, is there any doubt to the fact that we need to do something about our public transit? Only a few cities have mass transit systems that really work. Now, I would love it if all of a sudden tons of public money was invested into mass transit systems in order to enlarge and upgrade the systems. But this is unrealistic. Other strategies need to be examined. One problem is that the architecture and urban design around transit stations is undercooked--too low density, not enough imagination. Peter Calthorpe and the TOD contingent offer one potential strategy. But there is still the need for more research, more strategic development, and definitely more implementation.

To conclude, I want to include an excerpt from the text I wrote last year:

For many people, Atlanta is synonymous with the automobile, one of the preeminent poster-children of car culture. From the first automobile show in Atlanta in 1909, the car has been the driving force behind the city’s urban morphology. Historically this was not always the case. Atlanta was founded in 1837 as a railroad town; it was initially called Terminus, because it was the terminating point for the three main railroad companies in the southeast. Due to its lack of natural resources, rail oriented industries such as freight and goods markets were its early sources of economic generation and urban growth. Therefore, since it’s most humble beginnings, Atlanta has maintained a strong focus on the potential of mobility, of both goods and people, as a catalyst for urban growth and change. Historically, the city has benefited from this investment in transportation infrastructure both in terms of its physical expansion and it’s generation of outside investment in the city. It can be inferred from the history of transportation planning policy in Atlanta that this latter benefit has often prompted the city’s most extravagant infrastructural investments. Evidence of this permeates throughout the city’s history, the two most notable examples today being the city’s immense investment in airport infrastructure and in the highly criticized heavy rail mass transit system known as MARTA.

Unfortunately, along with this optimistic view of the blessings bestowed upon the city of Atlanta from its investment in transportation infrastructure run two dark undercurrents. The first is a history of increased marginalization of Atlanta’s lower classes, particularly her African American citizens. This has been caused by two main phenomena, one economic and one spatial. As the city shifted to an emphasis on auto-mobility, the high cost of entry precluded her most destitute citizens from gaining access to jobs as Atlanta’s economic epicenter migrated to the north along with her most affluent citizens. The spatial phenomena was a much more malicious act as Atlanta’s political and business leaders have often utilized transportation infrastructure as a means to sequester, enclave, and dislocate Atlanta’s lower class citizens.

The second negative affect of Atlanta’s transportation policies involves the emerging awareness of the harms placed on both the physical well-being of her citizens and the environment from its overabundant reliance on the automobile. Atlanta consistently ranks among the most polluted cities of the United States—it has failed to meet the EPA’s ozone standards since 1978. In 1996, the EPA threatened to block future federal funding for highway construction if it did not take significant steps to reduce ozone and smog levels. Additionally, Atlanta also ranks high among pedestrian fatalities and obesity. While these two phenomena may be seen as unrelated, research performed at the Center for Disease Control has demonstrated the health impacts of physical environments, sedentary lifestyles, and long commutes.

These two critiques against current transportation practices—one pertaining to social equity, one to environmental and health costs—demand that the hegemony of the automobile in Atlanta’s urban policy and design come to an end. Fortunately, the city has recently taken measures to expand her transit options in ways that operate across the various scales of mobility: local, regional, and global. This thesis explores the opportunities for converting Atlanta’s hierarchical system of transportation into a meshwork of multiple transportation modes by strategically capitalizing on the various modes of transit being introduced into the city. As such, this thesis will attempt to address the two main problems that have historically plagued the city’s typical transportation strategies: the inability to create a seamless integration across various modes of transit, and the missed opportunity of utilizing the city’s investment in mass transit as a catalyst for urban development.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

A note on this:
In last week's elections, there was a MARTA poll on the Gwinnett ballot (one of the largest commuter counties in suburban Atlanta) regarding bringing the mass transit rail to the suburbs. Here's an article by the AJC about it, and the somewhat changing attitudes on MARTA (at least by a majority of the democrates in that area).