Odes to City Planners

David Byrne, whose claim to expertise in urban economics is that he visited lots of cities as a member of a rock and roll band, has written a book about bicycling. To publicize it, he wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about what makes a city livable.

I might find his opinions credible if they weren’t simply a rehash of New Urbanism. Tellingly, he commits the ultimate blunder of the neophyte would-be urban planner: he disses Los Angeles for not having “sufficient density.”

As it happens, only seven U.S. cities with populations over 500,000 are denser than Los Angeles: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. If you go down to populations over 400,000, there is an eighth: Los Angeles’ neighbor, Long Beach, California. Another Los Angeles suburb, East LA, only has 120,000 people but is denser than all of the bigger cities except New York.

Byrne also says he prefers large cities, and even San Francisco might be too small for him. Since Boston and Washington are both smaller than San Francisco, does this mean that Byrne finds all but five cities in the U.S. to be unlivable? Or just that he doesn’t know what he is talking about?

Byrne claims to be writing from the point of view of a cyclist, but low-density cities tend to be far more pleasant to cycle in than high-density ones. There is less traffic, and since the cities tend to be younger the roads are broader and the pavement smoother. Personally, I’ll take the eminently walkable and cyclable unincorporated town of 240 people that I live in over Byrne’s giant cities any time.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published what amounts to a love letter to long-range urban planners by an architect named Roger Lewis. Lewis describes long-range planners as courageous visionaries.

How courageous do you have to be to make decisions about other people’s land and resources — decisions that will cost you nothing but could cost others millions or (collectively) trillions of dollars? How much of a visionary do you have to be to slavishly follow the latest urban planning fad, no matter how poorly it suits your city?

Of course, lots of urban planners think that people like me are just misguided or don’t understand what they really do. The solution, says a planner named Michael Rodriguez, is to teach planning to school children.

I wonder what he would teach them. How to fabricate data because you really have no idea what is going to happen in the next 2, much less 50, years? How to interpret anything anyone in a charrette tells you so that it fits into your preconceived plan? Maybe he will just stick with the basics, like how Los Angeles — the nation’s densest urban area and eighth densest major city — is an example of evil, low-density sprawl.

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25 thoughts on “Odes to City Planners

  1. the highwayman

    The Autoplanner: I wonder what he would teach them. How to fabricate data because you really have no idea what is going to happen in the next 2, much less 50, years? How to interpret anything anyone in a charrette tells you so that it fits into your preconceived plan?

    THWM: Now that’s the pot calling the kettle black.

  2. ws

    Sprawl is not just about density, there’s many aspects to this, one being auto-dependency, and LA fits that picture pretty well. It’s transportation use is very low, especially for the nation’s second largest city, and one of the world’s largest.

    Speaking of fabricating data, Randall:

    http://www.lewis.ucla.edu/GIScontest/OsgoogEtAl_LANYDensity_report.pdf

    There’s something missing in your articles and that’s maps. If data’s not mapped, I really don’t trust it.

    LA is dense sprawl, if anything. It does not have a true urban center that characterizes the city, and lacks a lot of design elements that world-class urban cities have.

  3. JimKarlock

    ws: Sprawl is not just about density, there’s many aspects to this, one being auto-dependency, and LA fits that picture pretty well. It’s transportation use is very low, especially for the nation’s second largest city,
    JK: When will you learn to look at data.
    LA’s bus system is second ONLY to NYC for annual passenger-miles. (No, I didn’t lookup transit passenger-miles per capita, so that may tell a different story. Why don’t you look it up, then we will have a more complete picture?)

    ws: Speaking of fabricating data, Randall:
    http://www.lewis.ucla.edu/GIScontest/OsgoogEtAl_LANYDensity_report.pdf
    JK: From your refrence:
    While it is true that the urbanized area of Los Angeles has a higher population density than the urbanized area of Los Angeles, our analysis shows that the City of Los Angeles is much less dense than the City of New York.
    JK: What is the basis of you accusation against Randall? Looks like YOU ARE DOING THE FABRICATING.

    If you point is that the higher city center density is a better measure, say that instead of making unfounded accusations.

    ws: It does not have a true urban center that characterizes the city, and lacks a lot of design elements that world-class urban cities have.
    JK: LA is a world class city because it matters to the world, not because it meets some idiot planner’s preconceived notions about city form. Especially when that ideal form was made obsolete over 80 years ago by the automobile, then further by the fax machine, UPS / FedEx and the computer.

    Face it the planners are wrong again.

    Thanks
    JK

  4. prk166

    “Byrne claims to be writing from the point of view of a cyclist, but low-density cities tend to be far more pleasant to cycle in than high-density ones. There is less traffic, and since the cities tend to be younger the roads are broader and the pavement smoother. Personally, I’ll take the eminently walkable and cyclable unincorporated town of 240 people that I live in over Byrne’s giant cities any time.” – The antiplanner

    While I can’t imagine trying to bike through Manhattan during rush hour, would biking through Queens or Brooklyn really be any different than biking through Cleveland or Phoenix?

  5. Borealis

    That was a good article about someone’s view of cities. A few observations:

    – Roughly half of his criteria are significantly affected by planning, and about half are not.

    – His criteria tend more toward a city being a nice place to visit, and not necessarily a nice place to live in. Certainly his view is of a wealthy visitor who likes to cycle.

    – Some of the cities he likes are grand because a dictator decided how to build the city. Dictators are more efficient in many ways and tend toward dramatic developments, but they have some downsides ……

  6. bennett

    AP: “Byrne claims to be writing from the point of view of a cyclist, but low-density cities tend to be far more pleasant to cycle in than high-density ones. There is less traffic, and since the cities tend to be younger the roads are broader and the pavement smoother. Personally, I’ll take the eminently walkable and cyclable unincorporated town of 240 people that I live in over Byrne’s giant cities any time.”

    I just saw his presentation in Austin last night. You have his perspective all wrong. Byrne writes from the perspective of a cyclist who uses his bike as his primary mode of transportation. He takes it to work. He takes it to the store. He takes it to the pub. He’s not a fat suburbanite that is trying desperately not to get diabetes riding around a suburban cul de sac. I’ve heard this argument around here before. “Suburbs are so much more pleasant to walk around.” The problem is that in the burbs you can’t walk to get somewhere you need to go. He likes big cities because he can get everywhere he needs to get to on a bike. He is not a recreational cyclist, as your quote assumes. He is a cyclist.

  7. Mike

    prk166: While I can’t imagine trying to bike through Manhattan during rush hour, would biking through Queens or Brooklyn really be any different than biking through Cleveland or Phoenix?

    I can report firsthand that there’s a difference, having done both. Though I’m not sure you really meant to use Queens or Brooklyn as your basis for comparison. Those are boroughs where auto use actually takes place… though there’s still tremendous bus and subway use. Only Staten Island is more autocentric, as a borough, than those two. Work your way northwest to Manhattan or the Bronx, though, and you’d be a fool to use a car, and biking becomes a good option EVEN THOUGH you’re constantly dodging anything and everything… and everybody. And even though virtually every sidewalk and square foot of pavement is a maintenance disaster.

    Meanwhile Phoenix… well, that depends. If it’s 117 in the shade, then biking is a bad idea, period. Notwithstanding this year’s late summer heat wave (wiping out the good memories of our cool June ’09), biking in Phoenix between September and May is generally outstanding. The suburbs tend to have wide sidewalks, in some cases explicitly marked as bike routes, and/or bike LANES at the edges of the road, and you rarely have to play dodge-em with the general population. The flip side is that your aggregate biking distance will be greater. YMMV. Very, very different from biking in any part of New York City… the NYC roads are so narrow, as a rule, that adding a bike lane to any of them would be absurd.

    I recently visited Oklahoma City to see some friends, and I can’t see how anyone would bike. Road edges are torn all to hell, distances are significant, and auto traffic is omnipresent. But I suppose you still could, if you got used to it somehow.

  8. ws

    JK:“When will you learn to look at data. LA’s bus system is second ONLY to NYC for annual passenger-miles. (No, I didn’t lookup transit passenger-miles per capita, so that may tell a different story. Why don’t you look it up, then we will have a more complete picture?)

    ws: I already knew the data and have seen LA’s low transit use per capita. Funny, how you say “learn to look up data” but you rely on me to post it. Remember, LA is one of the world’s largest cities. Transit use per capita:

    http://adronbhall.com/blogs/my_transportation_obsession/post/2009/05/10/Unlinked-Passenger-Trips-Per-Capita-(2006).aspx

    Hey look, Portland’s (7th best transit use in the nation) ahead of Los Angeles by a good number, an urban area of 11.7 million people!

    JK:“What is the basis of you accusation against Randall? Looks like YOU ARE DOING THE FABRICATING.

    If you point is that the higher city center density is a better measure, say that instead of making unfounded accusations.”

    ws: It’s a “gotcha” statistic. LA is dense sprawl and New York is a very dense core with sprawl on the edges. The maps paint a better picture of density than statistics ever will. LA’s megaopolis is very geographically constrained and limited due to water issues.

  9. ws

    Mike:“Meanwhile Phoenix… well, that depends. If it’s 117 in the shade, then biking is a bad idea, period. Notwithstanding this year’s late summer heat wave (wiping out the good memories of our cool June ‘09), biking in Phoenix between September and May is generally outstanding. The suburbs tend to have wide sidewalks, in some cases explicitly marked as bike routes, and/or bike LANES at the edges of the road, and you rarely have to play dodge-em with the general population. The flip side is that your aggregate biking distance will be greater. YMMV. Very, very different from biking in any part of New York City… the NYC roads are so narrow, as a rule, that adding a bike lane to any of them would be absurd.”

    ws:The city of Pheonix is not designed as if it were in a scorching desert. Should it have developed narrower streets and modestly high buildings, it could take advantage of the shade much more efficiently, and not let impervious surface build up too much heat.

  10. C. P. Zilliacus

    Mike wrote:

    > Meanwhile Phoenix… well, that depends. If it’s 117 in the shade,
    > then biking is a bad idea, period. Notwithstanding this year’s
    > late summer heat wave (wiping out the good memories of our
    > cool June ‘09), biking in Phoenix between September and May
    > is generally outstanding.

    Mike, thanks for mentioning a huge variable when we discuss bike riding.

    The Nordic nations have, as a rule, excellent bike and pedestrian facilities – and they do get used by walkers and bike riders – when the weather allows. But bike ridership in the middle of the cold and dark Nordic winter is about as attractive (to most people) as riding in the peak heat of the Arizona summer.

  11. ws

    CPZ:

    1) What are their bike and walking rates in winter?

    2) All travel means during harsh winters goes down everywhere – including automobile travel.

    Anecdotes aside, my pedestrian travels went up during the harsh winter we had in Portland this past winter. Most people’s did.

  12. Mike

    ws: The city of Pheonix is not designed as if it were in a scorching desert.

    Well, that depends. Buildings designed by non-local architects stand out rather obviously — everything from orientation to materials to configuration tells a story of how resistant a building is to the heat, and there are some spectacular successes AND failures to be seen. As for the city grid, alas, it is a GRID. NSEW. That limits a great deal of what might be done in terms of orientation, leaving the main tools for shade to be foliage and buildings. Where there is not a building providing shade, fairly often there is indeed foliage. The suburban streets are known for it: wide sidewalks adjoining green strips.

    That said, touching upon CPZ’s comment, there is scorching heat for a while, but relatively little rain and no snow. I would suspect rain and snow in the Nordic areas and more northerly areas are greater obstacles to cycling, and for longer aggregate periods of time, than the worst of Phoenix’s July-August heat oven.* In terms of finding a more temperate city without as much precip, I must admit only a few places spring to mind. Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Reno/Sparks/CC, even Tucson to some degree (it’s at altitude), perhaps inland California. All fairly dry locales. Anyone know whether cycling is big in any of those areas?

    * Only during the monsoon is it both super-hot AND humid. A dedicated cyclist is unlikely to be forced off the streets by the dry heat of late May or early June. As always, results may vary.

  13. JimKarlock

    ws: it has only been within the last 25 years that L.A. area has started to rebuild their transit system.
    JK: Why is that a good thing? What is the social good of mass transit?

    1. It does not save energy compared to cars, (or small cars in exceptional cases.)

    2. Since it does not save energy, it doesn’t’ reduce CO2 (for those still hanging on to that delusion, even as another major scientific fraud at the very foundation of the IPCC’s claims is exposed. See http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/09/27/quote-of-the-week-20-ding-dong-the-stick-is-dead/)

    3. It costs many times what driving costs.

    Its only value appears to be to export parking space from obsolete central cities. (Some may claim that it helps the poor, but the reality is that the poor are helped better with help getting a car.
    See: http://blip.tv/file/2652144 )

    Thanks
    JK

  14. ws

    JK:

    I didn’t say that quote. You meant to quote THWM. You consistently make rudimentary errors with math, quotes, etc. (this isn’t a big deal, obviously). You gettin’ old or something?

  15. RJ

    … biking in Phoenix between September and May is generally outstanding.

    Biking in Cleveland between December and March is often impossible, and quite unpleasant between November and mid-May.

  16. the highwayman

    JK: Its only value appears to be to export parking space from obsolete central cities. (Some may claim that it helps the poor, but the reality is that the poor are helped better with help getting a car.

    THWM: That reminds of John Finley Scott with his “Obsolete Pre-Automotive Cites” crap.

    You’re not a libertarian, you are a damn social engineer/planner.

    There are better types of auto use with out the over head. http://www.zipcar.com/

  17. the highwayman

    ws said: JK, I didn’t say that quote. You meant to quote THWM. You consistently make rudimentary errors with math, quotes, etc. (this isn’t a big deal, obviously). You gettin’ old or something?

    THWM: Mr.Karlock just wants to be a social engineering autocrat.

    You see WS, like with Autoplanner or Cato or Reason, it’s not about having individual rights & responsibility within the context of being part of a larger society.

    It’s about maintaining economic power & control for an oligarchy.

    Just as with O’Toole’s or Cox’s reports. The outcome is always planned & predermined to show to trains & transit as bad things. It’s not about choice, it’s about control.

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