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.