“Spatial Mismatch” and Why Density Alone Isn’t Enough

Density, density, density. It’s something of a mantra in sustainable
transportation circles. But in today’s featured post from the
Streetsblog Network, UrbanCincy points to the cautionary example of Atlanta — a place that could perhaps best be described as dense sprawl.

ATL_Skylines.jpgThe skylines of Atlanta. Photo by mattsal88 via ImageShack.

What
has happened in Atlanta is something that should be learned from.
Atlanta is arguably the king of sprawl in modern day America, but some
might say, well Fulton County has a higher population density than does
Hamilton County. Similar arguments can be applied to other less urban
regions than Cincinnati. The fact is that Fulton County is just about
built out with the exception of some land in the far southern reaches
of the county. Furthermore, this built-out county has extraordinarily
dense suburban areas including the central Perimeter area which
includes 30-story office towers, residential towers and 12-lane highway
systems to boot. The traffic is abysmal like much of the rest of
Atlanta and the problem is only going to get worse.

The
reason is a combination of densities and form. The suburban areas of
Atlanta, and even much of the urban areas, are almost entirely
car-dependent. So a low-density suburban area that is car-dependent is
one thing, but a high-density area of the same makeup is nightmarish.
The "spatial mismatch"
is exacerbated to a degree seen nowhere else in America than Atlanta
and Los Angeles (Los Angeles County is the most populated county in the
country at 9+ million). The people living in one area are working in
another creating a spatial mismatch that is exacerbated by the high
densities. They are not walking, biking or taking transit to a level
enough that would offset its densities.

When you hear of the next "new urbanist"
neighborhood on the fringes of a metropolitan area, or the next
lifestyle center that pitches itself as being the next best thing to an
authentic urban shopping experience, be wary. These are not real
communities where store owners live in addition to running their
business. The residents are most likely hopping in their car that is
parked nicely within one of their two (or more) dedicated parking
spaces and driving into the center city for work.

Higher
densities in our suburban areas are not the answers to our sprawl
issues. A correction of the spatial mismatch is what’s needed to truly
create a sustainable metropolitan area. Natural systems need to be
preserved in their truest form and our most fertile food-producing
regions need to be maintained for their highest and best use. Higher
densities in the core with high-density satellite neighborhoods
connected by high-quality transit options are the best possible
solutions.

Other news from around the network: Kansas Cyclist reports on efforts in Iowa and Colorado to ban bikes — that’s right, ban bikes — from some roads. Meanwhile, CommuteOrlandoBlog
is back from a bike trip through Amish country and has a very
thought-provoking post on the culture of speed vs. the culture of
trust. And Trains for America links to a debate over the relative merits of high-speed and maglev trains.

  • As I’ve said before, densification without centralization will fail. Density needs to be strategically implemented. In LA County, this means (1) continuing to bolster Downtown as the transit hub/center-most regional destination and strategically targeting a minimum number of existing “satellite” centers for further densification. I count five such satellite centers worthy of being targeted: Westwood, El Segundo, Long Beach, West Covina, and Universal City/Burbank Media District. Projects like the Foothill extension and development of places like Warner Center (like Century City before it) simply undermine attempts to reverse LA’s sprawling growth model.

  • Or they could redirect development into those corridors. There is no good reason why West Covina would be favored as a core center destination to be upgraded to El Segundo levels of density, instead of upgrading Pasadena to that level. Similarly, Century City and Westwood can and do co-exist. Basically you’re attempting to pick winners here, which I can’t agree with.

  • Actually, I am picking winners here because there are going to winners and losers here. However, I’m trying to pick winners whose success would most broadly benefit the region. I chose West Covina because it is the dominant office hub along the 10 corridor, it is the most centrally located city in the eastern San Gabriel valley, and it actually has two areas (The Plaza and the Eastland center) ideally suited for development as transit hubs.

    I chose Westwood because its advantageous location on the 405 and at the mouth of the Sepulveda Pass. Any trans-Sepulveda transit route will inevitably pass through Westwood but will most likely not swing east to Century City.

    I am also not saying older, closer-in centers like Pasadena, Glendale, and Hollywood shouldn’t continue to be upgraded. I omitted them because they are already established as urban hubs surrounding Downtown and they lack certain locational advantages to act as subregionional hubs for the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys.

    Also, the system we have already produces winners and losers, only more inequitably. Why does money for development more ably flow to the affluent periphery like Warner Center rather than being invested towards infrastructure at the core?

  • Dude the cat is already out of the bag.

    We’re not going to tear down the office towers in Glendale or the high-density apartments in Van Nuys. Furthermore, the density that exists in primarily minority and low-to-middle income communities like Hawthorne/Inglewood and the Gateway Cities (Cudahy, Bell, etc.) is as high as anywhere in the county outside of the Pico Union/Koreatown area, and the residents are very transit dependent. Keeping communities of that type in the consciousness of new urbanists seems to be a challenge; something I’d like to see change.

    Nonetheless, regarding the Glendales, Pasadenas, Van Nuyses and Warner Centers – better to get those cities to try and focus it’s new development around existing activity hubs and corridors (they do exist in the suburban outlays) that can be easily connected to a broad rapid transit network.

    I’ll say it again, it all begins with an ambitious rapid transit plan.

    Incidentally L.A.’s “dense sprawl” is one of the primary reasons the Get LA Moving Plan is a 98% grade separated system. It didn’t start out that way. But after doing a bunch of reading and better understanding how transit works, it was clear it was the only way to go. Indeed, I’m definitely not alone among urban planners who think at-grade light rail is not the solution to our region, given the corridors that would need to be served and the speed in which service would need to be delivered.

  • Well, the Silver Line still needs to change on that GLAM map.

    The community has spoken and if there is going to be rail service in that area it will be on Santa Monica Blvd. and not the lesser corridor of the western Sunset Strip.

  • David Galvan

    Grade separation is always better. It is also (almost) always significantly more expensive. Absolutism is not the answer here. The most cost-effective solution is usually to grade separate certain sections, and not others.

  • I’m not advocating tearing down or disinvesting inner ring communities surrounding Downtown. Step 1 is reinforcing Downtown and its surroundings (which includes and benefits Hollywood, Pico/Union, South Central, etc.). But centralizing around Downtown alone will never be enough. Step 2 needs to entail reinforcing these select satellite hubs, each of which have distinct locational and infrastructural advantages that make them ideal focal points for centralization/densification. By reinforcing these secondary hubs, we can begin tipping the balance of development inward rather than rather than ever outward.

    And Damian, a transit plan as ambitious as yours is going to require comprehensive regional planning and contentious land-use reform if it is to have any hope of realization or success. And peripheral development in Warner Center or Harbor Gateway in Torrance make that less and less likely.

  • UrbanCincy’s slam against New Urbanism is ignorant and unjustified, as there’s nothing New Urbanist about “high-density sprawl.” People have been building towers next to freeways for twenty years now, and it’s never done anything but increase congestion and car dependence.

    New Urbanism is first and foremost about creating pedestrian-friendly urban textures that enable people to do things without cars. This is the “design” side of the “Density+Design” mantra.

    There is also no shortage of New Urbanist critiques of Atlanta in particular. See For example James Howard Kunstler here: http://www.kunstler.com/excerpt_atlanta.htm

  • FixHighways

    John,

    Bravo. That point is the most important in all this, when a large plan like that occurs, there better have so many ducks in a row in the planning end to make this work. I’ve seen large highways like Atlanta and Houston with high-rises all over the place and that even with the transit component they will need to change the overall structure to make it work.

    We all applaud that effort of changing the scope of the planners to the transit dependant but the only way to change that is to change both the economic structure of this country from Free Market to socialism and change the Political structure from a Republic to a true democracy.

    That may be easier said then done and even then thats a double edge sword because now Gentrification rears its ugly head and start pricing these residents and neighborhoods out making that all moot to the point where it looks like Paris. The working class travelling the farthest distance and spending more on the transit.

  • Wad

    FixHighways wrote:

    We all applaud that effort of changing the scope of the planners to the transit dependant but the only way to change that is to change both the economic structure of this country from Free Market to socialism and change the Political structure from a Republic to a true democracy.

    So the only thing we could do is accept your false dichotomy or wait for a civilization to invade and conquer us and show how it has to be done? ;>

    If you look at city regions with great public transit, in Europe it was democratic governments of all ideologies wishing to preserve the old cities that were developed under monarchies. In eastern Asia it was done under governments who gave their technocrats free rein, where democracies weren’t a factor. (For Hong Kong and Singapore, substitute colonial powers and business elites in the appropriate places).

    Damien Goodmon wrote:

    Incidentally L.A.’s “dense sprawl” is one of the primary reasons the Get LA Moving Plan is a 98% grade separated system.

    Insisting on grade separation also means 98% of your map won’t get built.

    There’s an engineering threshold that must be met to make full grade separation a minimum standard. You have to have a volume of ridership that justifies such a high level of service that an at-grade line would cause both the transit service and the environment around it to fail.

    You have mentioned that you think 4 tracks are needed for most of these lines, with the spare two needed for express service. Why isn’t Metro planning for such a service? Well, if we’re talking about the existing L.A. subway, the theoretical capacity is running 6-car trains (the platform capacity) every 2 minutes (the signal capacity).

    Right now, we are running a base capacity of 6 minute service with 12 minutes on each Red and Purple Line tail. Weekday ridership is around 150,000 boardings. A ballpark estimate says that the subway would reach peak capacity when it hits 450,000 weekday boardings.

    That will be a problem we’ll have to visit when the subway gets extended to Westwood or “the sea”. Then what?

    It still wouldn’t make much sense to sink capital into an extra pair of tracks. Why? Notice I said 450,000 weekday boardings, not 450,000 Sunday boardings. If we get 450,000 people on the subway on a Sunday, then we’d need those tracks. Saturday ridership is about 2/3 of weekday ridership, and Sunday is about half to 55% of weekday ridership.

    Express tracks are a 24/7 commitment, but the express service might only be justified for rush hours, or weekdays only. You don’t want to commit so much money to capacity that won’t be used.

    Same thing with grade-separating every line even when ridership doesn’t justify it. And you’re building the lines for ridership, not speed or distance. If we built rail lines parallel to every freeway, would they all succeed? The 10, 405 and 605? Yes. The 2, 118 and 210? No.

  • “If you look at city regions with great public transit, in Europe it was democratic governments of all ideologies wishing to preserve the old cities that were developed under monarchies. In eastern Asia it was done under governments who gave their technocrats free rein, where democracies weren’t a factor. (For Hong Kong and Singapore, substitute colonial powers and business elites in the appropriate places).”

    Wad, it seems as if you are agreeing with me, in a very backwards manner. Notice how these things are based on older well defined core centers and protection of those things. Which by my ‘false dichotomy’ is actually what will need to happen. Either the political structure will need to change (Your Asian examples) or the makeup of the region needs to be redefined changes (From many centers to the focus of one core center with your European examples).

    The core of my argument.

  • Wad

    FixHighways wrote:

    Either the political structure will need to change (Your Asian examples) or the makeup of the region needs to be redefined changes (From many centers to the focus of one core center with your European examples).

    They are two distinct things, in fact.

    A political regime can affect land use, but not necessarily its consequences.

    Federal political regimes tend to produce several city regions. The U.S., Germany and Switzerland, for instance have several city regions, despite having different systems. They got the same results in different ways.

    Central political regimes tend to have one economic power, and it’s usually closely tied to the government capital. The U.K., France and most third world cities fall into this camp. Under these systems, you tend to see a relatively prosperous core and economically stagnant sub-city regions surrounding it.

    If you broadly want to see what defines a city and its core, I think James Howard Kunstler said it best when he said cities are where they are because they take up important space.

    Cities formed and grew around trade routes. The world’s prosperous cities generally started near a body of water, and wealth would gradually seep back to the hinterlands. This had been a common thread throughout history and across monarchies and republics.

  • Two distinct things? Your argument is sinking very fast with every reply.

    “Central political regimes tend to have one economic power, and it’s usually closely tied to the government capital. The U.K., France and most third world cities fall into this camp. Under these systems, you tend to see a relatively prosperous core and economically stagnant sub-city regions surrounding it.”

  • Wad

    FixHighways wrote:

    Your argument is sinking very fast with every reply.

    As if you can make that assessment. I don’t see you offering any sort of counterpoint in #13. You still have the chance. Don’t come into a war of wits unarmed.

    And yes, political structure and land use are distinct things. The political structure can determine the form of land use, but not its outcomes. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is low-hanging fruit, but the question of economic development was a bother even in the time of the czars.

    Furthermore, there is no single formula any city region can use to become prosperous — there are just too many things that do not mesh with the schedules or prerogatives of planners.

    Take the central vs. federal government argument. Federal governments and diffuse city regions are correlated; one does not cause the other. Don’t confuse the two. The U.S. has dozens of dynamic city regions. Canada has a federal system, too, yet they have only a half-dozen — and all of them are relatively close to the U.S. border.

    As for the tendency for central governments to cluster power near the capital, it doesn’t necessarily follow that federalism will cure the economic problem. The U.K. thought that expanding political autonomy might accrue benefits in long-struggling parts of Wales, Scotland and the north and not force those areas to be so dependent on London. It largely hasn’t worked. Why? The U.K. didn’t want to de-emphasize its London-centric economic focus on finance and high-cost, high-value transactions and try to revive its moribund agricultural and industrial sectors. And for good reason. London is unique, while the U.K.’s other cities are a dime a dozen. Deliberately weakening London would be a crap shoot that does not guarantee its declining cities would rebound.

    Federalizing can actually make a central government even worse off than before. The Balkan states had the misfortune to not only suffer through the process but have the verb named after them, too. Generally, though, federalism in a stagnant or declining state tends to produce zero-sum feuds among the new economic units.

  • FixHighways

    “As if you can make that assessment. I don’t see you offering any sort of counterpoint in #13. You still have the chance. Don’t come into a war of wits unarmed.”

    Why bother when you’re supplying all the facts and with every post you’ve say it’s a difference but not really a difference. When in fact the difference is based on what scale or structure we’re working with.

    I agree with the sentiment that Larger Poltical strucuture (Federal level) has no impact on land-uses but the Local political structure (City, County, even state makeup)has the greatest impact. If a local structure is more Conservative and try to deregulate the ability to plan and make it free-market that will affect the land-uses would it not.

    I think our “debate” has been more a misunderstanding of what political levels we’re discussing from. You started interpreting my comment of the Political structure based on the larger Country level, or micro scale (I think my term of “socialist” was the trigger, where I was thinking on the macro scale the smaller political structures.

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