Driven to Despair

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 16 total)
  • Author
  • #174220
    Jay Everett

    This video report from PBS’s Blueprint America series originally aired in October of 2008. Its definately worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.

    Driven to Despair

    With gas prices spiking and home values crumbling, the American working class dream of a cheap commute to work from ever-appreciating houses on the fringes of suburbia has become more like an American nightmare. NOW on PBS, with Blueprint America, examines this crisis through the example of southern California.


    Roland Beinert

    I just spent $1327.00 on car repairs.
    I’m not saying that to support any either one of your points of view. I’m really just whining.

    Jay Everett

    Roland, sorry to hear that, I hope that investment lasts a while.

    Andrew, I see where you are coming from. I think that individual choices and financial responsibilities are key to many of the problems we face. From my point of view automobile-centric land use and transportation planning fits within the definition of “unsustainable” just as buying more home than we can afford, living too far from where we work, and relying too heavily on credit to support our lifestyles does.

    The period in 2008 when gas was over $4 a gallon clearly illustrated how dependent we (Americans) are on foreign oil, and how little it takes to put millions of us into considerable financial pain. We probably wont see the car disappear any time soon, but our transportation system has to become less dependent on petroleum, and the sooner the better.

    Hybrids and electric cars are technologies that are showing the most promise for helping to make significant reductions to our dependance on oil for transportation, but many other options such as hydrogen fuel cells still have many technological obstacles to overcome. Building alternative forms of transportation like Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail, Rubber-tire trolleys, streetcars, and commuter rail that move people more efficiently and adopting land use policies that promote transit oriented development are things that we can do today without any major technological advances.

    Also all transit trips begin and end with a pedestrian or bicycle trip, and it wouldn’t hurt to get a few more Americans walking and/or biking everyday, we’d all be a little healthier and probably a little less cranky if we weren’t spending 1-2 hours sitting in traffic everyday.

    Roland Beinert

    Andrew is bringing up a good point about providing the right form of transportation in the right place. I think it was Raleigh, NC where they put in public transit a few years ago and it was actually extremely popular. This was mostly because the mayor knew what he was doing. They also built some very dense neighborhoods at the same time and connected them with the transit.
    But I also think the car has a place where it fits in best. In Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs pointed out that the car was actually a replacement for the horse and carriage (rather than walking, biking and public transit). It’s good for situations like Andrew was talking about: for traveling distances outside the range of walking and biking in rural areas where public transit simply doesn’t make sense.
    I think what Jane Jacobs went on to say about cars is very important. Their overuse is a symptom of bad urban planning, not a cause of it. If we were still willing to build dense urban nieghborhoods instead of trying to turn our cities into a series of “villages”, people would probably use their cars a lot less.
    I think it’s a good point that public transit is really only one small part of a good transportation system. It will never work all by itself, because you still need a bike or car or feet to get you to the front door. I think we all know this deep down, but we usually talk about these things individually as if one of them will make all the difference. Then when developers are actually willing to spend money on something like bike paths, the paths really don’t get you very far because there’s no public transit at the end of the path. So we jump in our cars.
    Maybe my huge car maintenance bill does support what the video is saying. I drive a car because companies kept telling me they would be more willing to hire me if I had one. But it really is more than I can afford. If it were just the cost of gas, I wouldn’t mind, since I have a hybrid and I ride my bike most of the time, anyway. But it was a huge amount of money for someone without a job, and I will probably have to spend it again next year. I could have bought another two or three bikes for that amount.


    I would have to say that everyone brings up really good points, and that our current situation can not be blamed on only one thing. When I resided in the DC metro area several years ago the suburbs and xurbs grew exponentially. The reason for growth was not only caused by people’s desire to leave the city and its preception of problems, but because cost of renting or purchasing a place near work became so high that they were left with no other alternative. During an interview I had with the one firm, I was told bluntly that they do not pay enough to live near their location in Dulles, VA, and that most employees lived in Frederick, MD. Commute was about an hour. This was not for a bad paying job, but it was the reality of the real estate market at the time. When the gas prices started to climb last year, all the sudden, no one could afford the housing prices any longer and the prices plummeting.

    I guess what I trying to convey in my ramblings is that I feel that there are so many factors that occurred that got us to where we are today: Housing market, fickle commodity and future markets, people living out of their means, etc. What ever you want to blame, I just hope the solution is not far away!

    Jay Everett

    Very good points Andrew,

    Like many things in life the difficulty here is that we have finite resources and a long list of priorities, the question becomes what is the highest and best use the resources that we have?

    I’m interested by the way the word “subsidized” is used in discussions on public transit. The majority of highways and roads are built and maintained with Federal, State, and Local tax dollars. Isn’t this “subsidizing” a transportation system? You could argue that the taxes generated by the economic development that result along these corridors pay for the system, but the same arguments can be made for alternative forms of transportation.

    Also a key component that is often left out of the transit debate is safety. Automobile accident-related injuries and fatalities have become so commonplace in our culture that we just accept them as a part of American life. These have to be included in the equation along with infrastructure, maintenance , and private car ownership costs if you want to talk about the price we pay for the autonomy that our cars give us. Although I would further suggest that you can have even greater freedom to move about and autonomy in cities that have invested in high quality, high functioning, multi-modal transportation systems.

    Truthfully it does take a large and constant expenditure of funds to build a quality multi-modal transportation system, people who will tell you it can be done on the cheap are lying. I’m talking about one that works. You are right that many of the bus systems we currently have ARE a waste of money, because as you pointed out, they do not have sufficient ridership. This is mainly because of a stigma attached to buses, and unreliable service because the buses are not separated from the automotive traffic.

    To clarify, I’m not suggesting public transit systems be built to service rural, or low-density areas as they exist today. But what I will suggest is that quality transit systems can and DO attract development to areas where it makes sense to increase the density. A marvelous case study of this phenomenon is Denver Colorado’s transit system where according to the Transit-Oriented Development Status Report 2008:

    Combining the data for the existing RTD system and planned FasTracks stations, 14,608
    housing units, 4,726 hotel rooms, 5.2 million square feet of retail, 5.6 million square feet
    of office space, 1.8 million square feet of government space, 160,000 square feet of cul-
    tural space, 4.6 million square feet of medical-related space, and 2.62 million square feet
    of convention/sports space have either been built or are currently under construction. This
    represents a net increase in 1,144 housing units, 997 hotel rooms, and 1.2 million square
    feet of office space since 2007.

    So sometimes if you build it, they will come. But you’re right the belief in that doesn’t make it work, it takes research, planning and INVESTMENT. That is where I think we probably wont agree. I believe that the way we are currently spending (especially federal) tax dollars to build more and expand existing highways is unsustainable. I did not come to this conclusion overnight, and it is not motivated by an ideology, it is purely pragmatic.

    According to the ASCE we have done a very poor job maintaining the infrastructure that we have and it is almost all automobile dependent. We need to focus on repairing the critical infrastructure that exists and focus new spending on capitol projects that are not auto-centric.

    Ben Yahr

    It seems like the typical American dream of suburbia has become (or soon will become) unsustainable. While a few visionary design professionals tried to artificially stop sprawl and encouraged revitalization of urban cores, the average American got caught up in the “bubble” or complained about high gas prices. While these folks may not prefer an urban lifestyle, it may become all they can afford.

    In many ways, I think suburbia is being artificially supported, and the true costs are being suppressed and passed on to the rest of society. Just because people like the ‘boomer lifestyle doesn’t mean it should be artificially supported.

    The hidden costs of suburbia are amazing. I’m sure I’ll forget a few but lets start with the obvious: roads (construction and maintenance) , sanitary, storm, electric, gas, extended emergency services, parks, and my favorite: parking garages in urban cores so that suburbanites can enjoy their night on the town. These are just a few of the costs that are directly incurred by tax payers, not to mention the less tangible costs.

    Its time we start investing in housing solutions that will allow transportation options other than the car to become viable.

    Celebrate a variety of housing and transportation options!

    Roland Beinert

    I’ve already posted this link in a similar discussion, but this discussion seems more active:
    It just talks about the government’s plan to support smart growth.

    Jay Everett

    I definitely respect your views and agree that people should not be forced to change their lifestyles. However, I really don’t think thats what we are talking about. I think what we are proposing is giving people more choices, not limiting them. More importantly we (advocates for “smart growth”) are saying that America needs to begin positioning itself for a new economy, one in which it is not dependent on petroleum for transportation. Transit oriented development in my opinion, is the best way to do that and it doesn’t require any major technological innovations.

    A key point in this conversation is the concept of “Peak Oil” which is a short way of referring to the point at which global oil production peaks and oil becomes scarcer and more expensive to find and extract. No one disputes that there will come a point when global oil production will peak, the tricky thing is that no one can really know when it will happen…until after it happens.

    Most of our transportation system in the US is dependent on products derived from petroleum, from the gas in the tank, to the plastic dash board, from the tires on the cars to the asphalt pavement, all are or contain petroleum products. Why would we want to go through the growing pains that would result if oil production suddenly begins to decline while global oil demand continues to increase? In this case, waiting for a market response will be much more expensive, and much more painful.

    An additional related point is that oil is one of our most precious resources. Many conveniences of modern life and advances in modern medicine are attributable to technological leaps in the field of plastics and polymers. We can do so much with oil, we can use it in plastic products and then reuse it or recycle it. Considering all the opportunities petroleum provides us burning it to release its energy seems to be the least intelligent option. Why not preempt the results of peak oil and begin conserving our reserves so that oil can be used in a more sustainable way? There are those of us who don’t want to wait on the market. If we wait for peak oil to begin building the kind of multi-modal transportation infrastructure that is economically viable in the long term then we will be in a world of hurt.

    But you’re probably right, it will probably happen the way you see it. More than likely America will wait for peak oil to get serious about smart growth. Given our recent track record it seems we have a habit of allowing our problems to compound on each other in a way that pushes our systems to the point of collapse and THEN we form a coalition to agree to work together to fix the problems. I have hope that this can be different. I believe there are market-based ways to avoid being prepared for peak oil.


    Isn’t what we’re witnessing now essentially a market rejection of the suburban oriented real estate market?

    I think the most viable response to the dilemma of decentralization (suburbia) versus urbanization will be to retrofit suburban communities and continue to develop alternative forms of transportation. I don’t think the personal automobile will ever go away because people like myself like to drive to the mountains to go skiing and mountain biking and I think we’re a long way still from developing a mode of transportation which is conducive to the weekend warrior lifestyle which many Americans lead in some form or another (phew..)

    Looking at the alternatives, tearing down suburbia really isn’t an option (outside of Flint, MI) and it doesn’t seem there will be a mass exodus of suburbanites to city living, so the best solution may be to develop new sub-urban patterns because as with anything else the masses seem to find their preferences somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

    Roland Beinert

    What is it you like about where you live? Is it your neighborhood or your house and yard? If you actually do like your neighborhood, is it the aesthetics or do you actually find it a convenient place to live? Would you immediately want to move away if someone built a decent looking business building across the street from you? What if the business sold something you regularly have to drive in order to get? The thing is, I think some people confuse support of dense urban areas as a bias against single family housing and rural living. It isn’t.
    I lived in a suburban neighborhood all through my childhood. There were plenty of things that I liked about it, but none of them had to do with the single family zoning. I liked the huge backyard and the access to nearby wooded areas. In fact the backyard is probably the space that inspired me the most to become a landscape architect. But most of my friends lived in other parts of town, and my parents are not the type who will drop everything to drive somewhere. I was very isolated. Then when I got to the age when most of my friends were starting to drive, my parents let me take drivers ed but wouldn’t let me get my license (they were too cheap to pay for the insurance, and believed that teenagers are typically not mature enough to drive, anyway). It was hard to get a first job, and my friends always had to drive and get me for social stuff. This is why I support mixed-use neighborhoods. It is not about a utopian agenda. It’s about what is convenient and sensible and what is not.
    You are against utopian ideals, but suburbia itself is based on the utopian ideal of every person having their own country estate. You are typically against regulations that go to extremes, yet the laws that bring about suburbia are some of the best examples of this.
    We are landscape architects, not government officials. If anyone forces some sort of urban agenda on others, it will not be us. But it is our responsibility to know what works and what doesn’t. Rural areas work. Single family housing works as long as it’s not taken to an extreme. But suburbia does not live up to the utopian ideals that inspired it. It is inconvenient, and there are plenty of ways to achieve the same goals in a more practical way.



    I don’t mean this the wrong way, but have you been out west lately?

    Suburbia along the Colorado Front Range is much different than suburbia of much of New England and the East Coast where I grew up. The former I think is really the issue, where once rural communties are spreading into an interconnected mess of curvilinear streets that inevitably dead end at a cul-de-sac.

    The architecture and landscape is obviously cheap. I spent alot of time flying around these neighborhoods in various pickup trucks as a landscaper before college, getting lost on the arbitrarily winding parkways and infinitely repetitive home clusters.

    There are certainly exceptions which I find very attractive such as the Prospect neighborhood ( in Longmont which many folks here feel is over the top. This is an example of semi self-contained suburban living somewhere between the urban core archetype and dense sprawl, but something about it just feels welcoming to me when I’m there.

    It seems places like Prospect are viable models for the next step in land development between all out urban living and cornfield sprawl. I agree with your statement that there will probably be an evolution toward ‘town centers’ and something viable along the middle of the spectrum which appeals to the taste of most people.

    Here in Denver, city planners have added a new residential zoning code to better differentiate between those areas that exist between the residential towers of the downtown core (where I am right now) and tract housing further along the fringes. My point is that there are places, which tend to be the most expensive and desirable here which combine the accessability of resources and entertainment of the city with the relative privacy and seclusion of suburbia.

    The Highlands district is a good example of this where a ‘town center’ has evolved organically over the years not unlike many older neighborhoods on the urban fringes of Boston and New York. I think the tragedy, if you could call it that, of all out suburbia (tract housing) here is that it is often the most affordable option for many people, though as others above have alluded to there is a hidden cost of living so far out that I think many of those people and perhaps all of us are paying dearly for in the current economic state.

    BTW Noah-

    Thanks for the article. I thought it was a pretty good read, though I think some of the authors examples and correlations between things like gang activity and sprawl are a bit extreme.

    Here is a graphic I just finished llustrating what I would consider a ‘suburban new town center.’

    Feel free to comment..

    Roland Beinert

    I don’t think the movement to revitalise urban areas and introduce mixed-uses to suburbs is based entirely on the idea that the car is going to disappear. As other people in this discussion have said, the car won’t disappear. The problem is that city neighborhoods need to be built in a certian way in order to be vital. This is the whole point of the book The Life and Death of Great American Cities.
    People like Le Corbusier (spelling?) took the concept of garden cities and tried to apply it to cities without figuring out what made cities work in the first place. Jane Jacobs saw good city neighborhoods being labelled as slums and torn down simply because they did not fit the idealistic picture new city planners had. So she went and observed the places that worked and the places that didn’t and laid out principles based on those observations not idealisations. Her book is what new urbanism stems from I think.
    I know a lot of people are against the car, and they were even when Jane Jacobs wrote her book back in the 1950’s. She devotes a whole chapter to the car and one of her main points is that we blame the car when we should be blaming planning that makes us need the car.
    We are not re-inventing regional and urban planning for a time when the car won’t exist. We are battling idealistic ways of planning that have turned our cities into a series of loosely attached rural areas. Rural areas and single family housing have a place, but we have idealised them to the point where we have destroyed our cities. The car has a place, but it is overused. If you want to live outside the city, of course you will need a car, unless you want a horse and buggy.
    This problem is already a problem, just not the one some people assume it is. I can see why you think it’s all about planning for the demise of the car, because people love to blame the car. I’m not all that fond of them myself when I’m trying to ride my bike. Several bicyclists have been killed by cars recently in Boise. You have to admit there are some irresponsible drivers out there.
    I encourage you to read Jane Jacob’s book if and when you have time.


    Well said Roland.

    I think if Schmid were here he’d mention single-use zoning as a contributor to the issue of sprawl and decentralization. This is, as Roland alluded to, a planning issue.

    As much as I see the logic in New Urbanism, I think it would be a mistake to latch on to any particular formula. That said, options are of course a good thing.

    The issue here in colorado is the development that happens in very rural areas. People can only afford to live in these new communities because the farm land is grossly undervalued, gas is cheap and plentiful, and the homes are often lower grade, but big.

    The bulk of the foreclosures here are occurring in these once-rural areas. That tells me that, besides the shady credit default swapping shenanigans that were happening with lenders, there is some degree of hidden cost associated with living in these areas. Strangely, the rate of foreclosures seemed to coincide with rising oil prices. In addition to the cost of oil and our dependence, I also believe the car has tended to dominate our neighborhood landscapes more and more. Streets are getting wider with wider turning radiuses, speed limits are going higher, garages are often the dominant architectural feature on new homes, etc. These physical site scale issues I believe are detrimental to the quality of new neighborhoods.

    If things turn around economically for this country in the next 6 months would it be safe to assume that development would continue to occur in the same patterns?


    Many point to suburbia and the problem with dependence on the car. I assume many are mentioning this because of America’s increase in commuting times, etc. How many of us could do the majority of our work from home with a decent computer, high-speed internet and a phone. Before starting my own business I spent two hours a day commuting back and forth to work. I could have easily worked from home 4 of the 5 days of the work week. The owners of the firm did not like the idea of anyone working from home.

    If 10% of America’s work force began to work from home, would automobiles, transportation, overcrowded roads really be as much of a problem?

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 16 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

Lost Password