Oh Public Transportation, wherefore art thou?

As I return from a trip to San Francisco, I reflect on how different my transportation needs and experience are between there and my home base in Columbia, South Carolina. This was the second of two work-related trips this year, and was a relatively long one of two weeks. During that time, including vehicular weekend trips, probably 70% of my segments were on mass transit, while during any period of time back home, none are. I find it strange, especially given that I grew up in with mass-transit as my default mode of transportation from childhood through high school, that my behavior is so incongruous.

This is a common conundrum for many transit planners across the Southeast, and one with which I empathize. Given my upbringing, why don’t I take transit more? At the same time, as I observe our local buses, I generously estimate most of them operate at less than 10% capacity: I’m clearly not the only one. So, I thought I’d deliberately walk through the mental calculus I’ve gone through in the past to see if I could figure out what it would take. Continue reading

The Invention of People Watching

During the short interval of my life in which I lived in New York City, I never lacked for a way to spend a Saturday. When in doubt, I just walked out my front door and wandered around. That doesn’t work where I live now; for all the attentive landscaping in my neighborhood (thank you, flower gardeners), I can’t seem to lose track of time here like I could walking in NYC.

I could draw out the punchline, but given the title of this entry you’ve likely guessed it already. What made NYC continuously and invariably interesting was other people, out and around, either watching other people like I was, or doing something else entirely. We call this, unsurprisingly but without variation, “people watching.”


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Communities, Real and Artificial

Alan Ehrenhalt makes a fascinating aside in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. In discussing the residential revival of New York’s financial district, he asks, “This is  neighborhood, then, but is it a community the way Sheffield [in Chicago] is, the way communities existed in the great European cities of a century ago?” His answer is thoughtful but inconclusive. For now, to expand the question, what might be meant by asking whether a place is a “real community”? Continue reading

Do Vacant Property Registries Work?

If density is on balance a good thing, then vacant properties are most likely not such a very good thing. Vacant properties are usually poorly maintained, unsecured, ugly, and dangerous. They may become neighborhood eyesores, fire hazards, havens for crime, or homes for squatters. And the longer a property remains vacant, the more costly it becomes to remediate it and the less likely it becomes that it will be redeployed to a productive use. Continue reading

An Inquiry Into Density

“Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

Consider this statement and its many variants: “With information travelling at the speed of light, physical distances shrink into insignificance.” But facts are obstinate things. In the United States, 81.6% of the population is classified as “urban” (subject to the uncertainty of that classification), while over the past five years, the annual rate of urbanization is 1.02%. Globally, 54% of the population lives in urban areas – a figure that is projected to grow to 66% by the year 2050. Why, when people, especially highly educated “creative class” workers, can choose to live anywhere, are they still moving to cities? Continue reading