1.06.2010

Land Use, Transportation, and Diversity



Can things as wonky as land use policy and transportation infrastructure help heal the divides we create between races and classes? I think so.

I was catching up with an old friend who lives in a big Midwestern city, and we were comparing thoughts concerning the relative ease by which people of different races and classes interact. He previously lived in Philadelphia and is generally insightful on urban issues, so I tend to agree with his observations.

He noted that where he lives, auto dependence (only the very poor use buses, and there is no rail) plus the segregation of uses equals a situation in which you really only go to the places you're used to going to, and you really don't interact with anyone along the way. There are notable exceptions - downtown circulates lots of different people, as does his city's well-regarded children's museum - but by and large, people can, unless they intentionally choose otherwise, go their entire lives without any meaningful interactions with people different from them, or visit neighborhoods in which they are the distinct minority.

Contrast that to a bigger, transit-rich city like Philadelphia whose uses are fairly interspersed. We have many more gathering places that draw in a wide range of people, like the Philadelphia Zoo, Please Touch Museum, and Penn's Landing. Even the higher culture places, where one might assume only the socially elite rub elbows, are enjoyed by a nice diversity of patrons, like the Mann Music Center and the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Of course, our downtown is one big gathering place for lots of different people doing lots of different things, from living to working to shopping to recreating; and conflation of uses and access by public transit has contributed, I think, to racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods throughout the City. And, speaking of public transit, riding the bus, subway, or trolley from Point A to Point B is of course itself a natural mixer of people, as it is used by all types for all purposes.

To cite but one example, earlier this week, I had a meeting downtown first thing in the morning. So I dropped my son off at his school, parked my stroller in their storage area, and grabbed the subway at the station right outside his school. It was a few minutes before my meeting, so instead of getting off at the stop closest to my meeting, I got off at the stop before, so as to find a warm place inside the Gallery Mall to read my news magazine for a few minutes.

My wife texted me during my meeting to say she was downtown, too; her father had had surgery that morning at Jefferson Hospital. So after my meeting, I curled up at a nearby coffee shop and awaited a second message from her. After a few minutes of waiting, I was off to the floor of Jefferson where she and her mother were waiting. We had lunch in the hospital cafeteria, and then I grabbed the subway back to University City, where I got off one stop early to hit the post office to grab a package.

Why this long, boring account of my Tuesday morning? Consider all of the different crowds I intersected with along the way. The Gallery Mall, Jefferson Hospital, and the post office are all places where you'll find lots of different people from lots of different walks of life. And that is true of the subway rides and quick jaunts on the streets that I made to and from these places, as well. In a different kind of setting, where uses are segregated and there is no mass transit, those destinations are distinct stops I have to get to by car, with no way of meaningfully interacting with anyone along the way, and likely the destinations themselves are filled only with people like me.

(Consider also that I was able to accomplish all of these work, personal, and errandy things in one morning, without much walking, and without firing up my car. In a less transit-rich, mixed-use setting, I would've linearly gone from house to school to meeting to work, and any detour to hospital or post office might take me way off that beaten path, burning even more gasoline along the way and potentially trapping me in traffic at some point along the way.)

Reconciling differences across people is more complex than what land use planners and transportation experts can solve, of course. And rubbing elbows with people different from us on the trolley or in the post office doesn't get us very far in overcoming any innate stereotypes we may harbor. But I have to think that these casual contacts we have every day here in Philadelphia are helpful to breaking down walls between people and groups; while going through your day transporting yourself privately from Point A to Point B, and not seeing anyone different from you at Point A or Point B, may harden your differences and misperceptions. So land use planners and transportation experts, take heart: your work is more meaningful than you might realize.

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