Limits and Catalysts to Urban Growth
Having transitioned from growing up in suburban San Jose to putting down roots in urban Philadelphia, I acknowledge my perspective on cities and transit is biased, but hopefully it still contains some truth and utility. Whether you are thinking in terms of individual preferences or regional competitiveness, there is a lot to commend transit-rich Northeast Corridor cities over their more auto-dependent peers in other parts of the country. Millennials in particular seem to be opting for places where they can do without owning or even setting foot in a car, whether for financial, environmental, or convenience reasons, so it would seem that the future will bend even more in this direction. Many newer cities without major transit systems seem to agree, frantically investing financial resources and political capital to build up bus network and light rail.
But wait. Some of the downsides of cars may be mitigated through innovation. Alternative fuels will reduce or eliminate the ecological cost driving imposes on our planet, right? And surely autonomous vehicles will significantly streamline the twin problems of traffic (cars can move and fit more efficiently when computers and not humans are operating them) and parking (we don’t need to devote massive amounts of space to parked cars right next to where people are, because they’ll be able to drive themselves to less valuable locations to sit and wait for when we need them again). So maybe our more sprawled out regions won’t need to build a parallel transit network to supplement roads and highways, no?
I do think that alternative fuels and autonomous vehicles will turn back the clock a bit, but not by much. In the long run, more car use, irrespective of how they are fueled, is bad for the environment. And while daisy chaining cars allows you to fit more on any given road or highway, that too will reach a limit, whereas transit is more easily scalable. I predict that the Los Angeles metro area in particular (being hemmed in by mountains and ocean, and being so car-crazy) will at first see their traffic and parking problems ease, but over time they will rue the decisions made over the past 100 years to remove transit infrastructure and then to not bite the bullet to replace it.
Big picture, America will continue to grow, and that growth will likely want to happen disproportionately in our metro regions. Whether a given region can scale up to meet that growth, in terms of being able both to contain all of the places people want to live/work/play and to move people around, will determine its overall competitiveness and livability. Again, I’m biased, but in the long run, I’d bet on places more like Philadelphia and less like San Jose.