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Texans are Learning from Old Europe

by corncam Fri Aug 26th, 2005 at 10:48:23 AM EST

Jack Smith is a regular columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, a newspaper in Texas.  His column contrasts "Old American" urban design; eg. bigger cars, more freeways, and longer commutes with newer ideas.  Except that what's new in America is already commonplace in Europe.

First, he quotes from Rep. Joe Barton, a defender of the old ways, and the chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Barton said that he represents the US at international conferences and gets lectured by other countries about global warming:

They don't understand the lifestyle where you live in Arlington and drive to Dallas to work.  

. . .

I don't think they (the Europeans) really understand the concept of personal freedom.  They think everybody ought to live in an eight-story walkup with no air conditioning and ride bicycles everywhere.

That's not Texas.  And I'm not apologetic about that.

In contrast, the columnist praised European cities for their mixed use developments, excellent public transit systems and short commutes.  He pointed out that this type of design is gaining popularity in the US, even in Texas.
Developers throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area are now planning urban mixed-use, transit-oriented developments that increasingly resemble development patterns in European cities. Even Plano, once considered purely suburban and auto-reliant, has embraced light-rail transit and accompanying mixed-use development.

. . .

Those are increasingly appealing development trends in North Texas, which is choking from gridlock and pollution as a result of a spiraling population, heavy reliance on the automobile and voluminous urban sprawl.

. . .

Some North Texans are suddenly finding that living in far-flung suburbs can be a downer if it means paying $2.55 a gallon for gas for their fuel-hog SUV for a 90-minute round-trip commute that robs them of time to exercise or enjoy their children.

In the USA, this movement favoring integrated urban design is known as
New Urbanism.  It has ten principles, which I'll briefly list below.  You can obviously find out more at their website.
  1. Walkability

  2. Connectivity

  3. Mixed-Use and Diversity

  4. Mixed Housing

  5. Quality Architecture

  6. Traditional Neighborhood Structure

  7. Increased Density

  8. Smart Transportation

  9. Sustainability

  10. Quality of Life

While these ideas may be new in Texas, they have been popular in California for about ten years now.  New Urbanism neighborhoods are especially sucessful when they are built near rapid transit.  And surprisingly, they are very popular among families with children.

EuroTrib newcomer Georges Chenard emailed me with a link to an article on the same topic in Emagazine.  The author is an American, commenting on the advantages of European cities.

First, he points out the diversity of transportation choices.

A transportation network like the Netherlands' would be beyond the wildest dreams of commuters, environmentalists and city lovers across North America. In Amsterdam, for instance, only 20 percent of people's trips around the city are in a car; 36 percent are made on foot, another 31 percent on bikes, and 11 percent on transit.

In most of America, suburbs and cities are separate legal entities, and they fight over money.  This results in a wide disparity of wealth and poverty.

Imagine what a difference it would make if Westchester County or Chicago's North Shore suburbs chipped in some of their local tax proceeds to boost public schools or drug treatment programs in the Bronx or the South Side! This is a key reason, along with higher levels of social benefits in general, why even Copenhagen's shabbiest quarters don't feel nearly as dangerous or as desperate as American ghettos.

Finally, he reports on changes taking place in his own home town.

In neighborhood after neighborhood across my home city of Minneapolis, citizens have risen up with new ideas about how to make it a better place to live. A vocal supporter of street narrowing was elected mayor, unseating an incumbent in large part because of his vigorous urban-livability platform. Many streets around town have been narrowed or now have speed bumps. A series of new bike paths wind around the city and suburbs. A light rail line has opened to great success.
by corncam on Fri Aug 26th, 2005 at 12:40:16 PM EST
The Texans are going European...what has the world come to?? (But seriously, great to hear someone calling it for what it is!!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Aug 26th, 2005 at 12:41:14 PM EST
Don't we big blue urban areas with public transport exist? The greater NYC metro area has more people in it than all of Holland, is incredibly densely populated, and has great public transport. That's the extreme example but the DC, Chicago, and Boston metro areas all have decent public transport.  On the opposite extreme is  the LA metro area - also more people than Holland but with a pathetic excuse for a transit system.

But that takes me to a pet peeve of mine. To make public transport work well you need to accept high density housing. Unfortunately the Nimby attitude is alive and well among both blue and red America.

On the positive side I remember reading after the Nov. elections that Colorado approved a major commuter rail project for the greater Denver area. If it gets built I believe it will be the first large scale mass transit project to be created since the Washington Metro and that one I believe is the only post WWII one - i.e. the only one since the advent of the car culture.

by MarekNYC on Fri Aug 26th, 2005 at 11:40:08 PM EST
Don't big red urban areas with mass transit exist?  :-)

The Colorado Springs area has about the population of Luxembourg, is incredbily densely populated (Luxembourg: 2586 sq km, CS: 482 sq km), and has pretty good public transport, considering its reputation.

Sure, we love our SUVs when an emergency arises and a trip is needed to the grocery store for ice cream. But we have bus service
and point-to-point service for the disabled and a free downtown shuttle and a pretty comprehensive bike path system with around 500 miles of off-street and on-street bike lanes.

No passenger train service, though. Just coal
(This last link worth looking at if you want to know what Colorado really looks like...)

And while not so "blue", Denver is indeed currently building a suburban extension to it's light rail system, and there's a proposal (that has bipartisan support) for a new passenger rail service connecting Cheyenne, Denver, CS, Pueblo, and Albuquerque.

by asdf on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 09:55:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Atlanta's subway system (MARTA) is also fairly new.  Construction began in the mid-1970s and it has become a pretty good system.
by corncam on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 02:34:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, didn't know about that one. The only other postwar mass transit system I was aware of was BART in the Bay area and that one is rather mediocre.
by MarekNYC on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 03:01:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Chicago has a pretty reliable and thorough, if terribly managed, public transportation system.  But even still, most of the people I know have cars and a lot of them SUV's.  It is a little disturbing.  And there is still some stigma about taking the buses.  Only poor people have to take the bus kinda thing...  People mostly take the public transportation system out of necessity rather than some enlightened mindset.

And if you want to leave the city and get somewhere rural, you really have to have a car.  You can take a train to the suburbs, but once you are there you still need a car.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 05:58:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think they (the Europeans) really understand the concept of personal freedom.

Personal freedom?!? I am not a slave to the automobile. Do you know how great it is not to have to worry about PARKING, insurance, car theft, PARKING, bad drivers (well...pedestrians still have to worry some about them), PARKING, car payments...I love it. Walking, public transport, private buses, trains, and the occasional taxi.

It makes me so free.

by gradinski chai on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 12:08:45 AM EST
The fact is that in America if you do not have a car you do not have much personal freedom, unless you live in NY or maybe Chicago, or have created some fringe alternative lifestyle for yourself.  

Our country's infrastructure and way of life (roads, suburbs, malls, etc.) were created to accomodate the automobile, not the other way around.  Just like TV shows were created in order to sell commercials, our roads and towns were created to sell cars.

The possibility that it might be different anywhere else was obviously lost on the person who made that remark.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 05:48:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I live in the Los Angeles area (south of LA actually, in Orange County), and I've been screaming for more light rail for over a decade now.  Every few years a light rail proposal comes up, and every time it gets killed in debate because the costs are so high.

Suburban Americans have been far too addicted to their cars to really care, but I'm hoping that with gas prices on the rise for the foreseeable future, it will light a fire under the ass of the state government to finally do something about it.  Wide spread riots and revolt would probably be a hot enough fire I think. ;)

I personally have been working from home (web design) for the past few years because the 2 hour commutes (one way) were making me lose my mind.  I'm much happier now! :)

by pinion on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 12:38:22 AM EST
Do you know that, in Paris, more than 50% of the household don't have a car? It seems to be a trend in big European cities.

And we are developing new solutions like this one (already mentioned by Jérôme): just in front of where I live, I have a Velo'v station. Once you've bought a card, you can take a bicycle in a station and leave in an other one. There are stations in all the quarters of Lyon and they are building new ones. The first half hour is free. It costs 0,5 euro for the next hour and then 1 euro per hour. I use it to go to work (there is a station about 50m from my office).

It is a great success: they are already experiencing shortages in the morning and are planning to build more station and to expand the fleet.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Sat Aug 27th, 2005 at 09:16:10 AM EST

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