Better Than Buses: Transportation for Sprawl
If I wanted to take public transportation to work, I would have to walk a mile just to get to a bus. It would then take me another half hour, at a minimum, even if I managed to catch my three-or-four-times-an-hour ride. By car, the commute takes me less than 15 minutes. What is especially astonishing is that I live within the city limits, in the middle of a late-19th century neighborhood. I am sad to say that this situation is common in the United States and represents just one of the symptoms of the breakdown of our once so productive culture of creating and building on infrastructure. Along with the disappearance of good public schools, the decay of our roads, and the lack of investment in just about any resource we use in common, the inadequacy of our public transportation system will lead the United States to be an underdeveloped nation within our lifetime.
Last week, I helped judge a competition organized here in Cincinnati by local architecture firm MSA. Their simple question was: How do you turn drivers into riders? Entries included proposals for monorails and light rail (there is a plan to build a stubby little line here from north downtown), as well as ideas about restyling buses so they would be more attractive and providing places for people to store or rent bicycles for a multimodal commute.
What was more remarkable to me was what was missing, and how most of the entries ignored the sprawling nature of this and every other metropolitan area in this country. Public transportation has become completely associated with bringing people to and from downtown cores, but these nodes in many cities are only one of many different areas of major employment. Getting people there, moreover, is relatively easy, because it is one place. Moving people between all the different office parks and hospitals, schools and malls, and other places of employment and education and recreation, is another matter. This is a real problem here as elsewhere: according to the latest census, Cincinnati lost 10% of its population, but the MSA grew by about 7%. The growth is all "out there."
I think it would be impossible to create a system connecting all the dots that make up points of activity within sprawl with standard fixed-rail or large bus systems. This is especially true since these points keep changing as development moves around the region and people change jobs, schools, or habits. Certainly some connections to fixed points—such as major attractions, healthcare facilities, and courthouses—would make sense, but even then you have to connect to there from an array of points.
The obvious answer is to establish small hubs, not unlike the entrances to or intersections of major highways, or service points attached to those fixed points. Several of the entrants in this competition did propose such an array of amped-up bus stops. They could be tied to places providing basic services, from internet connection to the ability to buy a cup of coffee, and could be light enough that they could move as work or living trends shift.
What makes sense to me is some sort of jitney system in-between these points. A collective or for-profit version of the Mommy Van, or an expanded version of the sort of shuttles major universities and hospitals already run, would have the ability to collect commuters or errand runners at irregular intervals without fixed routes. The nodes would then allow you to switch between one array to another. In my case, a 10-minute ride to the hospital complex a few miles away, allowing for stops on the way, could lead to another 10-minute ride to the cultural cluster where I work.
Such a system might not look like much, which is part of the problem. There would be no multimodal transportation hubs to point to (though the beautiful combinations of markets and collection points around Johannesburg might be models) and the buses would be small, even van-sized. That might be a switch for a country that wants everything to be the size of Grand Central Station or an aircraft carrier. This very lack of big form would fit better with sprawl. Architects and planners should get used to the idea that fixed and large are over, and formless and mutable are in. What they need to do is help us figure out how to connect the dots.