June 08, 2008

Oil dependency

Resolved: that America's current difficulties with high gas prices and oil consumption began with Levittown.

Levittown was the first mass-produced suburb in the country. It was so wildly successful that it was copied in every state and territory (Oahu has as many suburbs as any other city). It became the model for new housing in America: build bedroom communities away from the central core of cities where people worked. This required roads to get people into their offices.

Here we are, 60 years later, beholden to roads and cars to get us to our jobs (even if the jobs are merely in a different suburb than the one in which we live).


Posted by Linkmeister at June 8, 2008 11:10 AM | TrackBack

My wife, who is from Germany, often bemoans the lack of rapid transit in this country.

Having lived in both Chicago and Detroit, I agree. Chicago was well planned while Detroit was ruled by the auto-titans.

Outside of the Northeast and Chicago, the failure of our large city urban planners to build-in alternative options to automobiles is truly a lost opportunity. Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles jump first to mind.

However, the sheer continental scale of this country, as opposed to Europe or Japan, does make mass transit a poor choice for many people. I now live high in the NC mountains, and my commuting options often boil down to what road is clear of ice and snow.

The point is that, wit so much land available, the willingness of developers to go further was less constrained than in many other countries.

Suburb-to-suburb commuting is quite significant and, as opposed to people commuting to a central core, the complexity of building a transit system to accommodate it would lead to necessary investment that would dwarf our petroleum bill.

One other thing that well intentioned urban planners could not see when Levittown was built, cannot see now, and likely will continue to be murky is the impact of the "creative destruction" that is a feature of modern economies. Technological advances inevitably doom communities built around previous activities.

In the long run, however, the wrecking ball will also "creatively destruct" suburbs which can no longer compete for residents.

Posted by: Pixelshim at June 8, 2008 01:30 PM

I'm currently writing a book about the demise of street and interurban rail in North America between about 1920 and 1960, and I think you're kind of on the right track, so to speak. While Levitt didn't create the design ethos that contributed significantly to car culture, he certainly popularised it.

Pixelshim, if I could, I'd like to answer some of your points. First of all, Los Angeles was built entirely around mass transit at one point. Check out a map of the Red Car Line if you don't believe me. In fact, at one point, LA and environs had the best mass transit system in North America. So it wasn't so much that urban planners didn't build in alternatives, it was that the alternatives were forcibly taken away, and urban planners built around what was left.

the sheer continental scale of this country, as opposed to Europe or Japan, does make mass transit a poor choice for many people

Again, that sort of depends. It used to be possible to travel in many areas of the US -- not just the Northeast and urban California, but much of the Midwest (you could at one point take interurban railways all the way from Chicago to Boise, as far as I know). At one point, just about every small town in the United States had a either a cable car or streetcar system. (One of my sources documents over 350 vanished cable car lines in the US alone.)

If that vast amount of infrastructure had been left alone and encouraged to develop (instead of dismantled in the interest of certain companies' corporate profits), the question of recreating both human-scaled urban spaces and a complex transit network wouldn't come up; the US would automatically have both. As it is, I think recreating that kind of transit from the ground up is actually feasible and practical, and probably (assuming one can get rid of some of the corruption) not as inexpensive as people think. My partner has done some figuring and research, and reckons that a perfectly usable light-duty, small-town streetcar system could be implemented from scratch for approximately a quarter of a million dollars, which is chump change, provided that one didn't follow the usual sclerotic thinking.

Here are links to three of my essays on the subject: Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns, Built For Riders: Operations, Efficiency, and Streetcars, and The Great Trillion-Dollar Swindle.

Posted by: Interrobang at June 9, 2008 04:53 PM