Nov. 1, 2003, 4:47PM
In our 'edgeless city' it's the road
By R. GREGORY TURNER
In the heat of the campaign over the Metropolitan Transit
Authority's bond election for rail, matters of taxes, costs,
ridership projections, air pollution and the like are all
getting plenty of play. In the process, the larger issue has
gotten lost, namely: What kind of transportation system is
most appropriate for a modern metropolitan area? What best
serves the needs of a 21st-century American city like Houston?
A hundred years ago, America's urban areas had a dense core
surrounded by rings of lessening development. The commercial
and civic resources were concentrated in the core, and the
rings were composed largely of residential areas. (Many American
cities of about 500,000 people or less are still characterized
by this model.) According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our larger
cities had densities approaching 10,000 persons per square
mile. Automobiles were practically unheard of; trolleys and
trains shuttled people back and forth to work and shopping.
By the 1980s, these central cities had sprouted satellite
commercial developments ringed around their edges, along major
loop highways built in the postwar period -- thus Washington
Post writer Joel Garreau dubbed them "edge cities."
Most people chose to live in detached houses rather than in
the tenements of the 1900 city, and the automobile got them
there. As they moved out from the city, shopping and eventually
employment followed them -- development of the Galleria is
an example of this trend. The formerly dense urban areas decompressed,
resulting in cities half as dense as before.
Interestingly, as the older metropolitan areas in the East
and Midwest spread out, the newer ones in the South and West
became more compact. All American cities, including
Houston, were trending toward density levels in the 3,000
per square mile range.
Recent studies by The Brookings Institute in Washington,
D.C., have shown that neither the old "center city"
model of 1900, nor the circa 1980 "edge city" model
satisfactorily explain our urban areas today. These have evolved
into "edgeless cities," seas of medium density development,
mostly residential, punctuated by occasional nonresidential
developments of varying densities. The Brookings study even
categorized several cities (including Houston) as not even
possessing a core.
In these "edgeless cities," relatively few persons
travel from suburb to central core and back, as they did a
century ago. Transportation experts at the Eno Transportation
Foundation in Washington, D.C., have shown that the suburb-to-suburb
commuting trip is predominant. People in metropolitan areas
now travel between scattered centers of specialized functions
(e.g., the Texas Medical Center, downtown Houston's banking
and insurance offices and athletic events, research and development
centers such as the Energy Corridor, industrial areas like
the Houston Ship Channel, and so on).
Absent government coercion forcing a relocation of all employment,
commercial and civic functions downtown, these patterns of
living and traveling are likely to remain. The key question
for voters, it seems, is whether the Metro plan is a system
that accommodates the realities of modern cities. Is it a
cost-effective way to move large numbers of people among the
many nodes of activity in metropolitan Houston? Or is it a
multibillion-dollar throwback that tries to re-create the
travel patterns of the long-gone city of 1900?
Unfortunately for the urban and Metro planners, train systems
have become "urban jewelry" -- they're expensive
and have no utility, but they're good for self-esteem. As
unglamorous as they are, better roads at all levels and better
bus service are more likely to be effective and cost-effective
movers of people than is the light-rail bauble.
Turner, a Katy resident, is principal of Turner &
Bair Architects in Houston. and current chairman of the Katy
Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.