Nov. 1, 2003, 4:47PM

In our 'edgeless city' it's the road most traveled


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 greg@turnerbair.com.