Mobility & Autonomy in Urban Systems

 “Automobiles are hardly inherent destroyers of cities.”

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

In the study of the history of many American cities, a particular and strongly held narrative quickly emerges. Told in endless variation, the common theme is one of a battle between the old streetcars and the new automobiles. In his 1974 testimony to the United States Senate, Bradford Snell opined that “...for forty years, a war has been raging in this country between automobiles and mass transit.” (Snell, 1974.) If the problem aforementioned is read verbatim as one of physicality, then it would be hard to believe that it is happening again, or that it even could. After all, National City Lines was convicted of conspiracy (Supreme Court, 1948,) America is already saturated with cars (Department of Energy, 2014) and its highway infrastructure revels in the permanence afforded to it by its sheer scale and sunk cost. But this isn’t about automobiles.

It’s about automobility; it’s a curious term with wildly opposing definitions. Merriam-Webster defines it simply as “the use of automobiles as a major means of transportation,” noting its first use in 1896 (Merriam-Webster, 2016) In the text Mobilities, John Urry defines it as “a hybrid assemblage of specific human activities, machines, roads, buildings, signs and cultures of mobility,” (Urry, 2007) seeming to dwell on the mechanization of human transportation. A compelling inference comes from Cotten Seiler’s Republic of Drivers, where he refers to automobility as an extension of and at times a primary expression of individual autonomy- the ability and propensity for independent mobility (Seiler, 2008.) This is the primary definition that I’ll refer to, as it provides a compelling insight into the cultural significance of the automobile and the streetcar, the connection between mobility and autonomy, and a new frame for the discourse on the future of transportation.

Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the democratization of America owed much to its vast frontiers, and the mobility that they afforded to individuals (Seiler, 2008.) Postulations about democracy aside, Turner had touched on an intrinsic value of American culture, and one that was being quickly eroded. Around the turn of the 20th century, industrialization of American society was in full swing, and the important notion of individual autonomy was being threatened. Until then, this had referred to the notion of self-reliance that was necessary instinct to any pioneer, but in an era codified by the mechanization of time brought into the public sphere by railroads (Urry, 2007,) there seemed to be little place for the sovereign self. Whereas the first road networks of the United States followed old pioneer trails (Smoot, 2000) local streetcars generally followed fairly straight and graded routes as necessitated by their motive power. For a society coming to terms with a new order, automobiles provided a comforting touchstone for rationed freedom where streetcars may have come to resemble the growing number of mechanical systems that signified a troubling cultural shift. Cars transfigured the only constituent of independent mobility known to the frontier, and one that streetcars could not match- geographical autonomy, or the ability to go anywhere.

According to Gilles Deleuze, road-building has been integral to the creation of striated space (Marcussen, nd.) Deleuze’s notion of delineated spaces is congruent with the stratification that roads enabled where unlike rail systems, roads separated machine from infrastructure. This is the obvious (socioeconomic) stratification, but roads induced a new kind of stratification and imposed a new limit on autonomy.

Figure 1- speed-capacity curve for automobile traffic (Stone et al, 1939.) Retrieved from LA Metro Archives

Figure 1- speed-capacity curve for automobile traffic (Stone et al, 1939.) Retrieved from LA Metro Archives

As early as 1915, traffic planners studying Los Angeles noted the relatively limited capacity of roads, as well as the decreasing exponential curve that defined the spatial efficiency of automobiles (Bannister, 1915.) Norman Bel Geddes stated, presciently, in Magic Motorways that drivers would quickly oustrip the capacity of his pilot corridors, and require a cycle of ongoing expansion (Bel Geddes, 1940.) To the privileged user wanting a spontaneous adventure, the utility of roads follows the descending curve elaborated decades ago. Roads offered the highest class of mobility to those whose schedules allowed them to take advantage of unused capacity, but at the cost of a dimension of autonomy that hadn’t ever before been scarce- that of time. 

Many of the claims of maleficence and the very notion of an overarching “big auto” conspirator are rooted in, and emboldened by a sympathetic nostalgia for the (often rail-based) systems that were abandoned. The documentary Taken for a Ride features anecdotal testimony of many Angeleno residents who longingly recall the days when streetcars plied their city (Klein & Olson, 1996.) What is it about streetcars that caused them to fall out of favour then, and breeds such intense affection now, often to the detriment (and denigration) of existing (predominantly bus-based) transit systems?

One theory goes that streetcars are simply more effective and more useful than cars at moving people in cities. This theory is true but incomplete. If the goal is mass transportation in middle-density American cities, buses can provide the same quality of service in every meaningful aspect as streetcars (Walker, 2012.) Ottawa’s grade-separated suburban busways, complete with covered station structures, are an excellent example of a rapid, traffic-free, network where buses travel at 55 MPH speeds between suburbs and downtown core. They can be furnished as nicely as streetcars- Las Vegas’ signature bus service on the strip uses ExquiCity vehicles from Van Hool and StreetCar buses from WrightBus that are designed to look and feel like light rail vehicles (LRVs.). Even in Los Angeles, buses were marketed as modern, premium vehicles when they were introduced. GM had tapped Raymond Loewy to design the Scenicruiser bus for Greyhound, and co-creator Roland Gegoux would design the “new look” buses used in LA and many other North American cities for decades to come (General Motors, 1955 & 1958.)

Figure 2- LA Metro ad for then-new GM bus (LA Metro Archive) 

Figure 2- LA Metro ad for then-new GM bus (LA Metro Archive) 

Buses are also far more affordable than rail vehicles- Toronto’s new LRVs cost approximately $6 million each (TTC, 2016,) more than ten times the cost of a city bus. In spite of this, urban mixed-traffic streetcars have been built across the USA and many more are proposed, at significant cost. Many, like those in Portland Oregon, are underused (Walker, 2009,) but their potential for urban renewal is still widely touted and not unduly (El Nasser, 2007.) What is it, then, about these trains that so mesmerizes planners and the public?

John Urry theorized that the value of mobility lies in its potential for social connection, rather than the mere “fetishization of movement.” (Urry, 2007.) After elaborating the notion of network capital he arrived at the conclusion that the ultimate goal of a network capital system would be unlimited mobility as desired by anyone in a society; he notes that this would not be possible due to the constraints of our transportation systems and that some sort of rationing system might hold the key to equitable mobility (Urry, 2007.)

Seemingly as a footnote, E.W. Bannister noted in his 1915 plan that devoting more space to streetcars on downtown LA thoroughfares would have little effect on traffic, as the capacity of a single streetcar track was roughly 180 cars/hour, or one streetcar every 20 seconds (Bannister, 1915.) The streetcars were nowhere near filling the capacity of their infrastructure even after conceivable growth, and this is the crucial difference: streetcars, unimpeded, offered functionally unlimited mobility even in a city like Los Angeles. This is the kind that cannot be stratified, because it does not run out. It’s the kind that enables generation and equitable distribution of network capital, and it might just be the source of so much nostalgia. Not for trolleys and rails, and that which buses do not elicit, but for a system that creates mobility, instead of controlling it. It bears questioning then, why it was so easily given up. According to Toronto’s transit commissioners, streetcars are only considered for use on corridors where peak travel exceeds 3000 people per hour per direction (TTC, 1997) and buses would not be able to manage the load. Ottawa is currently converting the central portions of their busway to light rail, but only because bus traffic there hit the design capacity of about 200 buses/hour (, nd.) The benefits of rail- quick acceleration, wider vehicles that pass closer together to carry more passengers- only accrue to extremely high-intensity corridors, so why the desire for high capacity transit when demand is consistently low in so many cases?

This may be the key to why the streetcars were lost, and why so many want them back. Streetcars countered the go-any-where independence of cars with an even more powerful notion- go any time. On the strip in Las Vegas (RTC, 2016,) St. Charles Street in New Orleans (NORTA, 2016,) or anywhere in the New York City subway system, transit service runs every 20 minutes or less 24 hours a day (MTA, 2016.) Toronto’s Yonge, Queen, Bloor, Danforth and Eglinton East corridors all offer service every 10-15 15 minutes or less. Likewise, most prewar streetcar networks offered a similar degree of servicebefore world war II Toronto’s streetcar network offered service every 1-2 minutes on most routes (Munro, 2016,) and many of Los Angeles’ lost streetcar lines offered better service then than its new light rail network does now (, nd.)

Unlike roads and highways, streetcar networks offered the tantalizing prospect of marginal capacity- the idea that if your streetcar was full another could easily be added. Amsterdam’s Leidsestraat carries 12,000 people per hour per direction on a single track with passing sidings (GVB, 2016)- that’s more than peak hour traffic on most LA freeways (Caltrans, nd.). 

Figure 3- Pedestrian and streetcar traffic on the Leidsestraat in Amsterdam (Eigenphoto, 2014)

Figure 3- Pedestrian and streetcar traffic on the Leidsestraat in Amsterdam (Eigenphoto, 2014)

Unfortunately, unused transit capacity tends to look wasted. In a frontier society founded on spatial mobility, it becomes easy to see how a conscious decision was made to trade speculative temporal mobility futures for spatial mobility that was perceived to be unlimited. We now know that the frontier is not expanding, and that means that the geographical autonomy afforded by cars is fixed at best and declining in all likelihood, while expansion (let alone maintenance) is unfathomably expensive. In a society that values temporal mobility without limits, marginal growth is key.

Where 20th-century mechanization and standardization eroded the individual nature of citizenship in American society, 21st century globalization devalues the very borders and national identities that define citizenship itself (Khanna, 2016.) Building on the theories and contradictions of Jacobs, Urry, Seiler, and others, it seems that automobility is the last refuge of the sovereign self in the midst of an identity crisis brought on by expanding connectivity and collapsing frontiers. Now that over 40% of the world is now under 24 years old (Kanna, 2016,) the physical artefacts and hard-fought battles that anchor mobility theory may mean nothing to many of them; the appeal of automobility, however, is alive and well. A recent Uber advertisement shows a woman peering over the edge of a subway platform, with the simple copy,

Figure 4- “You can’t miss an Uber.” (Walker, 2016.)

Figure 4- “You can’t miss an Uber.” (Walker, 2016.)

And therein lies the incipient revolution. This one is far easier to miss, however, because it is not physical. In response to a 2011 call for ideas from LA Metro and others, the renowned Gensler architects elaborated a plan, entitled Network LA, that would “liberate” bus routes- this entailed replacing fixed-route services with demand-responsive, flexible ones (Wen, 2011.) Transportation planner Jarrett Walker notes that these systems do not necessarily create more liberty and mobility than the ones they are intended to replace because they don’t account for spontaneity in mobility needs (Walker, 2012.) While it is true that you can’t miss an Uber, you also can’t catch one. 

An effective public transportation system enables spontaneous mobility through frequent, consistent service. Many cities are once again embracing the notion of a frequent network- a legible set of routes that run frequently and consistently enough to be considered available without need for a schedule, like the road network itself. While Uber, Lyft, et al claim to offer the same degree of freedom, they are doing so within a controlled regime- you can get a ride whenever you want, so long as you ask first.

With this new set of controls come different dimensions of stratification- can you participate in these new systems without a net-enabled smartphone? Can you do so privately?- as well as some of the familiar ones, such as affordability and willingness to serve striated areas of different incomes and backgrounds (in much the same way highway construction unequally affected different striations of many cities.) A recently published study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that male passengers with names and profiles suggesting african-american background in Boston and Seattle were twice as likely as caucasian-presenting profiles to have their Uber ride requests cancelled, and three times more likely in low density areas (Ge et al, 2016.)

Does it all sound a bit familiar? It should. This new wave of shared transportation solutions looks on the surface to be far removed and evolved from the cars and conspiracies that predate them, but they offer the exact same promise of freedom and reality of control. The history of transportation is often portrayed as a battle between private and public transit vehicles and systems, pitting cars, buses, trains, planes and automata against one another, but these are just embodiments of differing needs- spatial and temporal autonomy- and the inability of existing thought and technology to consider and satisfy both. Vehicles are agents of transmission (Merriam-Webster, 2016,) and acts of mobility are initiated by people. It should stand to reason, then, that the causes and effects of the past and futures of mobility are fundamentally social, manifested in physical changes to vehicles, places and societies. Visions of automated cars, shared transportation and buses fall short because they continue to think of this dichotomy as physical rather than sociocultural. History has shown that any technology (physical or not) that claims to put physical automobility (the ability to freely travel privately) within equitable reach is ignoring the geometric reality of where people want to go (Walker, 2012.)

Yet could we ever have a transportation modal system that enables both autonomies? The answer ought not to be no, but not yet.

The crux is that these are all visions of where people want to go, and how they might get there. They seem seldom interested in why.

They are not wrong, just incomplete.