Filth, Automobiles, and Our Misguided Obsession With Traffic

Yves here. I find this article not really satisfactory, perhaps because it focuses on traffic rather than work/residential density. I really like densely populated areas; the part of Sydney I lived in briefly was the highest density post code in all Australia. They are vibrant, always changing, always interesting. And I regard a certain level of trash, or as this article has it, filth, and other signs of gritty urban realities, like the homeless, as a part of big city living that the collective “we” should handle better but doesn’t so much.

Dense parts of cities tend to a certain level of untidiness even with aggressive policing and very good lighting. Admittedly Singapore is a counterexample, but the locals sometime have so had it with the regimentation and surveillance that they throw furniture out of windows.

And I find the opening conceit strained. Filth in London 300 years ago was due to open sewers and horses pooping. My father, born in 1927 in Brooklyn but who spent his childhood on Long Island (and summers with extended family in Maine) hated New York City because, among other reasons, when he visited it in his childhood, it stank of horse shit. Cars had not fully taken over as of then.

Jane Jacobs had it right. As she said in her lecture on East Harlem that vaulted her into the forefront of theorists of urban planning: It was key to “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

By Brian Ladd, a historian and author of “Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age” and, most recently, “The Streets of Europe: The Sights, Sounds, and Smells That Shaped Its Great Cities.” Originally published at Undark

Some 300 years ago, when Londoners were railing against the city’s filthy streets and proposing ways to make them cleaner, the philosopher Bernard Mandeville did the opposite. He argued that dirty streets were a welcome sign of prosperity — “a necessary evil, inseparable from the felicity of London.” Once people “come to consider, that what offends them is the result of the plenty, great traffic, and opulency of that mighty city,” he wrote, “if they have any concern in its welfare, they will hardly ever wish to see the streets of it less dirty.”

Today, can we say the same thing about the quest to rid our streets of traffic congestion?

In many ways, traffic is for today’s society what filth was to 18th century London. We grit our teeth through traffic jams, we measure and rank cities’ congestion, and we clamor for solutions. Our driving ideal is exemplified in car commercials, where a single vehicle has the city streets entirely to itself as it glides to a glamorous destination. But if the destination is so alluring, wouldn’t there be lots of other people and cars on their way? We forget that traffic is a sign of success.

Since the 1950s, efforts to do away with traffic congestion have inevitably been linked with urban decline. Decades ago, deindustrialization, urban renewal, and freeway construction cleared wide swaths of inner cities in places like Kansas City, Syracuse, and Miami — often targeting African American neighborhoods — and made it easy to drive through them. What made it even easier was the decline in commercial activity that ensued, which left the cities blighted with empty storefronts and office towers. Streets once filled with people interacting with one another were replaced by roads populated by people encased in fast-moving steel boxes. Cities made for speedy driving, it turns out, are cities made for little else.

The latest indication that congestion-free streets aren’t all they are cracked up to be came during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, shutdowns and quarantines all but wiped out traffic congestion in many cities. With less traffic came faster driving and smoother commutes for the few drivers who continued to take to the roads. But the improved commutes came at a steep cost. They were part of a vicious cycle in which business closures and a pandemic-driven fear of social interaction led to empty streets, which in turn made it that much harder for moribund economies to recover.

Worse, the congestion-free streets were dangerous: Despite a decrease in driving, a preliminary estimate of 38,000 people were killed by cars in the U.S. in 2020, the highest projected death toll since 2007. Early research suggests that the empty streets invited speeding and other reckless driving behaviors, and the results were deadly.

Even if we decided that eliminating traffic congestion was a worthwhile pursuit, the usual solutions — building and widening roads — are unlikely to pay off. The well-established phenomenon of “induced traffic” means that new and wider roads usually fill up again quickly. In other words, more roads mean more driving, which is the opposite of what we desperately need in order to meet climate goals.

Yet the U.S. spends vast sums each year to build new roads and add new lanes to existing roads. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress will hand additional billions of dollars to state departments of transportation with few strings attached, and most of those states remain committed to funding major highway expansions, like Louisiana’s plan to build the I-49 Inner-City Connector in Shreveport, Texas’ plans to expand I-45 in Houston and I-35 in Austin, and Colorado’s plans to expand I-70 and I-270 near Denver.

Freeways and one-way thoroughfares are not destinations. Places people want to go are likely to be clogged with traffic, either because business is booming or because they are the kind of lively streets that are a pleasure to linger on. These things go together: People like to live and work near bustling streets and sidewalks, not desolate ones. While Mandeville could offer no numbers to buttress his claim that filth was a measure of success, a 2018 study found “a positive association between traffic congestion and per capita GDP as well as between traffic congestion and job growth.” Pedestrians also feel safer, and are in fact safer, where cars move slowly. To actually solve congestion, we would need to stop driving to places where people congregate. But then there would be no such places left.

Mandeville did not actually enjoy filthy streets any more than we take pleasure in traffic jams. He scandalized respectable opinion in order to make a serious point. Commerce and industry inevitably bring with them pollution of some kind, whether the manure, butchers’ blood, and raw sewage of 1714 London, or the noise, chemicals, and plastic debris we cope with today. If the price of a clean city is the complete elimination of commercial and human activity, then cleanliness has too high a price.

Just as cleanliness must be balanced against commerce, we must measure the goal of free-flowing traffic alongside other priorities. Traffic is a matter of economics and psychology, not just engineering. Instead of pouring resources into new and wider roads in the hope of speeding our commutes, we should be building places where people want to slow down and get out of their cars — places worth waiting in traffic to get to.

Some cities are embracing this vision, and working to make neighborhoods more amenable to walking and cycling. They may be aided in small part by the new infrastructure plan, which provides $5 billion to help make streets safer and another $1 billion to advance plans to remove some existing freeways that never should have been built. The plan’s unprecedented $39 billion investment in public transit will also help, but it is still a fraction of the $110 billion of new funding that will go toward highways (on top of $260 billion to continue funding current highway programs).

We could be doing much more. We could be creating spaces like the streets provisionally adapted for outdoor dining and play after Covid hit. All the people and activity made these streets a little dirtier and a little slower. Was that so bad?

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    1. PlutoniumKun

      The Shanghai authorities took away the traditional parallel bike lanes to improve traffic movements. It made things worse. Transportation engineers are in fact responsible for some terrible decision making, in particular a reliance on simplistic models – it was only after decades of favouring one-way streets that it was realised that they are not, as assumed, more efficient. In an unusual irony, it was often economists using supply and demand assumptions who were identifying the flawed thinking of highway engineers and their models. When economists start pointing out legitimate flaws in your thinking, you know your profession has taken a very bad turn.

      1. 430MLK

        I love this article on parking by a friend of mine in Atlanta:

        I am an outlier, though, among my urban progressive neighbors in that I would much rather have 1-way streets, provided they are limited to 1-2 lanes. As a pedestrian, crossing 1-way intersections is way safer, mostly because (all things equal like speed limits, lane width, etc.) drivers have to contend with less distractions like oncoming traffic, which gives them greater bandwidth to focus on me crossing, and for me to do the same with them. I disagree with the linked article’s assertion about 2-ways moving traffic efficiently and w/ as little auto emissions as possible. Granted that all places are different and exceptions occur, but on measure, 1-ways are superior. The linked article tries to work around this efficiency by making carve-out claims like (1) 2-ways are more efficient for “short” trips (of the kind that, presumably, a walking/biking/public transport city would eliminate) and (2) assuming “no left turns” on all 2-way streets.

        My city was big on converting our 1-way streets, so I did a little looking into it about a decade ago. Mainly, there are 3 big claims, and these seem to me car-solutions to car-problems that are tailored toward visiting tourists and larger urban corporations: (1) 1-ways are difficult to navigate; (2) 2-way traffic forces cars to go slower, since we naturally slow when faced with a car coming right at us. This slowing then trickles down to pedestrian safety and walkability; (3) 2-way streets double the amount of car traffic that passes urban storefronts.

        As to (1), difficult navigation–going a block out of the way–is rarely a problem for those who know their home territory; this is mainly a problem if you are courting tourists or drive-in suburbanites. As to (2), slowing speeds via 2-way traffic actually pushes cars closer to pedestrians, as along with the slowing, cars ‘pull away’ from each other at the center of the road…and toward the edges where the spaces are reserved for sidewalks/pedestrian/biking.

        As to (3), this seems geared to engaging drivers (who still must stop and park) rather than pedestrians, and from what I can tell, it is mainly a concern of big businesses. In my city, this was our downtown Hilton, Marriott, Downtown Development Corporation head, and box store retailers like Urban Outfitters who were making this argument. They then got the next-level business men and women who were gentrifying our north end–mainly along a 1-way street where business was now hopping–to make 2-way streets into a “good urban design” principal worth fighting for. In fact, the argument coincided with the same city push for something like $150 million in subsidized parking garage construction for the urban developments around these same streets. Instead of discussing things like displacement and resource allocation, urbanists were getting city leaders to fixate on an explicitly progressive vision of “good design” for already-built streets. (This is one of the reasons I’ve become a non-fan of Jane Jacobs, whose book was cited by all these people.)

        For me, the same positives of 2-way streets could be achieved through putting resources into cheap and immediate fixes like 25 mph speedlimits, building bumpouts at intersections, and then making the politically tougher call for road diets to convert lanes to bike/ped and rapid busses. None of that urban space, though, can be had if we allow cars to travel freely in both directions.

        1. juno mas

          Superb observation!

          Saved me the effort to say something similar. When one takes the emphasis off the traffic design for automobile convenience and places it on ALL the traffic in a city (bikes, pedestrians, buses) one way streets can be a solution to adding broad, protected bike lanes and the adoption of “bulb-outs” for pedestrian visibility/safety. (I live in a SoCal coastal city (tourists) that has the highest per capita bicycle/pedestrian/auto collision rate in the state.)

          As for driver awareness, Forget It! Most drivers text and drive. And if they own a Tesla are playing games on the in-dash video (while driving!).

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            So then bike lanes will have to be physically protected all the way. Including protected from a runaway self-driving tesla.

        2. Mike Elwlin

          I do like one-way streets but they work well only when streets are laid out in a grid. In older neighborhoods where streets were laid out on horse-and-wagon trails, they’re a mild version of torture.

          As for bicycles, seeing them as substitutes for cars is a mad obsession, as far as I’m concerned, except maybe in new towns with ultra-wide boulevards. My city has a mix of grids and horse-and-wagon streets, flat and hilly. I see bicyclists on the busiest grids, absolutely refusing to ride on nearby side streets because those streets OMG have stop signs! I don’t see bicyclists on cold, rainy, windy days and I don’t see them on horse-and-wagon or hilly streets.

          There. I said it. I prefer cars. I’m all for speed limits and accommodating pedestrians, but all-weather personal transportation that can carry people, furniture, groceries, dry cleaning, birthday cakes, and so on and so on and so on, and are strong enough to survive bumps and whacks, can’t be beat. Carts drawn by people and animals served that function for millennia, now its cars. Maybe we have to tear down all our old cities and towns to make way for them. I don’t know, but I don’t see us ever pedaling away from them and their like.

  1. Mark

    Apparently Dutch drivers are the world’s happiest.

    If we design our streets for people rather that cars then It should really come as no surprise that our streets become more pleasant. If we give people better options than cars and make cars less easy then people will choose to use cars less. The ones left driving cars or other motor vehicles win out at the same time as everybody else who can enjoy a much less hostile streetscape.

    (I ride a bicycle for more than half of my transport trips.)

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Perhaps these steps might be taken firstest of allest in cities whose population is nearly unanimous in wanting to degrade and attrit revenues streaming to the Merchants of Fossil. When those populations come to see that planning for more pro-bike/ pro-bus/ pro-walking/ maybe even pro-streetcar/trolley city streetscapes makes the money spent on oil go down, they might decide to do it to do their part in strangling down revenue reaching the Merchants of Oil.

      Meanwhile, laws forcing oil companies to permit their franchised or otherwise name-bearing gas stations to also host electric vehicle battery chargers could start turning “gas” stations into “gas and electric” stations.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    The tolerance of filth in cities is more complex than often assumed. One reason medieval European cities were so foul was that there was plenty of animal dung available for agriculture meant there was no incentive to remove human waste and other organic material. Even the very posh 18th Century houses of Europe had what amounted to waste pits in their basements that must have been really foul in a hot summer. You had to pay a lot of money to get rid of it. Early European travellers to Japan and China noted that cleanliness of the cities – the reason for this was straightforward – Japanese and Chinese farmers had a chronic shortage of fertiliser as they kept few animals. So human organic waste was very valuable – if you lived in a medieval Kyoto tenement, your landlord actually owned your poop, it was part of the contract. Things flipped in the 19th Century when competent public health authorities (remember those?) put in the sewage systems in Europe. Late 19th Century European and American travellers to Japan expressed disgust at the smells of Japanese cities.

    As for automobiles in cities. They really don’t belong there. The amount of physical space they take up is grossly disproportionate to their use for transportation. But so often cities are where people in power drive into, the destruction of peoples local environment is irrelevant to them. Of course, urban dwellers are often their own worst enemies in insisting on rights to park on streets, making them dangerous for children and taking up huge expanses of public space. Things are getting worse as personal cars are becoming super sized.

    I did hope that Covid would make a real difference, as people realised how much nicer cities were with far less traffic, and with open air cafes instead of parking spaces on streets. Some cities took the opportunities, but most let it slip through their grasp. Car companies can spent billions on adverts and lobbying, bike companies can’t afford that, and nobody makes money promoting walking.

    1. Samuel Conner

      this reminds me of V Hugo’s famous digression, in Les Miserables, on the sewers of Paris.

      I wonder if Gabe Brown’s vision of regenerative agriculture will be widely enough and soon enough adopted to avoid the necessity of suburban US homeowners saving their own night soil for use in backyard subsistence gardens.

      His fifth principle of soil health is to ‘integrate animals’.

      Quite a few animals residing on suburban landscapes, but they aren’t biologically integrated.

        1. Oh

          There’s a whole lot of night soil in the Capitol in Washington, DC and it stinks! We have to do something about it.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If suburban night soil were to be thermophilically composted the way Jeff Smith describes in his books and a website:

        This makes it into less of a nasty duty and more into a safe and sanitary capture of resources.

  3. Juan

    Commerce and industry inevitably bring with them pollution of some kind.
    The article is a collection of opinions presentes as facts, but the central false premise on whuch the argument is built is based on the use of “inevitably” in the sentence above.
    The alleged inevitability lies on the externalization of the costs of dealing with the pollution generated by economic activity, from small to large, by the medieval butcher and the modern fast-food joint.
    “If the price of a clean city is the complete elimination of commercial and human activity, then cleanliness has too high a price.”
    As if, we should say. What this sentence is saying is that the preventing the realization of economic interest of externalizing to the public the cost of simply cleaning after yourself is the same as eliminating the activity. Supreme bovine excreta, this is.

  4. LAS

    All filth is not equal, nor equally distributed, in its impact on human health and life expectancy. One person’s economic boon is another man’s disinvestment and pollution (and now perhaps government congestion price tax or access toll).

    Here’s what I don’t understand (or maybe I do) … why is it, with the looming seriousness of climate change, we never seriously considered curtailing use of transportation by jet (airports reek of the smell of fuel), revising the remote and far-flung supply chains (also using up polluting fuels), cutting down on warfare, and tourist industry pollution? Why do people fly half way around the globe to wear expensive sports gear and hike a mountain, or why do they fly into outer space for 15 minutes of weightlessness, but won’t consider redesigning the built environment for more safe walking or biking alternatives and to mitigate climate impact?

  5. Carolinian

    We could be creating spaces like the streets provisionally adapted for outdoor dining and play after Covid hit.

    There was a debate here whether to keep our downtown square–where the streets had been converted to outdoor dining–into a permanent pedestrian zone or to do what the retail stores wanted and bring back the cars and the parking spaces. City council did the former. But there’s no longer much retail downtown anyway–not even a grocery store–and one has to believe those who live in our rapidly more residential downtown must have cars stashed somewhere. Affluent America is simply tied to the automobile and AGW or no that’s not likely to change any time soon.

    As for barnyard smells, I felt that way when visiting my grandparents’ farm. But I think the key word is visit and those who live on farms or, once, in cities get used to it and don’t even notice the smell. The traffic jam time suck is surely much more of an annoyance. Here in once pokey SC we are getting more and more of it.

    1. Edgar, not Edmund

      I moved from NYC to Greenville, SC, in 2001. It amused me greatly hearing friends complain about how bad traffic was getting, when it amounted to basically an hour of heavier, slower traffic from 5-6pm. However, the complete, bumper-to-bumper, shutdown of Haywood Road on weekends, and the entire Christmas season, thanks to rampant, unzoned retail overdevelopment was another matter entirely.

  6. Rod

    Just as cleanliness must be balanced against commerce

    As everything must–because, that is just as far as we can see(or our vision goes), I guess.
    But that is secondary to me.

    And while I agree to aspects of this:
    (Cities)– They are vibrant, always changing, always interesting.

    I find my Spirit dehydrating within the urban confines of concrete, wires, people, activity and ‘sound’ –rehydrating only in the fields and woods without such, but having much more vitality, to me, in a more subtle way.

    1. c_heale

      Couldn’t agree more. And a well designed ciry with lots of pedestrian areas, parks, and car free spaces is much better than a city designed around cars.

      Ironically, rural inhabitants are far more likely to jump in the car for short journeys than people in the inner city.

  7. p fitzsimon

    This article makes no sense to me. In the early days of the pandemic I remember it was like heaven. My brother who lives a 36 mile drive from us on I95 could visit in a half hour. Now it’s back to its awful normal or worse. How could anyone believe the solution to speeding is congestion?

    1. Joe Well

      The author should have clarified how much of the increase in deaths was due to depleted hospitals due to the pandemic.

      But anecdotally, the media were talking about high speed crashes in places where those had rarely happened before.

    2. Carolinian

      Speeding is dangerous. Congestion is also dangerous. If there’s a case to be made for robots to take control of our cars it would be on the freeways–assuming better robots. Algorithms in neighborhoods are a bad idea.

  8. John

    Like our mono cropped agricultural fields, our mono cropped transportation system heavily dependent on fossil fuels will start to fade once we really get going on the slide down the Seneca Cliff.
    The budgeting for highways in the infrastructure bill indicates deep denial and decadence. The decadence in that we keep using failed solutions to our problems.
    Those eight lane freeways will make great bike and horse paths thru the shanty towns that will build up on the margins. The sound barrier walls will be great to build a lean to shack against.
    Abandoned for one purpose, new uses will be found.
    As to filth, everyone eventually learns that sh*tting in campground is not a good idea.

  9. Joe Well

    If you ride a bicycle around a city you quickly realize that if it weren’t for cars tasking up so much room and requiring long stops at intersections, we could all practically fly from one point to the next.

    As it is, cycling maybe takes 25% longer than driving medium distances in Boston. When you don’t have to deal with so much car traffic, like when there is a bike path, miles go by in minutes.

    And it doesn’t have to be bicycles. Scooters, chair scooters, Segways, anything that doesn’t take up so much space and can’t easily kill someone else.

    But US society today is based on inequality and individualism in the service of extracting as much money as possible from everything and anyone. So of course it’s cars, cars, cars, like Vax, Vax, Vax, and growth, growth, growth.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Now, stop it, Joe! You’re spreading bicycling misinformation! (Just kidding.)

      If the word leaked out, people might realize how much fun it is to pedal around cities, rather than drive, what would we do? Well, we’d have to welcome them to our ranks.

      As for me, I’m not bicycling today. It’s raining like crazy outside, so I am inside.

      But I am looking forward to tomorrow. Tucson’s streets will be deserted for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to an epic bike ride.

        1. juno mas

          …and that trail system will soon have electric “bikes” (motorcycles, actually) traveling at speeds of 20-25 MPH with 10-12 year olds at the throttle (no pedaling required). The danger to pedestrians and very youngsters learning to pedal/scooter is real. A collision with a 70 lb.ebike plus rider causes more than just scrapes and bruises.

          Getting someplace fast and without physical effort is the true ‘Merican Way.

          1. Carolinian

            Well as a lifelong cyclist will just say there are plenty of human powered bikes with 200 lb passengers that can and do go 25 mph. But perhaps you were saying that too.

            And yet we have existing trails where, as far as I know, no such injuries are recorded. And so far my latest and favorite trail is almost all pedestrians, few bikes. I do agree that vehicles even if human powered, are an uneasy mix with walkers. This is true on forest and nature trails as well. But at least what a colliding bike may do to you is nothing compared to what a car will do to you. And my county has bicycle traffic deaths all the time.

        2. Joe Well

          Yeah, the cars seriously cut into the fun, to the point that at night and on bad weather days I really would rather just not bike it even if it takes twice as long on our beleaguered metro, the T.

          Note that bad weather and darkness are not problems except for the greater risk of death from cars.

        3. jonboinAR

          In what I call “deep suburbia”, an incorporated(I think) area on the northern border of Los Angeles called Valencia, a good sized suburb was designed and built in, oh, say, the late ’70’s. It has a couple of neat features that might be mentioned here. One is that the housing is mostly duplexes. These provide now a fairly nice (sub)urban density, neither ridiculously mac-mansion-wise spread out, nor uncomfortably crowded. These are all just about the same design indicating that the whole large neighborhood was built in one shot by the same builder. Their floorplans are nice in that the front door of each is on the opposite side of the duplex from the other unit. Thus, each has as much privacy as possible. Plus each has it’s own little fenced yard. It gives that nice suburban house feel while not taking excessive space (at least not to the extent of most suburban-type neighborhoods).

          But that’s not the coolest thing about the Valencia suburb. You know how, not just in commercial areas, but some residential neighborhoods, there are alleys that bisect the city blocks behind the houses or businesses that face out to the different streets. Well there’s a similar design in Valencia, but instead of alleys, there are bike paths. So that right behind your yard, probably, runs a bike path. Everyone around there goes out on them, walking roller-blading, riding, what have you. It is absolutely the coolest thing ever found in a pre-planned suburb (not a lot of competition, grant you). I can’t remember, about 3 decades removed, how the bike paths were made to intersect with the city streets, except that somehow it works there without much head-ache. I also don’t have any idea how the concept could be made useful to addressing urban traffic problems, but as far as providing bicycle and pedestrian access with hardly any clash with automobile traffic, I’ve always thought it was beautiful.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You are assuming a basic level of health and fitness that some of us do not have. Some of us cannot bicycle. And I broke my cheekbone when I could bike. One brother shattered his leg in a bike accident and was in a cast for 3 months (as in twice as long as the usual six weeks). No way am I using a scooter.

      Oh, and only 30% of bike accidents involve cars. They are physically risky:

      Nationwide, you’re more than twice as likely to die while riding a bike than riding in a car, per trip, according to a 2007 study led by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Laurie Beck.

      So even taking out that 30% of accidents involving being hit by a car, bikes are still much more dangerous…and cars are already one of the biggest causes of death in the US.

      1. Mark

        I don’t believe anybody is making that assumption.

        However the majority of people can cycle and do so safely if it is prioritised by the road authorities. More people on bicycles or other lighter modes of transport reduces congestion and frees up more space for those who really need to use other forms of transport.

        You can believe bicycles are dangerous if you wish. But there millions of Dutch who have an entirely different experience because their society has chosen to de prioritise the most danger transport of them all, private cars.

        Oh and Merry Christmas! :-) I hope you have a safe and happy day.

        1. jonboinAR

          The way US traffic is directed or laid out, I do think bicycling is fairly dangerous. I imagine it’s less so in countries where automobiles are prioritized less and bicycles more.

      2. Odysseus

        Anyone who can sit can ride a recumbent bicycle. Fitness may be an issue, balance is not.

        But for some unknown reason, recumbents are not at all common. Nor are they often electrified.

        1. lordkoos

          The problem with incumbent bikes is that they are so low profile, which means drivers cannot see you very well. If you are only riding on bike paths and so forth it’s not an issue but I would be very hesitant to ride one in traffic.

      3. PlutoniumKun

        Its true of course that cycling is not an option for many people, but the reverse is also true. Bikes are often the only transport option for people who can’t get a driving license for medical reasons – epileptics for example. Plus of course all those under the legal age for driving. EV assisted bikes are proving revolutionary in many European cities for helping the elderly get out and about.

  10. Dave in Austin

    Everyone interested in cities should get a copy of Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” to put on their nightstand. Observational anthropology at its best.

    I think humans are like salmon; best born in quiet, relatively safe pools, they instinctively head out to the ocean as adolescents, where they grow up and spend their lively years. Then, when it comes time to spawn, they are irresistibly drawn back up-river to a quiet pool where they spawn and die.

    Substitute Penn Station for the place where the river meets the ocean and Short Hills, NJ for the quiet pool and you have the life of the human salmon. The only difference is that not all humans choose to spawn. Thus we have quiet, non-spawning areas of the ocean filled with $800k condos and rent controlled apartments.

    I’m getting together for Christmas dinner with another non-spawner. We’re having salmon. I swear that was planned long before I wrote this comment. Have a safe Christmas.

    1. vegeholic

      Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses were like the dream and the nightmare. We are often presented with visions of incontrovertible good sense versus self-evident mendacity and do we make good choices? Unfortunately no. Agreed, get a copy of Jane Jacobs, then go and harass your local urban planning/zoning board to create spaces that make sense, not just today, but in the years ahead when cars will slowly become irrelevant. Also get a bicycle. A little fuel from your cupboard will take you anywhere you need to go.

    2. Roland

      Also recommend Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities (1938) — a better book, and more ominous, than his later, over-ambitious work, The City in History.

      And in recent times, Nathan Lewis has written an excellent series of articles on urbanism. Lewis has strange views on money, but when it comes to cities, he puts his observations and experience to good use–the worthwhile kind of cosmopolitanism:

  11. Samuel Conner

    on the subject of ‘filth’, I wonder if there will ever be “active culture” yoghurts or fermented foods with modified micro-organisms that could transfect the colon microbiome with genes for pleasing odors. That might be useful to make “on-site” processing less objectionable. “Honey! The compost has gone minty. Would you mind carrying it out to the garden?”

    Absurd, you protest?

    Progress in this direction has already been made:

    (and that is old news, dating from roughly the founding of NC)

  12. lordkoos

    “Filth in London 300 years ago was due to open sewers and horses pooping.”

    The filth wasn’t limited to the streets. The burning of coal terribly polluted the air in London. The burning of fossil fuels continues to make city air foul in our present time but now it comes from cars and trucks. While not nearly as bad as London’s air in the 1700s it’s still nothing to celebrate.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The air pollution in early European cities must have been horrendous – around my neighbourhood you can still see the deep layer of soot on old brick buildings. You can quite easily date buildings by the staining. It wasn’t just coal that was burnt, people burnt their waste too – hence ‘dust’bins.

      The reason the ‘eastside’ of so many northern hemisphere cities was seen as the poorest side was because prevailing winds meant that the west side of any city had cleaner air, hence thats where those with money built their home.

  13. CuriosityConcern

    I don’t know how much bearing this has on the subject, but rural and suburban areas are full of dirt, it’s where we expect to see it. An urban area looks dirty with just a fraction of the grime, I think because we don’t expect our skyscrapers and sidewalks and roads to be anything but clean.

  14. Michael J Smitka

    A couple strands. One is that better infrastructure (an additional road lane) invites adaptation: people shift their commutes and, with temporarily lessened travel times, move further out. See the very thoughtful if unhelpfully titled Bogart, W. T. (2006). Don’t call it sprawl: Metropolitan structure in the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.

    A second set of issues is the connection between density and productivity, and density and creativity, and density and per capita infrastructure costs (water, power distribution, roads per capita). I won’t provide references, but there’s now a literature on whether the new software-based firms no longer contribute to making a location advantageous to others, or benefit from the heterogeneity of networks available in urban settings. Richard Florida has a couple books playing around with such issues.

    Then there’s Africa – the following book, consisting mainly of charts and beautiful if deeply saddening maps, should be available as a free pdf: Lall, S. V., Henderson, J. V., & Venables, A. J. (2017). Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World. The World Bank. What does modern urbanization look like when there’s little or no money for infrastructure? The last great farm-to-city movement is unfolding in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s unclear that it will produce any of the benefits enjoyed by the generations that left the countryside in Europe, the Americas, North/East Asia, and now even South Asia.

  15. JWP

    Great recent book on the topic: Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.

    A former transportation engineer takes a part the pitfalls of traffic engineering and plans for “strong towns” that are designed with people at the center. American based as well. He believes, like the author here, that slow streets in cities are best and designing roads to make driver feel uncomfortable is best. I’m about halfway through and it’s a refreshing read.

      1. FDW

        That person, Charles Mahron runs the website Strong Towns, which is a part of my weekly blog run. One of the regular contributors to Strong Towns, a certain Johnny Sanphlippo has a blog of his own (Granola Shotgun) that also’s on my recommended list.

        Funnily enough, one contributor to Johnny’s site also has his own blog, Larry Littlefield’s “Saying the Unsaid in New York”. Another recommendation if you’re interested.

  16. Susan the other

    I dunno. Is there some natural law that says pollution and filth are worthless? Or, why is being bat-shit crazy with denial such a valuable mindset? So, let’s look at it. Even Charlie Munger says ‘show me the incentive and I’ll show you the result.’ The synergy in a city really should be put to good uses. Nobody can pretend that cars and traffic and commutes and jams and choking pollution aren’t bad. Right up there with plastic packaging. The pollution of convenience. Interesting tradeoff. So why is it so “inconvenient” to take care of it? Well, there’s no incentive. aka profit. We have incentivized all this convenience, or more accurately fake-convenience, with crazy profits. So, obviously, we need to balance it out. Incentivize recycling. It would probably take off like a rocket. Incentivize waste management. Incentivize walking. and blablablah.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Trains are very expensive and disruptive to build. In US cities, with very wide spacious roads and grid patterns, a combination of high quality bus and bike provision can be done at a fraction of the capital cost rail of light or heavy and implemented very rapidly. If the political will exists of course, which obviously is not the case.

      1. Acacia

        I gather the main issue with building trains in the US is that many communities will simply oppose them ‘cuz property values. There’s no concept that a train connection could raise promptly values, as it does in many other parts of the world. As for bicycles, no argument there. I’m all for biking. I do most all of my shopping by bike, in fact.

        But a number of commentators above pointed out they won’t work for many people.

        So, again, as Biden says…

      2. 430MLK

        Agreed. I often hear people in my Kentucky city lament the lack of trains to connect them regionally, but I never hear those same people advocate for better local bussing, and rarely for biking systems that fall outside the tourist/joyride variety (which I like but are hardly viable as useful transport).

        The space is there, as any American lamenting the suburban national landscape recognizes, but the political will and local vision is not.

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