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News & Notes

Snowy evening in Helsinki

Snowy evening in Helsinki, image (cc) Niklas Sjöblom

The Guardian: Helsinki’s ambitious plan to make car ownership pointless in 10 years

The Finnish capital has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point “mobility on demand” system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.

Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.


Old Urbanist: Going Driverless, or Not

A heated debate over the significance of Google’s so-called driverless car has been raging over the past several weeks. On one side of the aisle are those hailing it as a “revolutionary” technology that will dramatically alter personal mobility to the point of eliminating private car ownership. On the other side are those who reject the premise that the technology represents a groundbreaking shift, instead characterizing it as merely a “slightly different variation” on current transportation modes that is “so incremental that it epitomizes our national short-sightedness, and failure of imagination, when it comes to improving mobility in America.”


Medium: Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things

In each of these cases, a thoughtful, intelligent observer is prodded by a mix of fear and anger to give an alarming anecdote more weight than an abundance of evidence, or even common sense. On a street carrying thousands of 3000 pound vehicles a day at 40mph or more, we focus our fears on the handful of 30 pound vehicles moving half that fast.


The Boston Globe: Boston needs ideas — from Somerville

The recipe in Union Square is simple: Use transit to transform run-down properties that don’t belong in a thriving city. Boston is full of places that could do the same. Cleary and Logan Square along the Fairmount Line in Hyde Park, Sullivan Square in Charlestown, and Ashmont in Dorchester should all be booming like Union Square. They’re not, because Boston still hasn’t figured out how to drive development forward rather than react to it.

Boston likes to think it has the right recipe for development. The city’s zoning is so restrictive that no developer can do anything of consequence without coming to City Hall first, hat in hand. In theory, that gives City Hall leverage to reward cooperative developers, punish wayward souls, and extract goodies for neighborhood residents.

In practice, though, Boston’s reactive development apparatus means neighborhoods develop piecemeal, with the city unable to drive real change, even in areas that are primed for it.

Cross-out Boston, insert Providence.


Switchboard: Moving beyond “smart growth” to a more holistic city agenda

I say that it is time to become more ambitious and holistic in our thinking about cities, towns and neighborhoods. In the interest of being provocative and starting a conversation, I propose a list of ten questions that every community should ask in order to identify ways to improve. These questions embrace smart growth, to be sure, but they don’t stop there.


The Boston Globe: A brief history of hating cities

City living is highly appealing to many Americans right now, as astronomical rents in Boston, New York, and San Francisco prove. But big cities like these still don’t strike everyone as “the real America”—which explains why a small-town pancake breakfast makes a much better political photo op than a subway ride.

Today, we tend to associate the anti-urban impulse with right-wing politics, and a recent Pew Research survey confirmed that modern political lines seem to break that way: Conservatives strongly prefer to live with a lot of room between themselves and their neighbors, while liberals like smaller dwellings with walking-distance amenities.

But a new history shows that anti-urban feelings have cut a wide swath through American history and politics. Conservatives have described the city as a hotbed of vice and crime, with an alienating level of diversity and too much government regulation. Over time, plenty of liberals have crusaded against city living as well, arguing for smaller-scale, decentralized towns where people could form what they saw as more authentic communities.

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4 Responses to News & Notes

  1. James July 15, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

    I’m interested in a debate on whether the Helsinki approach can work here. My inkling is no, because of specific density. Transit kind of needs really tight hubs of density to work well, and Providence doesn’t have that. That’s part of why I think bikes will have to be a bigger part of the strategy (you can work off of general density). But I think this flex-routing runs counter to the Human Transit idea of fixed, simple, gridded, frequent routes. I’m interested to see if anyone thinks I’m off about that, though.

  2. Peter Brassard July 17, 2014 at 1:37 am #

    I’m not sure I agree. I’ve never been to Helsinki. Helsinki may have more hubs, but judging from statistics and maps of the city, in many respects, it’s similar to the Providence area and it may actually have lower density than Providence’s inner core (Providence, Pawtucket, CF, NP, eastern Cranston, and central EP). Bikes may indeed be part of Providence’s mix, but the current mass transit use of 25-million rides/year remains well below the 1950s peak of 100-million rides/year, not the mention the 1940s and earlier +/-150-million rides/year. If more of Providence mass transit routes operated like the R-Line with more people using the system, frequencies could be improved. Would Greater Providence then have the same potential as Helsinki? Another question is how does Helsinki’s current annual mass transit ridership compare to Providence’s inner core?

  3. Peter Brassard July 17, 2014 at 9:10 am #

    Providence ranks 11th of the nations largest “urban cores.” It has an urban core population of 410,000. Providence was built on transit and today still has the density to support it. The trick is to make mass transit more efficient, higher-frequency, and more connective so that the bulk of the population, who currently drives, will use it.

    http://www.newgeography.com/content/004428-large-urban-cores-products-history

  4. James July 17, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    I didn’t mean to imply that transit can’t take a large share of ridership, but only that I’m not sure that flexible transit makes sense as a way to take that on. The link on central urban core data is interesting.

    I recall someone relating that Los Angeles’ transit area is denser than New York’s, but that that is because New York’s transit ridership extends well out to places like Poughkeepsie and Trenton, and even sometimes to Philadelphia or New Haven, while Los Angeles doesn’t have that extension. The other difference was that New York had these tight, extremely dense hubs of very mixed use development throughout that entire area, while Los Angeles was kind of more like a general mush of semi-dense development with no particular cores. I haven’t been to Los Angeles, so I can’t comment on in from personal experience, but I thought it was an interesting observation that density for transit isn’t just about the general density of the whole area, but about how that’s organized into certain enclaves. My point with bikes is that I think that hub-orientation isn’t so important. Everybody just goes where everybody individually wants to go. It’s like a car, with less storage space. The flex transit sounds like it’s trying to do this same thing, but I’m not sure if that would work for buses (it is still a question mark for me… not a statement…). Would flex transit of this kind actually be more environmentally friendly than just owning a car? Or would it end up diverting people all over the place in order to meet dispersed locations? E.g., if you took the “1” (used to be 42) and created a flex service around that, would the bus sometimes veer off into Elmgrove or Camp Street? All things considered, that’s not very far away in absolute distance, but I wonder whether all the little side trips would make the line very inefficient. Definitely if we can get everyone and their mother to take transit, there’d be such a ridership that we’d be able to organize fairly efficient, linear paths with enough riders on each. But what’s the chicken and egg on that? And the “small bus” thing to me sounds unrealistic because of the number of drivers required, the excess storage space of vehicles, etc. I think maybe if we lived in a developing country with very low wages, we’d have van service all over. But in the developed world that hasn’t really been the model. Although, Finland is about as far away from “developing world” as you can get…

    So I’m interested to see if this pans out.

    Thanks for the link! (It says I grew up in “the urban core” of Philadelphia, which is interesting. . . I’m starting to realize the eastern part of Delaware County, PA does qualify to most people as an “urban core”, but I think you could find absolutely no one who lives there who thinks so).

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