Could good transit change the suburbs?

Issue 141

Paris Marx

Hey urbanists,

I hope you doing well! I have some pretty great news this week. On Friday, I got the assessment back on my Master’s thesis and I passed with no revisions required!

I submitted the final version yesterday, so I’ll soon officially have a Master’s degree. Now I’m hoping to turn the concept behind the thesis into a book that critically examines the transport solutions of the tech industry, so if you have any advice on that process it would be much appreciated!

Enjoy this week’s essay on suburban transit and the curated links below!

Paris Marx

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A few days ago, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars?” author James Wilt shared a great thread on transit in suburbs that I think is really relevant in the thinking about the future of cities and, in particular, the suburbs that surround them.

In James’ book, he makes a strong argument for suburban (and even rural) transit. These areas might not have the same level of density as the urban core, but that does not mean that residents don’t similarly have a right to high-quality transit service. And until it’s put in place, it will be difficult to change their travel patterns and perspectives on transportation. James writes,

Transit success is a virtuous cycle: it can difficult for people to imagine the benefits of a dedicated bus lane or an all-door boarding system until it’s implemented. Every small success is a step in that direction. Projects can’t just be one-off pilots: the focus must be on building a scalable and coordinated system of transit service. Such campaigns should also emphasize the massive potential for good, unionized work resulting from transit expansion, whether it’s manufacturing electric buses and trains, driving the vehicles, or maintaining and cleaning them. Public transit is about far more than transportation: it contains the possibility of communal prosperity, unionized work, and control over our own labour.

Last weekend, I wrote about urban planning in the metro area where I currently live and have lived for much of my life — St. John’s, Canada. Its relatively small population (~100,000 urban/200,000 metro) is spread over quite a large land area and is highly dependent on automobiles. The bus service has seen improvements in recent years, but remains inadequate for many reasons.

The city is starting to change, but I feel frustrated that the slow pace of action. An increase to transit frequency on a few routes, a bit more density in a few pockets of the city, a cycling plan that prioritizes off-street trails over protected bike lanes just don’t seem adequate, given the climate crisis and quality-of-life challenges that must be addressed.

I return to what James wrote: imagining an alternative is difficult. People need to see and experience it. It can’t just pop up for a short time or exist only as a theoretical plan, and it needs to center the benefits to the public, not to a few business owners.

When I think about immediate changes that could happen locally or in other cities trying to navigate away from auto-dependency, better transit service is a step that doesn’t take a few years of construction — bus improvements can be added quite quickly, as long as there’s the will (and the funds). Plus, in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing, having better, more frequent bus services will make people feel safer about using it, and hopefully set us up for less auto-centric post-pandemic cities.

Critical urbanism

PR-chitecture won’t save us. Protesters in Seattle seized a police precinct and set up CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The pandemic will force us to rethink some aspects of urban life. US evictions are set to boom once eviction bans end. Transit users in London are anxious about using the service, but in France and Japan transit seems safe. Lisbon is cutting speed limits, removing parking spaces, adding new bike lanes, and subsidizing bike purchases. Houston’s I-45 highway expansion would demolish “158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two school,” mainly in low-income communities of color. Shutting down transit during curfews in US cities left essential workers stranded. The housing system is failing Black people, and fixing it would serve everyone else too. Fuji suspended bike sales to police departments after attacks on protesters. New book illustrates architecture’s flawed relationship with politics. A balanced report on the pros and cons of e-scooters.

If you’re still not sure about defunding the police, I highly recommend this piece by Mariame Kaba in NY Times.

Tech dystopia

Tim Bray, former Amazon executive, calls for more union organizing and to break up the company. Facebook is promoting new tools for employers to suppress talk of unionization. California ruling will force Uber and Lyft to comply with laws classifying drivers as employees. IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft are limiting sales of facial recognition software, but the devil’s in the details. In a post-pandemic world, tech companies want to provide public goods. The European Union is set to file antitrust charges against Amazon. Big tech companies are funding shadowy groups to write letters, op-eds, and do polling to try to stop antitrust action. Elon Musk reopened Tesla’s California factory in violation of health orders, then workers got COVID-19. The police are probably watching what you post on Nextdoor.

This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Vice staff writer Edward Ongweso Jr. about tech’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests. I also wrote about why “luxury communism” is snake-oil socialism in Horizons and I critiqued space billionaires for Jacobin.

Climate crisis

Greta Thunberg is urging countries to make Canada and Norway commit to stronger climate action as they campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. Cuba set up coral nurseries to repopulate its reefs. Airborne plastic is everywhere. Changing how we design roads is also good for wildlife. Mining company BHP was going to damage forty 15,000-year-old Aboriginal sites in Australia to expand its mine. It now says it won’t destroy them at least until consulting with Aboriginal people.