In some previous energy independence diaries (list below the fold), I have mentioned retrofitting the suburbs. That is because suburban sprawl creates gross energy inefficiency. However, one of the common objections, when this point is raised, is that Americans are not going to vote for policies to pack them into dense urban landscape ... Americans, we are told, like the space.
SO I am sketching out how this may work. Retrofitting outer suburbs means recreating the option in the outer suburbs of living in conditions like a compact small town. In the town that I am writing from, large numbers of people drive everywhere they go. However, it is possible to walk to the supermarket, the post office, a pastry shop, a coffee shop, etc.
Energy Independence Diaries:
- Energy Independence: Rerouting the Pacific Inland Import/Export Superhighway
- Energy Independence: A Nation of Bike Ways (OAC) (One America Committee blog)
- Energy Independence and Public Transport
- The Foundation of Sustainable Transport (OAC)
- Energy Independent Transport (OAC)
- Switchgrass Versus Corn Ethanol: View from a Critic (OAC)
- Real Energy Independence (OAC)
A Dedicated Transport Corridor
The first step to retrofitting an outer suburb is to have a dedicated transport corridor. I am being very deliberate here in not saying a rail corridor or a light rail corridor. Now, rail and light rail was exactly what we were busy building before the auto uber alles development system emerged in the Roaring Twenties and was locked into place by government policy in the Great Depression and immediately after WWII. I am not going to rule out Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) if a locality prefers that option ... as long as the BRT runs through the outer suburb in a dedicated corridor that is free of interference by auto traffic.
There are two reasons why a dedicated transport corridor is essential to the retrofit of an outer suburb. The first is the inflexibility of its route. The second is the interaction between auto congestion and public transport on a dedicated corridor.
A dedicated transport route is much less flexible than the public right of way relied on by motorist and transport cyclists. And that is a very important virtue. That means that development can be planned around stops on the dedicated transport route. Clustering higher density housing (an idea of what that means is sketched below) around those stops means both walk-up demand (from local residents) and walk-past demand (from park and ride users of the public transport) to attract local entrepeneurs. That means that traffic can be attracted to those stops by the establishments in the vicinity. And that is when it becomes a virtuous circle.
Unexpected Allies In the Process
An important ally in this process are local property owners. Under suburban sprawl development, an increase in land values in one place drives larger establishments away from that area, toward cheaper land with not-yet-congested access, and heavy public subsidies for greenfield development. Transport on the public right of way ... cars, cyclists, city buses where they are available ... must then chase the "big boxes" retailers, resulting in the steady increase in miles driven per year to do the things needed for everyday life. However, with a dedicated transport corridor in place, there is only so far a retailer can go before sacrificing a part of the market to someone else.
So land values in the area immediately surrounding a dedicated transport corridor can rise farther than they can elsewhere in outer suburbia. Now, this won't be widely recognized at first. Once the process has started in a few localities and people can see the effect for themselves, property owners will move from undermining public transport access to putting locations forward for stops on the route.
The second reason that a dedicated corridor is the foundation for the strategy is the interaction between traffic congestion and commute times. Increasing traffice congestion is an automatic side-effect of urban sprawl development. If everyone drives further and further each year, then everyone's car is on the road for more and more of the day, so there is more traffic congestion at more places during more periods of the day.
A bus on the public right of way slows down with the cars around it, as traffic congestion increases. Add to that the fact that the bus must stop to take on and let off passengers, and buses are always slower than cars. Now provide a public transport option on a dedicated transport corridor. It does not matter whether it is a bus, train, light rail, or monorail, it does not slow down as traffic congestion worsens, and so the worse traffic congestion becomes, the more attractive the public transport option becomes.
This brings the second major ally into view: motorists. When the transport choice is car or nothing, then no matter how bad the traffic gets, people still have to drive. However, when there is an alternative option, then when congestion gets bad, some drivers will take the public transport instead, which will ease the traffic congestion. The more attractive the public transport option becomes, and the more tasks you can accomplish via public transport, the more likely that other bozo over there will get off the road.
This is simply recognizing that in a traffic jam, the relationship between the American and the Automobile is a Love-Hate relationship ... love ours, hate everyone else's. And congestion is not "linear", but gets worse faster the closer a road gets to full capacity. So taking 10% of the traffic off the road reduces the experience of congestion by more than 10%.
An Example Dedicated Transport Option: the Aerobus
Now, I can say, "whatever option the locality prefers", but to make a sketch, I'll have to use one as an example. I'm going to use the Aerobus, simply because it avoids many site specific problems in the same general way ... by going over them. The Aerobus can be thought of as an upside down subway. It is suspended from its tracks, where it also taps the power to run, with the wheels and engines in an enclosed pod on top, and the passenger cars hanging underneath.
The special twist of the Aerobus is that suspension cable is used to suspend the track. The use of suspension cable means that the overhead structure is less obtrusive than a monorail, elevated light rail line, or elevated rail line. It also means that the support pylons can be much further apart, which keeps the capital cost down. In outer suburban conditions, the pylons can be up to a mile apart.
So in our sketch, we have a number of Aerobus lines from outer suburbs converging to interchange stations interconnecting with existing urban maa transit, if they exist, and continuing on to substantial traffic destinations in the urban core. If this is a typical US city, there may well be an outerbelt, which may be provided with an Aerobus system shadowing the loop, running direct to the main destinations that have emerged in "edge city".
Again, this is a sketch ... this technology lets me leave the city in the background as a couple of rough pencil strokes with some suggestive shading. There may be a river crossing, an Interstate interchange built without allowing for a dedicated transport corridor, etc ... an elevated option lets me leave those details in the background.
However, it also lets me point out, as an aside, the apparent difference between the ambition of America and China for transport infrastructure projects. The Chinese already have an Aerobus system under construction, due to open in mid 2008. The first clip on the Aerobus multimedia page gives a promo for the WeiHai project, providing transport from the city of WeiHai to Liugong Island, with the "Star Tower" as the middle stop on the run.
And here begins .... Part 2 ... Energy Independence: Retrofitting Outer Suburbia, The Sketch