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Sam M


I am in no way arguing that the 1950s ushered in some kind of Free Market utopia (if only) that led to suburban flight. And a lot of suburban flight brought a lot of problems. But as you point out, a lot of that came as a direct result of government policy. City Hall trying to guess what was right.

They are still doing that. Every once in a while they get it right, I suppose. But more often than not, I think, we come to regret it. (As an aside, I think I learned in college that Japan's famed MITI--that vast, ingenius subsidizing agency that gave America industrial heartburn and movies like Gung Ho--originally counseled Honda not to make cars.)

And another aside. Or I suppose a question. For John. What's your view on places like Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia? Are they suburbs? In the traditional sense? Or do their original "distance" from DC make them separate "cities"?

I only ask because they remind me, in certain respects, of Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, etc. Sort of upscalish enclaves that have their own flavor. And they are all attached to host cities that really haven't had a history of downtown living.

What is the proper role for such places? Is their success a negative for their associated cities, or a positive? Should polices try to get people living there to move downtown?

I know there are a lot of differences. DC has the metro. The Pittsburgh examples are actually inside the city limits. But I am talking downtown versus not downtown. I am sure if we tried we could come up with better examples, but I hope you get my point.

Which is, suburban growth caused a flight from cities. Or the two happened simultaneously, as there are only so many people at a given moment. And the same thing would have to happen in reverse. The new city dwellers will have to come from somewhere. As you say, Hummer drivers in Cranberry are not likely candidates. So who are the likely candidates? I have theorized at some length that I suspect that the likely candidates currently live in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.

If that is the case, aren't you canibalizing a relatively benign neighborhood to feed a "better" one, while leaving the real problem (the suburbs and exurbs) alone?

I am sure there are a million holes in this. But I think they are interesting questions.

And if the likely candidates live in Cleveland and Boston and NYC, what are they going to do when they get here? And let's say we do come up with 50,000 new jobs. What's to say the people who come to fill them will prefer living in the Fifth Forbes corridor as opposed to Plum? Or are they just going to come for the fancy condos?

I am not being sarcastic. I really am trying to figure this out.

John Morris

I think a lot of people sort of bring jobs with them. I already know a lot of freelance types who are finding Pittburgh pretty attractive. Also, I think that there are likely to be a bunch of super rich types who might just want to collect an apartment for the view. People like the AlCOA CEO, who will have to be here a lot on business. Consultant types just sort of need that solid relationship to the airport.

Also, don't forget students. A bunch of the recent CMU classes are sticking around a bit more. Right now it's more the Art students. The former style editor for the NY Times is comming back home. I think she wants to write a book.

I do also think that one big market will be newcomers who decide that this is a good option. In other words these are people who might choose downtown over some other places to live. A big demand might come from people like doctors or medical residents. My mom worked nights as nurse in a NY hospital. Many of her fellow nurses liked living nearby. I think that some people will be Shadyside folks. But that will help keep that area more reasonable.

John Morris


As far as Arlington and Alexandria go- I don't really know enough to say.
I think they would qualify as towns and likely had a somewhat healthy relationship to Washington.

I guess the best way to define sprawl is sort of like the "porn definitions"- you know it when you see it. True sprawl grew up after cars so it's unlikely those two old places would qualify.

Over and over, I have been repeating that the sustainable way for a city to interact with it's surrounding areas is through mass transit- most likely rail and the minimum amount of other infrastructure needed to transport goods.

To a large degree, Long Island, some of the northern suburbs of NY and lower Connecticut interact with NY that way. There a rail lines with stations that people drive to and then catch trains into the city. Philly has some of that and it works fine and that is the model for London as well. New Jersey has historically been the most car oriented place and so it has accounted for a lot of people who drive into the city. This has been changing in recent years and i think more of those people are now using rail links. To the extent that people drive into the city with private cars, they are being a pain in the ass and are increasingly being seen that way. The Long Island Expressway is a huge and destructive pain in NY's ass and likely could be torn down.

I think that in most great cities/ downtowns any level of private ( non business/ delivery etc ) motor trafic above 10% during peak hours is a pain in the ass.

But this is the rub with Pittsburgh. A lot of this sprawl is not dense enough to support a viable rail line.

Sam M


Thanks for the excellent specifics. But I wonder. Given the 10 percent standard, is a successful city even possible? That link I had to the Portland story indicates that city has (or had) about 5 percent transit usage. Which means 95 percent of the people are in cars.

I think we have a serious problem here. Urban advocates don't like cars. But other people do. The vast, vast majority of people. And as the bulk of society, I suspect that they are going to use cities in a way that serves them.

Saying that people shouldn't like cars and designing cities accordingly runs into that problem. It's kind of like saying the way for people to lose weight is to stop liking food and start loving exercise. True. But it's not going to happen. So, like with dieting, the only way to do it is to do something you don't like and forego things you do like. That is certainly possible on the personal level, but requires a lot of problematic machinations when done at the political level.

Especially since cities are societal beasts. We can say "let the Parkway East crumble." But someone is going to ask, "For whom? For what? We are going to strand 100,000 people so Sam and John can walk to the opera? The city is not theirs."

It does not belong to a few residents in Monroeville, to be sure. But it doesn't belong to dowtown residents, either. It's far more complex than that. It belongs, in a sense, to Allegheny County. To Pennsylvania. (It must. Otherwise the state wouldn't be giving the Piatts millions of dollars. You have to take the good with the bad.) To the nation. To "the economy." To "the culture."

Those last two are particularly sticky. Because we live in a society and an economy that not only lives on--but loves--the automobile. And not without reason. Go back to Tom Wolfe's astounding 1965 Esquire article on NASCAR.


Overall, I think it's safe to say that eight out of 10 people in this culture really like their cars. And I think that for people designing cities--the most important cutural and economic engines we have--to tell 8 out of 10 people to go to hell is going to be a tough sell.

If not in terms of truth and justice, at least in terms of politics.

So yeah, maybe these car loving people need to re-adjust their definition of what a city should be. At the same time, I think it is important for urban advocates to realize that not every place can--or even should--look like NYC or Paris.

Ninety percent of Americans just aren't going to take the train. Maybe they should. But it's too far gone for that. Think about what supports that in Europe. Work rules is a critical one. No one works past five o' clock, which makes it a lot easier to schedule. Works in New York, but you have such a huge critical mass that it's a bit more plausible.

Duluth doesn't have 7 million people. So you'd be running a lot of nearly empty buses to a lot of neighborhoods. Or telling people to wait at the stop for two hours. Which they won't and probably shouldn't accept.

But I am with you on this, which I think is a pretty damn liberetarian argument: We ought to be trying to do everything we can to get people to pay the real costs of what they do. And as it is currently structured, American transportation hides those costs in an immense cloud. And it is not just political. Corporate, cultural and economic forces add to the fumes.

Would taking money generated by the gasoline tax and using it for light rail clear the fog or add to it?

Search me.

But the political intrigue surrounding huge projects like the Big Dig and the North Shore connector don't make things any easier for transit advocates.

John Morris

I think if one starts to try to pinn those costs on people that will help a lot. Issues like peak pricing on roads-etc.

One long term bet I am making is that we will just not going to be able to afford to not do what I say. I mean suburbia was born in a period when America was pretty flush with cash and didn't seem to have many serious competitors. Resources were cheap so we waisted them.

I also do think that suburbia is a bit less popular than people think. I think that LA as it starts to run out of the last bit of fresh air is starting to wonder too. The whole term "soccer mom" which describes a woman who spends her day driving her kids around is pretty eloquent.

sean mcdaniel


have you ever been to paris? have you ever tried walking across the traffic circle around the arc de triomphe? it's impossible...that's why there's a tunnel beneath the roadway to get there.

and i might just be hallucinating now...but traffic moves in new york city at about 12 miles per hour or less at rush hour...and i'm sure it's not all the bicycle traffic slowing things down...as for the fresh air problem in LA, try taking a deep breath in nyc...that isn't 100 percent oxygen filling your lungs.

as far as downtown pittsburgh traffic, it's a myth...even at rush hour...the only time you get real big city jams is when the pirates have a sell out, the symphony's playing, the public theater has a show, the CLO is at the benedum...and there's a band at the byham and the arena...and when that happens, the streets are clogged beyond hope (mostly because those suburbanite scum don't understand that you really do have to get into town more than 10 minutes before showtime. it ain't showcase cinema). but it's really a beautiful sight...i'd love to see it every day. but right now, i can ride my bike along penn ave from 6th to the convention center with maybe 4-5 cars sharing the road with me...that's pitiful. city streets should always be filled with traffic...because that's the real proof that people are living, dining and playing there. clogged arteries are a sign of good health.

John Morris


Yes, NY traffic is pretty bad and that is with only around 12% of the traffic being private vehicles. That is what I mean about being a pain in everyones ass.

But, if most of those cars were not there life in the city would go on.

For a city with such a poor economy, traffic is very bad!

John Morris

I was refering to Pittsburgh as the city with the poor economy.

Eric E

Since you all have brought up Boulder, one of the smart things they've done, among the stupid ones, is to start preserving open space. While I'm not the raging libertarian Sean is, I tend to think that the government should start by trying to prevent damaging activities before moving on to encouraging other activities. However, building a consensus to forbid people from doing something tends to be hard than getting consensus to work on mildly encouraging something. In this case that's preserving open space.

I'd be interested to see a comparison between Portland and Boulder. Boulder has undertaken some efforts to preserve open space, including actually instituting a tax that funds that preservation. Portland has tried to contain growth within the city by requiring large lot sizes outside of the development boundary. Offhand I'd conclude that it worked for Portland - the city still has a decent amount of open space in its vicinity. Boulder I don't know about.

sean mcdaniel

amazing...in one blog i've been labeled a socialist and a raging libertarian...just call me comrade john galt!

remember i'm the guy who says cities AREN'T like sea monkeys. you can't just drop them in the water and see if they grow...cities take nuturing (at times) to get transform and thrive.

hell, i think subsidies and suburbs can be good things!

Amos the Poker Cat

Comrade Galt. Very funny that.

Actually most of the open space in Colorado is done at the state level as a result of the state lottery. Unlike most states that use a "sin tax" like a lottery, or maybe better discribed as a "stupidity tax", to fund education, or welfare for old folks, like PA. CO uses lottery income to buy an maintain open space and parks. Much more reasonable. If you view gambling as recreation, then the income goes to recreation in the form of parks available to all the citizens of the state.

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