Getting There: Placemaking and Public Transportation

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via the Tribune

Early on in the 1992 preface to her pioneering The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs makes the following remark: “In a kind of shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people. This book was instantly understood by foot people, both actual and wishful.” By introducing her text in this way, Jacobs draws our attention first of all to a topic that, interestingly, is in some sense peripheral to the subject of place – clearly, what she has in view here is not so much where people go but how they get around. Yet this should not come as too much of a surprise, as the question of place is intrinsically related to that of accessibility. A place means nothing if it is not accessible. This is why a significant portion of the literature on “human-centric” urban planning and the subject of place has as a focus not only the places that we make but also the means by which we get to and from those places. The character of the spaces that we use, occupy and enjoy is important, but so are the networks of mobility and access that exist around them and connect us to them and to one another. Thus, if we want to think about place, we also need to think about how we get there. This prompts reflection on the systems of transportation this city offers us to get to where we want to go.

Now, the basic thrust of much of this literature on place is the centrality of face-to-face, interpersonal interactions between human beings and the communities that form out of these interactions. In other words, what makes a space a “place” is the fact that it fosters and promotes the development of community. A place is a “place” when it is a place for people. And this is why the city is the ultimate site for placemaking, as its density puts people in unavoidable proximity with one another. So if we want to approach the subject of transportation from something like the standpoint of placemaking, then the following question inevitably presents itself: “Which modes of transportation help the development of these interactions, this community-building, and which ones hinder it?”

The comment from Jacobs quoted above sets up an opposition between two basic ways of getting around – one relies on the automobile, while the other prefers a more natural means of transportation, our own two feet. In a sense, then, her thinking about place, the city, and the vitality of urban life began with seeing cars and people as being in some way at odds – let’s not forget that Jacobs’ work on city life came out of her opposition to Robert Moses’ plans to build an expressway through her neighborhood. In the above quote, then, Jacobs was clearly trying to single out the automobile and the attendant “car culture” as a problem for the city.

Why should we see these two – cars and people – as being in some way opposed to one another? There are, of course, statistics that could be cited on the millions of people who die or are injured each year in traffic accidents. More broadly, however, there is the observation that cars tend to hinder pedestrian activity in general. As a city becomes more automobile-centric, its streets tend to become more and more designed for the machine and less and less welcoming to the person on foot. As traffic volume increases, roads become more dangerous and less available for the development of a vibrant street life. But this is precisely what makes city life so attractive! Streets are the veins and arteries of any city. Knowing that one can simply walk out the door, and, just by going for a stroll, encounter a wide variety of opportunity and human expression is what makes life in the city amazing. A walkable city is a livable, vibrant city.

But there is, I think, a more fundamental reason for seeing the car as a problematic means of transportation, at least as pertains to what we are discussing here. If the attitude of placemaking is essentially community-oriented, then it is fundamentally directed towards the public, towards being deeply involved in the physical and social worlds we share. But the automobile is singular, as a mode of common transportation, in that it is the only one that is decidedly private. We retain the protection of four walls as we drive around; closed off, we need not address a single human being while travelling. There is a certain degree of distance from our surroundings that exists while driving, and it can tend not only to be isolating, but also to encourage a certain degree of indifference towards those surroundings and the people we would otherwise encounter in them.

On the other hand, pedestrianism and its related modes of transportation – specifically, public transit options and cycling – all move us while keeping us in contact with those with whom we share the city. One is open to the public when getting around in these ways, in a way that simply does not happen when driving a car. There is clearly a more direct encounter with the city and its people when walking and using mass transit are one’s primary means of getting around. Moreover, as the poor and less privileged in our society tend to rely on public transportation to get where they need to go, its use, one hopes, encourages a greater awareness of the social ills and inequalities that exist in the city. This is not to say that, in riding the “L,” all sorts of community-building interactions are happening – for the most part they are not. But what is retained here at least is the necessary condition for these interactions to occur – namely, proximity. Thus, since the automobile tends not only to decrease the walkability of a city, but also to diminish one’s sense for the public, the placemaker’s city is one in which the automobile ought to play a minimal role, and public transportation ought to be a priority.

But why does this matter for our city, for Chicago? As the city of the mid-West, it seems that Chicago also occupies a kind of middle ground when it comes to how it moves. Though somewhat dated, a 2009 commuting report (PDF) put together by the Census Bureau shows that the percentage of workers who commute using public transit here in Chicago was a little more than one third of what it was in New York, a city with a huge and intricate system of public transportation that means one can easily get by without a car. On the other hand, transit commuting in Chicago was only about twice what it is in Los Angeles, a city where one needs an automobile to get virtually anywhere, such that a car is basically a necessity for life there. I point this out because I think it illustrates the fact that Chicago is straddling the fence between being a viable transit city and being a car city, and may in fact lean further towards the latter. One can get around the city by using the CTA, but having a car makes it a whole lot easier. It only takes a few miserable experiences of being horribly late for work or an appointment due to long waits for buses or bad transfer luck (of course, this is all the more hateful in the brutal cold of winter) to find the purchase of a car an almost irresistible option. And not only is the CTA bus system unreliable and inefficient, but the “L” rail system serves only portions of the city and always requires a trip downtown to make any transfer. These factors all combine to make travel by CTA a less and less appealing option for many. But the system doesn’t necessarily have to remain as it is, and I think we should be concerned that public transportation becomes a more desirable option, or at least remains a viable one, such that our city does not become more consumed with the car than it already is.

Obviously, this means advocating for an increase in CTA service and maximization in its efficiency. What might that entail? First, increasing “L” service to more parts of the city by putting in more lines and more stops would be an important step in this regard, as that would provide fast, reliable transit to more of the city. There is an issue of spatial justice here as well, as huge portions of the West and South Sides are greatly underserved. Freedom of mobility plays a part in everyone’s being able to exercise an equal right to the city. Second, putting in lines that do not follow the downtown-centric hub-and-spoke model would greatly benefit the system. Not every one needs to go downtown, and I do wonder if the current model may tend to inhibit the growth of areas outside of that central business district. A fuller and more equitable distribution of rail service throughout the city may stimulate growth in now-underserved areas. Third, putting more buses on the streets in order to decrease wait times seems necessary in order to strengthen that part of the transit system that currently serves most of the city.

This is an important issue at the present moment because our newly elected governor has made clear in his recent budget proposal that public transportation is not a priority for him. Indeed, under the current proposal, regional transit systems would see a reported $130 million budget cut, with the CTA taking the brunt of that hit, losing some $105 million. Admittedly, this does represent less than a tenth of the CTA’s budget, but that is still a significant loss that would undoubtedly weaken its operating capacity. And what is particularly discouraging is that this comes at a time when it seems that some gains have been made for our public transportation system and other alternative modes of transportation. Whatever one thinks of our current mayor, he has initiated several projects to improve the infrastructure of the CTA and make biking and walking safer. And promising campaigns such as Transit Future, led by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance, have shown us ways in which an expanded and more efficient transit system might be possible. Let’s hope we don’t lose whatever ground has been gained in seeking systems of transportation that serve the city and its people well, and make for a more livable, vibrant city.

Here is one final thought on placemaking and public transportation. I think those interested in placemaking ought to care about the health of our public transit system for this last reason: that the system itself presents the opportunity for a placemaking project. The “L” is already one of the most iconic elements of our city, and its infrastructure can provide a rich, if unassuming, space for public art interventions, for spontaneous performance, and for civic engagement. It has the potential to become a place, even if we are just using it to get us somewhere else.

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