What a day! WaPo has six stories on the front page and five of them relate to human settlement patterns and/or to the topic of our current column on Jared Diamonds new book Collapse.

There was some interest noted in one of them (“The Los Angeles Story” about “density”) in the string following Jim Bacons post on the need for a Carbon Tax from yesterday. As we document in “The Shape of the Future,” almost every discussion of economic, social or physical consequence eventually gets to the issue of human settlement pattern.

The Los Angeles story demonstrates the wisdom of the adage “It is not how dense you make it, it is how you make it dense.”

Proximity is a fundamental parameter in the creation of functional urban form. Close proximity of a wide range of elements is a necessary, but not sufficient, parameter for sustainable human settlement patterns. In addition, there must be, among other things, functional dooryards, clusters and neighborhoods that are organized in relatively balanced villages and those villages configured in Balanced Communities that are arranged in such a way to create sustainable New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions. There is a lot to learn from a careful reading of the story with the right contextual framework into which to fit the information.

Mobility is an example. Attempts to provide a “modern” alternative to the extensive system of “interurban” streetcars in The Los Angeles region just before, during and after WWII was founded on the tragically flawed idea that it is possible to build enough “freeways” so everyone could go wherever they wanted to go when ever they wanted to go there in private automobiles. (Some will recognize this as a variant of the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth. See “The Myths That Blind Us” 20 Oct 2003 and “Myth to Law” 29 Nov 2004 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com

A unique combination of significant topographic constraints, early reliance on an extensive shared vehicle system, small municipalities with strong zoning powers, a region-wide lack of water and large manufacturing, fabricating and entertainment venues, among others, resulted in a relatively high density at the village and community scale and a large number of expensive houses in dangerous locations. See “Fire and Flood.” 3 Nov 2003 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com

Over the past 20 years the region has slowly and painfully started to reintroduce shared vehicle alternatives for mobility. That accounts for the improvements in some measures of mobility and access that Jim noted. It is also true that, in line with the perspective of Tony Downs, congestion has forced changes in location decisions.

Actually the Los Angeles New Urban Region would work fairly well if citizens understood the importance of Balanced Communities and made more of their decisions based on an intelligent consideration of the real alternatives unvarnished by pandering politicians and philosophical nut cases. They would come to realize this in a hurry if the government subsidies were phased out and citizens and enterprises all paid the full cost of their location decisions. Many of the best “mixed use” and “new urbanist” projects in the Untied States can be found there along with some of the most successful Planned New Communities.

The WaPo version of “The LA Story” has special meaning to me because my grandfather, a builder and developer in California at the turn of the last century, gave up an option on most of Signal Hill just before oil was discovered in order to buy property in Richmond and Gridley. Readers will recognize these two places as California real estate hot spots.

Post Script: The contention that there is no evidence to tie mobility and access directly to human settlement pattern is so silly that is does not merit a response. This relationship is not clearly evident only to those who have a specific economic, social or physical objective that is rendered uneconomic, anti-social or physically impossible but admitting the existence of the relationship.


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  1. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Merely stating that my assertion is silly does not constitute proof that the assertion is not so.

    I have no objective except the truth, expressed in numbers, gathered according to a method that is repeatable, and based on assumptions that are clearly stated. I am not a member of any organization but my church, and I am not a developer. I’m an environmental chemist by training with a background in environmental and energy economics and operations research.

    Qualitative assessements such as good, desirable or functional don’t count. Pseudo quantitative assessments from those that have a dog in the fight, like PEC or Heritage Foudation, don’t count unless they can clearly show the studies are obective.

    My assertion that we have no evidence is based partly on statements from the Texas Transportation Study, which strongly asserts more study is necessary.

    Anyone who cares to can look at their surroundings and see a number of factors not related to settlement patterns that influence travel. At a minimum, it will take considerable work to deconfound the data assotiated with those factors from data on settlement (which is near impossible to describe numerically) and transportation, which is also difficult.

    The idea that the association ought to be obvious strikes me as impossibly simplistic.

    We have, as I have pointed out three excellent opportunities to test the matter, but it will cost a lot of money. Lets do exhaustive door to door, trip by trip, hour by hour, travel studies of those three locations, and do them again every two years for the next ten years.

    Then if the answers don’t come out as you hypothesize, you can always say the planners were clueless idiots who did it all wrong to begin with and their plans were superseded by other events.

    If the numbers are right, then you are right and I don’t have a problem. Right now we just can’t say.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “It is not how dense you make it, it is how you make it dense.”

    Sounds like a description of some people’s writing.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “…if the government subsidies were phased out and citizens and enterprises all paid the full cost of their location decisions.”

    I don’t disagree with this. Where we part company is that my observation is that if residents of densely packed neighborhoods supported by public transit had to pay their full costs, people would move away in droves, which is more or less what we observe.

    Your claim is that this occurs because suburban/rural areas are artificially cheap. I have quoted and referenced academic resources from the Colorado University Department of agriculture and several other sources that say this is not so. At the same time, PEC and other sources are fond of pointing out that farms already pay three times what they cost in services.

    If you have verifiable, peer reviewed numbers that say otherwise (other than your own), I’ll be happy to see them.

    “A unique combination of significant topographic constraints, early reliance on an extensive shared vehicle system, small municipalities with strong zoning powers, a region-wide lack of water….”

    All true enough. Water is a significant restraint. What you left out is that lack of land is also a significant restraint. In Los Angeles and other western towns, it is hard to buy land because so much of it is already owned by the government. If government wants to buy land on the open market for preservation, you won’t get any argument from me.

    But if preservation has to depend on strong zoning powers to make it work, then that is an indication to me that a level playing field is not in the cards.

    With regard to VMT in LA, todays news reported that gas useage in the area has actually declined in the last four months. This is in spite of the fact that even at today’s prices gas is still cheaper today than it ws 25 years ago on an inflation adjusted basis. Nationwide, consumptioon and VMT are still up, even in the face of higher gas prices.

    Maybe the decline in gas usage is because LA has become sufficiently dense. Maybe it is because it is filled with illegal immigrants too poor to drive. Maybe extended multiple families crammed into substandard housing can get economies in travel by sending one perso to the store. Maybe it is because we are getting older and staying home more.

    With the data we have now, we can’t possibly know.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    ORP3 “A Micro-Analysis of Land Use and Travel in Five Neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area”, by Ryuichi Kitamura, Patricia L. Mokhtarian, and Laura Laidet. Transportation 24(2), 1997, 125-158.

    This study examined the effects of land use and attitudinal characteristics on travel behavior for five diverse San Francisco Bay Area neighborhoods. The finding that attitudes are more strongly associated with travel than are land use characteristics suggests that land use policies promoting higher densities and mixtures may not alter travel demand materially unless residents’ attitudes are also changed.

    The relationship between land use and travel demand is not so self evident when you actually try to measure it.

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