Some notes on the transportation geography of San José, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is in many ways one of the world’s most admirable countries. It gave up its army in 1949 and has been a democracy ever since, holding freely contested elections every four years. No other Latin American country has come even close to this record. Costa Rica has other virtues as well. It instituted a national health service in the 1950s and has taken any number of steps in the years since to improve the nation’s heath, for example, by providing clean water almost everywhere. As a result, the country has a longer life expectancy and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States. No other country with Costa Rica’s income level has such great health statistics. Costa Rica has also been more serious than almost any other tropical country about preserving its natural heritage; something like 25% of its land area is protected in one way or another, and “ecological” consciousness is clearly widespread.

Costa Rica is by no means a perfect place, however. Its economy has been growing fairly steadily (with some substantial interruptions) since the 1940s, but, with a gross national income per capita of $10,400 (PPP1: $14,910), it is definitely still not rich. And it has been subject to the same temptations as nearly every country to move in the direction of “neoliberalism,” removing as much of the economy as possible from state control. One of the apparent results of this tendency has been an ever wider gap between the well-off and the poor. Costa Rica’s Gini coefficient of approximately 48 or 50 is higher than that of the United States and (by one measure) even of Brazil. The dream of an egalitarian society that was shared by Costa Rica’s 1948 revolutionaries has not come to pass. An excellent and well-known economics book by Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco describes Costa Rica as being “a developing country that’s almost a success2,” focusing particularly on its growing inequality and the fact that a substantial part of its population seems mired in poverty.

I’ve been in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, twice in the last six months. The chief purpose of both trips was dental tourism, but I managed to get in quite a lot of urban exploration as well. I was struck by the extent to which San José’s urban geography (like the urban geography of most cities) reflects national tendencies. It is in some ways an admirable place, with reasonably good public transportation and with a healthy central city that is fairly comfortable for pedestrians. But, like most of the world’s cities, it has allowed the automobile to dominate most newly urbanized areas even though, as is true in most middle-income countries, a large proportion of the population does not have access to automobiles3.

When I talk about San José in these paragraphs I’m usually referring to an urban area that now has a population of something like 2.2 million, almost half of Costa Rica’s total population. It includes not just San José canton (population 288,000) or even the San José Metropolitan Area (population something like 1,500,000) but a rather larger area encompassing the once quite separate cities of Alajuela, Heredia, and Cartago and the spaces between these cities. This larger area is sometimes known as the “Gran Área Metropolitana” (the “GAM”), or Greater San José in English.

San José, Costa Rica. Map emphasizing Tren Urbano.

Greater San José. Derived from GIS data downloaded from the version of OpenStreetMap.

Greater San José is not particularly dense. It stretches something like 32 km from west northwest to east southeast and no more than 15 km from north to south. Because it includes some substantial deep ravines and mountainous areas, the area is not completely filled in, but, still, its effective population density of something like 5000 people per square kilometer (my estimate), while higher than that in United States urban areas, is not enormous by world (or Latin American) standards. There are several dozen tall or tallish apartment buildings in the central city and in certain high-prestige suburbs, but, generally, both rich and poor tend to live in low dwellings.

The medium population density is partly a function of San José’s distinctive history. The place was truly tiny at the moment of Costa Rica’s independence in 1821. The city of San José remained small, really, until the 1950s. Virtually all the city’s inhabitants lived in an area of three or four square kilometers that was furnished with a traditional Spanish grid of narrow streets (roughly between the two train stations on the map above). The urban area only became a substantial place when the economy took off after the 1948 revolution.

The fact that urban development has largely occurred since the 1940s has had the usual effects. The post-World-War-II city is very car-oriented. Several freeways have been built (although none quite reach the central city). These freeways, however, have not come close to keeping up with the growth in car use, and traffic jams are frequent. A great deal of time is spent sitting in traffic.

Many—perhaps most—people in San José, however, still get around by bus and on foot. Buses are all run by private companies of which there are dozens. Except for a few inner-city routes, the bus lines have comparatively few stops and end up at terminals in the center of the city. There are something like fifteen bus terminals, scattered widely in the historic central city, the casco urbano. Passengers typically walk from the terminals to their actual destinations. It’s possible that a notable portion of the casco urbano’s pedestrian traffic consists of these passengers.

The center of San José has remained fairly healthy by Latin American standards. Most government offices are still there, as are nearly all the city’s major cultural facilities, for example museums and theaters, as well as numerous hotels. Many private firms—notably banks—have kept their offices in the center of San José, and there is still a great deal of retailing.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida Central.

The pedestrianized Avenida Central in San José’s casco urbano.

As in many other Latin American cities, though to a lesser extent than in some places, certain well-off people have been avoiding the casco urbano for decades. There is a feeling that it isn’t safe there. There is also the issue that heavy traffic makes access by car somewhat difficult. My impression was that most of those one sees in the casco urbano are people of modest means, joined by tourists. Retailing seems to be oriented to a large extent to the former.

Many of the well-off live in post-World-War-II suburbs, mostly built to the east and west of the casco urbano. Some of these aren’t far away. There are office buildings, upscale residences, and major hotels around the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana to the west of the casco urbano and around the University to the east, in both cases just outside the gridded area. These areas could be considered extensions of the traditional CBD, much like North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. They are not nearly as built up as the casco urbano although the buildings are often taller, and they are still fairly walkable, although pedestrians must often thread their way through a landscape built partly for cars.


San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrians on a street designed in part for cars.

Rush hour on a sidewalk just south of the Parque Metropolitana La Sabana. Note the high-rise office building in the background.

Much of the growth, however, is further out, typically along the freeways or major highways that extend from the central city in several directions. Malls of various sizes have been built in these areas, as have office buildings and hotels. Much of the roadscape of outer San José does not look very different from the roadscape of North American suburbs. The affluent and middle-class residential neighborhoods just off the highways are somewhat North American in style too, although there are many more (and higher) walls and a great deal more barbed wire in San José than in North America, perhaps because San José’s suburbs also include shantytowns, typically hidden out of sight, for example along ravines.

San José, Costa Rica. Pedestrian bridge.

Pedestrian bridge over a freeway near Plaza Itskatzú in San José’s western suburbs. Note the paved sidewalk along the freeway in the rear and its dirt continuation between the road and the bridge. Walkways along freeways constitute the one feature of this landscape that would be improbable in North America. The roadside business will look more familiar.

Government policy on cities has (as in most places) been somewhat contradictory. There wasn’t much government policy for the first couple of decades of Costa Rica’s democratic era. Then, in the 1970s, the government accommodated urban sprawl and rising automobile ownership by building freeways, thus encouraging more urban sprawl and more automobile ownership. It was not really until the 1990s that the government tried hard to do something about improving conditions in the casco urbano. It fixed up several of the urban plazas that (as in just about all Spanish-speaking Latin American cities) constitute important urban features4. Even more important, over several years (and after numerous studies), it pedestrianized several of the streets in the casco urbano, a process that has continued. The most important of these “bulevares” (as they are called) is a twelve-block stretch of the Avenida Central, traditionally the most important east-west axis in the city, and the location of numerous shops and government buildings (see first photo, above). The parallel, more modest retailing strip of Avenida 4, was pedestrianized somewhat later.

San José, Costa Rica. Bulevar on Avenida 4.

The pedestrianized Avenida 4. I walked up and down this street at least half a dozen times while I was in San José and never saw a cyclist on the brightly painted bike lanes.

Several connecting streets have also become bulevares. Much of the casco urbano has become as a result quite a comfortable place for pedestrians, although walking along the non-pedestrianized streets can be difficult.

San José, Costa Rica. Avenida 1.

The unpedestrianized Avenida 1. Streets like this are slow going for both cars and pedestrians. Note the high-rise apartment buildings in the background. There aren’t many such buildings this close to the casco urbano, but there are a few.

Generally, central San José seems like a fairly healthy place for people who do not depend on the automobile. Government has responded to the perception of a crime problem by beefing up central-city police forces. Police personnel (sometimes on bicycles) are a common presence in the central city. The bulevares and adjoining streets are crowded until late in the evening. And, in the casco urbano at least, automobile drivers seem to be quite law-abiding about red lights (although not so much about yielding to pedestrians at turns).

The problems start further out. Except in the very center of the city, sidewalks—apparently the responsibility of the municipality rather than of property owners—are maintained poorly. There are a huge number of irregularities that must be extremely awkward for non-able-bodied people.

San José, Costa Rica. Sidewalk.

Cracked sidewalk, high walls, barbed wire. This is not an ideal walking environment.

In addition, the open street sewers (common enough in tropical cities) can be quite deep and wet and present a major problem at corners. The condition of San José’s sidewalks seems mildly shocking given the country’s egalitarian ideals and its claims to ecological virtue.

San José, Costa Rica. Sewer.

Open street sewer along narrow sidewalk.

Conditions for pedestrians and bus riders are even worse further out. Sidewalks are often rougher, and bus stops are scarcer. But things are never as bad as they are in parts of North America. Buses run even to low-density places (although the absence of maps or schedules is a problem), and there are places to walk along most roads. Even the freeways have formal or informal sidewalks, which lead to occasional bridges (see the third photo, above), and there are regular, if somewhat forlorn bus stops.

San José, Costa Rica. Bus stop.

Forlorn bus stop on freeway near the Plaza Itzkatsú.

Urbanists will be interested in the government’s one attempt to provide an alternative to road transportation: the revival of the urban parts of the country’s railroad system. Costa Rica’s meter-gauge railway lines to both the Pacific and the Caribbean had been all but abandoned by the 1990s. The lines needed more investment than anyone could justify. But, starting in 2005, several urban stretches of these lines were fixed up. There are now three such lines: from the Estación del Atlántico to Heredia and Alajuela in the northwest and to Cartago in the East, and from the Estación del Pacífico to Belén in the west. In addition, a few of the trains from the Belén corridor connect the two stations and constitute a kind of fourth line (see the map above).

San José, Costa Rica. Contraloria Sabana.

Pedestrian bridge over a major highway at the Contraloria Sabana station. Train (right) was acquired from FEVE. Note the adjoining bus stop in the extreme right of the photo.

The trains run mostly during rush hour (generously defined), when there is service in both directions, at intervals of approximately every half hour (although the schedule has recently become more complicated). There is also hourly Saturday morning service5.

Incofer Tren Urbano, Heredia, Costa Rica.

Crowd waiting for the arrival of a train at the Heredia station.

Rolling stock is a mix of quite old traditional carriages pulled by (often badly polluting) diesel engines—and self-propelled cars acquired from FEVE, northern Spain’s narrow-gauge railway. The trains provide some of the bumpiest and slowest commuter service in the world. Average speed is about 20 kph. One reason for the slow speed is that the train lines are all single-track, with only a few sidings for passing. In addition, there are numerous hills and sharp curves. Also, some of the rights-of-way lie in the middle of active streets. And there are also hundreds of grade crossings and hardly any crossing gates or flashing lights. Extraordinarily loud train whistles warn away drivers and pedestrians. Accidents are apparently rarer than one might expect.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación Cementerio.

One of the older diesel trains at the Cementerio station.

Train lovers will be delighted by what I think it’s fair to call a somewhat primitive railroad. Passengers who depend on it for daily commutes might be less pleased.

The system is considered a success, however. Something like 20,000 passengers a day use the system. Trains can be very crowded. The trains are actually not much slower than buses, which are often caught in traffic jams. Fares, typically a little under a dollar a ride, are about the same on trains and buses6. And the modest train stations are much nicer to wait at than the freeway bus stops.

Incofer Tren Urbano, San José, Costa Rica. Estación del Atlántico.

Waiting for a train at the Estación del Atlántico. All the trains shown in this photograph consist of older rolling stock.

There has been talk of building a light rail system or engaging in a more thorough renovation of the train lines, but these would cost money that the government says that it does not have. Short extensions of the lines beyond Alajuela and Cartago are more likely to happen. They would, like the lines now in place, be pretty cheap to establish.

Buses remain, however, overwhelmingly more important than trains, accounting for more than 95% of transit trips (I’ve been unable to obtain precise figures). It’s hard to imagine this changing.

There is of course probably no way to make all parts of a city completely comfortable for both pedestrians and automobiles, and San José doesn’t solve this problem. But on the whole it doesn’t do badly for a Latin American city. To paraphrase the title of the Garnier/Blanco book cited above7, it’s a pretty good example of a middle-income city that’s almost a success.


  1. “Purchasing power parity.” The raw GNI is based on the current exchange rate with the U.S. dollar; the GNI corrected for PPP uses an exchange rate based on the cost of goods, which, in Costa Rica, is approximately 40% less than in the United States at the current exchange rate.
  2. Leonardo Garnier and Laura Cristina Blanco. Costa Rica, un país subdesarrollado casi exitoso. San José : Uruk Editores, 2010.
  3. Some of the general information on San José in this post derives from the following excellent sources: (1) María del Carmen Araya Jiménez. San José : de “París en miniatura” al malestar en la ciudad : medios de comunicación e imaginarios urbanos. San José : EUNED, 2010. (2) Setha M. Low. On the plaza. : the politics of public space and culture. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2000. (3) Salvador Pérez Mendoza y Rosendo Pujol Mesalles (editors). Desafíos de los centros de las ciudades mesoamericanas : los casos de tres metrópolis. San José : Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Sede Académica de Costa Rica, 2003. (4) La nación (Costa Rica’s major newspaper, which has fairly good coverage of urban issues). None of these sources really discusses urban transportation geography at great length, however.
  4. See On the plaza, cited in footnote 3.
  5. Up-to-date timetables can be found by clicking here, choosing “Transporte de Personas,” and selecting a line.
  6. Rides through the central city, or to Alajuela, require two fares. Bus fares are again comparable.
  7. See footnote 2.
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The Madrid Río project

I visited the parklands created by the Madrid Río project1 a couple of weeks ago. The area had still been under construction in 2010 when I was last in Madrid.

The Madrid Río project is of course one of the world’s most famous urban renewal schemes. At least two books2 and a huge amount of journalism have been devoted to the project, which involved putting nearly seven kilometers of the M30 surface freeway into a tunnel, and replacing it with parkland. The project runs along the Manzanares River, and one of the project’s goals was to restore a river valley that had been damaged not just by the 1970s freeway but by centuries of human activity. Because the site of the project is not far from central Madrid, the Madrid Río project carried an enormous symbolic meaning. One of the books on the project3 compares it to Boston’s “Big dig” and the removal of a freeway and the consequent uncovering of Cheonggyecheon stream in central Seoul.

Because the project is so well-known, there isn’t much to be said about it, but I can’t resist sharing some observations anyway:

[1] The Madrid Río project is often described as being in central Madrid, but that’s really a questionable assertion. I am pretty sure that, when people talk about central Madrid, they are largely thinking of the city’s tiny medieval core and the substantial areas added to the east, north, and south of that core through the early years of the twentieth century. The reason for Madrid’s asymmetric growth is that west of the core (or west of, say, the Palacio Real) is quite a steep hill. The Manzanares Valley lies at the bottom of the hill and, until modern times, was subject to flooding. This valley was not much used for high-density urban activities until the 1950s. Even now, the Valley feels quite separate from central Madrid proper. The latter is one of the world’s most intensively used urban spaces. There are crowds everywhere, even late at night. The sidewalks connecting central Madrid proper with the Manzanares Valley tend, in contrast, to be rather empty, and no wonder—you have to manage something like a 10% grade on nearly every connecting street. Once you’re down in the valley, pedestrians are numerous again, but you’re no longer in what most people would identify as a central business district. The neighborhoods along the Madrid Río project are now fully built-up with post-World-War-II multi-family housing. Here’s a map:

Central Madrid and vicinity, showing the location of the Madrid Río project. Note the breaks in the street grid marking the steep rise between the Manzanares Valley and central Madrid proper. GIS data from the MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap.

[2] The Madrid Río parklands are in one sense somewhat American. This statement requires some explanation.

Many North American city dwellers do much of their running and cycling in linear parklands created in the rights-of-way of abandoned railroad routes and power lines or (more often) along water bodies. There has not been much opportunity to build parklands like these in Western Europe. Abandoned railroad routes and overhead power lines are uncommon in cities, and river banks and lakeshores are often preempted for other functions. The path created over the last thirty or so years along the south bank of the Thames, for example, is wonderful for walking but too crowded and irregular to be very comfortable for cycling or even running. Only a few places—the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, the Regent’s Canal in London, and the banks of the Main in Frankfurt—seem vaguely comparable, say, to the hundreds of kilometers of recreational paths that have been built in cities like Washington, Chicago, Denver, and Calgary since (roughly) the late 1970s.

The Madrid Río project is an even better example. The project created a genuine linear park, and it connects to narrower, more modest, long-existing linear parks at both ends. There is even a separate right-of-way for bicycling. 

I should add that, when I was there, the bicycle path was fairly empty. Most of the park’s many users were walking pedestrians. This may have reflected the fact that I was visiting during the morning on weekdays. Here’s a photo:

Walking path in one of the parks created by the Madrid Río project. Note the relatively recent housing in the background. The Manzanares is behind the fence to the right.

[3] The Madrid Río parklands differ from just about any North American linear park in that they are much more carefully designed. The area in that sense resembles in some ways New York’s High Line, but the scale of the work is much larger. A traverse of the area takes you through a constantly changing landscape of elaborately planned gardens, water features, and special-purpose recreation facilities, and, if you want to cross the river, you have a choice between flashy modern and sensitively restored older bridges. Only the river itself seems vaguely “natural”—and it’s carefully confined behind walls. The complexity of the parklands created by the Madrid Río project is perhaps its most distinctive feature.

The Manzanares River along which the Madrid Río project was built.

  1. “Madrid Río” can also be spelled “MadridRío.” Whatever the spelling, this phrase, which is not possible in traditional, correct Spanish, suggests the computer age.
  2. (1) MadridRío : un proyecto de transformación urbana / textos, Manuel Arnáiz and others. Madrid : Turner, 2011. Translated as: MadridRío : a project of urban transformation. Madrid : Turner, 2011. (2) Paisajes en la ciudad : Madrid Río : geografía, infrastructura y espacio public / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014. Translated as: Landscapes in the city : Madrid Río : geography, infrastructure and public space / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014.
  3. Paisajes en la ciudad, pages 14-21.
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Detroit’s new QLine streetcar

Most of the new, short, slow, and infrequently-running streetcar lines built in the United States in the last few years appear to have been constructed at least to some extent for reasons having little to do with any possible role as transportation facilities. Many seem to have been designed in part to signal that the urban area in which they’re located is important enough to have rail transit of a sort. Some—those in Memphis and Little Rock, for example, and the not-yet-open line in Saint Louis—were set up to be “cute” components of a district with some tourist attractions. Atlanta’s short streetcar line was built in part to encourage visits to the Martin Luther King sites east of downtown. Hardly any of these lines is sufficiently lengthy, speedy, or frequent enough to be able to beat a fast pedestrian.

I went and rode Detroit’s brand-new QLine streetcar last week.

A QLine train in downtown Detroit.

This 5.3 km (3.3 mile) line runs between the New Center and Downtown along Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s major pre-freeway street.

Detroit QLine map

The red line on this map shows the location of Detroit’s new QLine. The black line shows the city limits. Detroit’s urban area of course extends far far beyond its city limits. GIS data from the Metro Extracts versions of OpenStreetMap.

It really is a streetcar line, occupying the same space as a lane of traffic for nearly its entire length. Mostly this is the outer lane, close to the sidewalk, but the QLine shifts to the center lane at its two ends to facilitate changing direction. This is an awkward operation, requiring a special signal. Elsewhere, the QLine stops for red lights, although it’s supposed to have some preemption capability at certain intersections. The QLine trains were taking about 25 minutes to travel their entire route when I rode on them. That means that their average speed was about 12.7 km per hour (7.9 mph). That’s not speedy, but it’s faster than anyone is likely to be able to walk. Service was about every fifteen or twenty minutes when I was there (no timetable seems to be available). Trains were running fairly full, with a few voluntary standees, which suggests that service levels were about right. Of course, it’s possible that more frequent service would attract more customers, but it’s also possible that there will be many fewer customers when free service ends on July 1. The fare is $1.50 for a three-hour pass. It appears that transfers to Detroit’s buses and people mover are not going to be offered. The 53-Woodward bus parallels the QLine and offers more frequent service during the day than the QLine; it may be faster too.

The QLine basically serves the Woodward Corridor. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that this is practically the only part of the city of Detroit that is economically healthy. It includes government and commercial offices in New Center, Henry Ford Hospital, Wayne State University, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, three recently-built or still-under construction major-league sports stadia, and downtown Detroit.

I’ve been in Detroit every few years for, well, the last fifty years or so, and my impression is that central Detroit hasn’t looked as healthy in many decades. Many—possibly most—of the downtown area’s skyscrapers are now filled with office workers by day. The arrival of Quicken Loans in 2010 was apparently a key factor here. There isn’t much new construction, but there’s a fair amount of renovation of the existing, often elegant buildings.

The Shinola Hotel, being carved from existing buildings in downtown Detroit. Shinola is a Detroit company that has tried to capitalize on its location.

There are now quite a few people on the streets downtown, as well as new shops to serve them. It’s important (although awkward) to point out that many—maybe most–of these people are white. Downtown Detroit, after some decades of being avoided by suburbanites, has once again been defined as a safe destination. I’m told that it even gets crowded when there’s a sports event on.

North of downtown there are numerous new residential buildings along Woodward Avenue, and there’s even a new Whole Foods just off Woodward at Mack Avenue. The residential buildings constitute something of a façade; there are still empty spaces a block away (but it does look as though these are filling in in places). I should add that, despite all the new housing, I felt rather lonely walking on Woodward along the QLine north of downtown. The wide sidewalk has hardly any pedestrians, and Woodward carries a lot of traffic. The middle-class neighborhoods being recreated in “midtown” Detroit consist mostly of apartment buildings and row houses, but they seem to be functioning very much like medium-density suburban neighborhoods when it comes to transportation; it appears that most people drive everywhere. It’s hard to imagine that these neighborhoods will generate a lot of business for the QLine.

New housing along Woodward Avenue, just north of downtown.

The last time I was in Detroit, maybe five years ago, I was just passing through, transferring between Amtrak and Via Rail Canada trains. I took the 53-Woodward bus between the Amtrak station and downtown and found myself surrounded by a group of people discussing their appointments with a parole officer. I was the only white person on the bus. It’s admittedly borderline racist to be aware of these things, but I couldn’t help but notice that the QLine is thoroughly integrated. The passengers appear to be both economically and racially diverse. It’s a bit odd that it took a shift from bus to rail to bring about integration, but, well, that may be the price one has to pay.

Inside a QLine train. The cyclist is in the process of hanging his bicycle on a bike rack.

Funds for building the QLine came partly from the federal government, but most of the cost was—amazingly—shouldered by local businesses (the “Q” in QLine is for Quicken Loans). I am sure that these businesses felt that they were contributing to the revitalization of central Detroit. It would be very difficult to set up a formal study to test the hypothesis that they’ve succeeded. But there’s no doubt that central Detroit is doing all right these days and that the brightly colored QLine cars (as infrequent as they are) add a bit of charm to the place. It would be harder to demonstrate that they constitute a vital transportation link.


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Chicago loses—and gains—population

According to a report that the Census Bureau posted a couple of days ago, Chicago has been continuing to lose population. The city’s estimated population in 2016 was 2,704,958. In 2015 it had been 2,713,596. Chicago is the only city among the twenty largest in the United States to have lost population in the last year. If the Census Bureau’s estimates are correct, it’s actually lost population in each of the last three years. This does not seem like good news.

Actually, only some parts of Chicago have been losing population. While it won’t be possible to get tract-level population estimates until approximately December (and even then all that will be available are ACS data for 2012/2016), there is every reason to believe that the geography of population change over the last year has been roughly similar to that in recent years. That is to say, there have been substantial gains in high-prestige neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Loop where there are dozens of new apartment buildings (which have typically replaced industrial buildings or vacant lots). Many reasonably well-off areas on the North and Northwest Sides have been adding population too, again thanks largely to new construction. The areas of greatest loss have been poverty-stricken South and West Side African-American neighborhoods like Englewood and (part of) North Lawndale.

Here’s a map showing tract-level population changes, in percent, between 2010 and the 2011/2015 period:

The relationship in Chicago and vicinity between population gain or loss and the percentage of the population 25 and over with college degrees. Mapping at the tract level. GIS data from NHGIS.

The map also shows areas where more than half the population 25 and over had a college degree in 2011/20151. Note the rough relationship in the city (but not the suburbs) between population gain and high education levels. There is nearly as close a correlation between population gain and high per capita income. These correlations are all the more remarkable in that substantial population gain is likely to be associated with a densification of the housing stock, something that’s just not possible everywhere.

In other words, Chicago’s population loss is only part of the story. Much of prosperous central and North-Side Chicago has continued to gain population. It’s in Chicago’s most destitute neighborhoods where population loss has been most dramatic.

One of the major functions of cities historically has been to provide opportunities for poor people. The departure of so many poor people suggests that Chicago isn’t maintaining this traditional role in a very effective way these days. The utter failure of the Chicago Police Department to control violent crime in poor neighborhoods is only one of many factors causing people to flee. This failure is not something to celebrate.

But, in a city that has deep financial problems, the continued slow increase in the population of educated and in many cases well-off people clearly has some major advantages. There is no way that a city exclusively of the poor could help much with Chicago’s enormous pension obligations, for example. And it couldn’t do much to help the poor either.

  1. The ACS figures for 2011/2015 have large margins of error. The general patterns are likely to be reasonably accurate, however.
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Phoenix urbanizes itself

Among all of what today are the largest cities of the United States, Phoenix was very nearly the smallest in the middle of the 20th century1. In 1950 it had only 106,818 people—it was smaller than New Bedford!—and its metropolitan area had a population of 331,770. All the other now gigantic Sunbelt cities were much larger: Houston had a population of 596,163 (metro area: 919,767); Dallas 434,462 (metro area: 1,136,144); and Atlanta 331,313 (metro area: 726,789). Phoenix is now nearly fifteen times bigger than it was in 1950. In 2015, it had a population of 1,563,025 (metro area: 4,574,351). It was the 6th largest city in the United States, and its urban area ranked 12th. That is, while the Houston, Dallas, and  Atlanta urban areas still had larger populations, the gap had narrowed considerably, and the Phoenix metropolitan area is now larger than those around Minneapolis and Denver, not to mention Saint Louis and Cleveland and many other once much bigger places.

Phoenix’s growth has occurred almost entirely during the era when new urban areas were being built to work with the automobile. The city comes very close to lacking the kinds of pre-automotive inner-city neighborhoods that you can still find in several other Sunbelt cities, for example, Montrose in Houston and Midtown Atlanta, that could theoretically form the core of denser and less automobile-oriented urban areas. There are only some scattered remnants of pre-1950 housing. And Phoenix’s downtown for many years was a sad remnant of a downtown built for a much smaller city. My perhaps not altogether accurate memory of central Phoenix in the 1960s and 1970s is of a place with maybe half a dozen government buildings, some low commercial structures, and a great many parking lots.

Despite its status as an essentially post-1950 city, Phoenix, like several of its counterparts elsewhere in the Sunbelt, has been trying on at least a small scale to become a more urban place since approximately the 1990s. The city government with considerable help from the private sector has been attempting to make downtown a bit more substantial, and in the 21st century the Phoenix area has added a longish light-rail line, which has enjoyed considerable local support.

I spent a day in Phoenix last week. It was the first time I’d been there in several decades, and, while I realize that it’s mildly ridiculous to speak of an agglomeration of four and half million people as “urbanizing” itself, I don’t know how else to characterize Phoenix’s recent transformation, which I found fascinating.

About downtown, there are now half a dozen skyscrapers, mostly housing financial institutions; several newish hotels; and some major entertainment venues.

The most distinctive component of downtown Phoenix’s transformation may be the emphasis on housing: the powers-that-be would clearly love Phoenix to be known as a desirable place for millennial members of the “creative class” as well as for retirees. If you believe some of the literature put out by real estate brokers, you’d think that downtown housing in Phoenix was booming. It isn’t, exactly. But several dozen upper-middle-class apartment buildings—including some high rises but mostly of the four-or-five story sort—have indeed gone up, and more are under construction.

Apartment buildings on Roosevelt Street, Phoenix

New apartment buildings on the edge of downtown Phoenix. An “urban lifestyle” is advertised. Is it provided?

The real estate brokers seem especially proud of Roosevelt Row, a street just north of downtown proper where a few pre-World-War-II residential buildings have survived, and where there are also some cafés and restaurants in pre-World-War-II commercial buildings.

Roosevelt Row, Phoenix.

Some of the surviving older buildings on Roosevelt Row.

I thought it was wonderful that these rather small older buildings were being treated lovingly but couldn’t help but note that there are still substantial gaps between them, and there were hardly any pedestrians walking on the cracked sidewalks when I was there. Progress has been made; there’s a ways to go. The other bits of new housing in downtown also mostly seemed rather isolated. There just isn’t enough housing or a full enough range of close-by shops to lead to much pedestrian life. No casual observer would think “urban neighborhood” in looking at the ragged landscape of new residential construction around downtown Phoenix, but the fact that there is new, often pricey downtown housing at all is perhaps the salient fact.

Possibly of even greater consequence: Arizona State University has opened a branch downtown, and there were quite a few university types walking along the campus’s three blocks, which have been in part pedestrianized. This is only area in downtown that felt at all like a traditional city, although I discovered that you can’t actually enter ASU’s buildings without a special key. ASU’s downtown campus is not very inviting to strangers.

Pedestrians are thin on the ground elsewhere, except where homeless (or anyway economically marginal) people congregate, for example in Margaret T. Hance Park, admirably built over a freeway just north of downtown, and in the Transit Center. I’m told that there are many more pedestrians when there’s a baseball game at Chase Field,  a convention at the Convention Center, or an event at the Talking Stick Resort Arena or Phoenix Symphony Hall. Note that list of facilities, all built with government support—the powers-that-be have been willing to spend quite a lot of money to turn downtown Phoenix into a destination. And, since many new buildings are going up, it’s possible that they really will succeed in creating the kind of pedestrian zone to which most people drive.

CitiScape, Phoenix

Advertisement for CitiScape, a major downtown complex still in part under construction. (The ad is mounted on a construction barrier.) Note the throngs of pedestrians. It’s very likely that more people are shown in this ad than were present on the streets of all of downtown Phoenix when I was there.

Perhaps that’s as much as one can expect—downtown Phoenix actually seemed to me more solidly built-up and more pedestrian-oriented than, say, downtown Houston.

The Valley Metro Light Rail line is the other major component of Phoenix’s “urbanization.” It runs 42 kilometers (26 miles) from Mesa on the east (which—with its population of something like 470,000—has sometimes advertised itself as the largest American suburb), through Tempe, past the airport, through downtown, then north along Central Avenue through Midtown (like Wilshire Boulevard a kind of linear extension of downtown along which several office and apartment buildings have been built over the years). It then passes through several residential neighborhoods north and west of Midtown.

Map of the Valley Metro Light Rail line, as well as of Phoenix’s street grid. GIS data from OpenStreetMap and Valley Metro.

The line generally runs in the center of wide arterials.

Valley Metro Light Rail on Central Avenue, between downtown and Midtown.

It splits into two downtown, running on parallel one-way streets, and has its own right-of-way through part of Tempe.

Valley Metro Light Rail in Tempe, almost the only area where it has its own right of way. The downtown skyline can be seen on the horizon just right of center. The Midtown skyline is to the right of that.

The line is not particularly fast—it takes approximately 85 minutes to get from one end to the other, for an average speed of 30 km/h [19 mph]). It does not use signal preemption but does employ a system in which traffic lights can be delayed slightly (although an engineer told me that this doesn’t work very well), and left turns across the tracks are always prohibited when a train is coming. Because the streets along which the line runs are generally much more important than all but a small number of cross streets, traffic lights are green more often than not, and the system suffers fewer traffic-light delays than some of the rail lines in, for example, Los Angeles. Still, there is quite a lot of stopping at places other than stations, especially downtown.

With the exception of downtown Phoenix and pleasant and bustling downtown Tempe (where the main Arizona State campus lies), the landscape through which the light rail line runs is not particularly conducive to walking to and from the stations. Modest areas (like parts of Mesa) feature an assortment of used car lots, trailer courts, fast-food restaurants, small apartment buildings, and motels. More upscale areas like Tempe and some of the neighborhoods north of downtown have new car lots, fancier and occasionally taller apartment buildings, and offices. Much of the route just east of downtown contains low industrial structures, although a few apartment buildings and—near the Airport—hotels are creeping in. Despite Phoenix’s hot summers, there are hardly any neighborhoods along the line with substantial numbers of shade trees; apparently, they just require too much water. Nonetheless, in spite of what looked to me like a hostile landscape, people do get on and off at every stop and make their way to where they’re going—or, in some cases, to a nearby (infrequently running) bus. It must be said that there are sidewalks everywhere, and that car drivers in the Phoenix area seem to respect pedestrians assiduously.

Valley Light Rail is apparently considered quite a success, and extensions are planned. The line’s been carrying more than 50,000 people a day. That’s a drop in the bucket set next to the 6,000,000 people a day who ride New York’s subway, but it’s in line with the number of passengers on new light rail lines in other Sunbelt cities and is three times as many people as ride the Cleveland Rapid—but only half as many as ride the shorter light rail line in much smaller Edmonton.

Phoenix is not and will never be the kind of place of which I’m likely to become fond, but the fact that an urban area so completely of the automobile age would voluntarily put so much energy into becoming a little more like a traditional city strikes me as being exceptionally noteworthy.

  1. Las Vegas gives Phoenix some competition in this respect. Its 1950 population was 24,624. With its 2015 population of 623,727 (metro area: 1,951,269, or CSA: 2,362,015), it’s grown even faster than Phoenix.
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Waiting for traffic lights to change on the new Expo Line

When I was in Los Angeles three weeks ago, I naturally rode the new Expo Line between Santa Monica and downtown a couple of times. I can confirm that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a hit on its hands. The trains were pretty full, and, while there is no way to prove this, it did seem as though the passengers included people from many different social backgrounds.

Buying tickets for the Expo Line.

Inside an the Expo Line train.

Getting off the Expo Line.

I can also confirm what some other observers have pointed out: The trains spend a huge amount of time waiting for red lights at street intersections, approximately six minutes over the course of one fifty-two-minute trip. It’s almost beyond belief that the second largest urban agglomeration of the Western world would have spent something like two and a half billion dollars to build a rail line that has to wait for cars, but that’s the way it is. The same problem occurs on the Blue Line to Long Beach, the Gold Line to East Los Angeles, and the Orange Line BRT in the San Fernando Valley. Every stereotype of where Los Angeles puts its priorities is confirmed by this pattern. Signal preemption is not exactly high-tech any longer, and, if that seems too complicated, crossing gates at every intersection would seem like a no-brainer to me.

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Being a pedestrian in central Kuala Lumpur

I spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur last week. While travelling I was reading a terrific book, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia1, by Ross King, a professorial fellow at Melbourne University. I had been in KL (as everyone calls it) several times since the 1990s (I was there on September 11, 2001) and had always found the geography of the place a little mystifying. Professor King makes things clearer. I’m simplifying his argument unfairly, but his vision of a city whose form has been determined by several quite distinct cultural and political forces explains a great deal. These forces include a century of British colonialism of course; but also immigrant Chinese economic energy—and a preference for high-density shophouses; Malay resentment—and a preference for low-density housing; and the aesthetic choices of several successive Malaysian prime ministers in the years since independence, who were almost entirely responsible for the creation of Putrajaya, Malaysia’s new (and still rather empty) capital something like 30 km south of KL.

Professor King deals only in passing with aspects of life in KL that are an issue in cities everywhere, for example, the relationship between cars and everything else that moves. This is an area in which I have an interest, and it’s also an area that figures prominently in on-line tourist reports on KL, which seem to be dominated by descriptions of the difficulty that car traffic creates for walking there. These reports include “Walking in Kuala Lumpur—are you mad?”, “Kuala Lumpur–is this the most pedestrian-unfriendly city in the world?”, and “Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a pedestrian-impossible city”. There is also quite a substantial—and somewhat less irateacademic literature on this subject—click here2 and here3  for examples.

Walking under the Monorel in the Bukit Bintang area. A somewhat typical, messy but perfectly usable sidewalk. Photo taken 2005.

The difficulty of being a pedestrian is central KL has become an area of concern to the powers-that-be. The Federal Government’s Economic Transformation Programme, which aims to make Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020, notes KL’s pedestrian-unfriendliness. It recommends the establishment of a network of well-maintained walkways4.  Thus far, this has chiefly resulted in repairs to certain sidewalks; a few signs;

Directional signs for pedestrians.

pedestrianization of a few streets;

Covered pedestrianized street in Chinatown.

and the building of a small number of overhead pedestrian facilities, notably between Bukit Bintang and KLCC, two major shopping areas that make up the newer central business district. The latter path is even air-conditioned.

The Bukit Bintang-KLCC walkway.

Work has also begun on the “River of Life” project, which is supposed to create walking paths along the Klang River and two of its tributaries, which divide the old central business district into formerly British and formerly Chinese and Indian sections. This seems like a terrific project to me if only as the area, now difficult to access, contains quite a number of impressive colonial-era buildings. Not much appeared to have been accomplished, however, as of last week.

Along the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur’s old CBD. This area is supposed to get proper walkways. Note the LRT in the distance.

An objective evaluation of conditions for pedestrians in KL might suggest that in this respect (as in many others) KL is in some ways a more modern city than tourist reports imply. Pedestrians in central KL have it pretty good compared with their counterparts in, say, Delhi, Jakarta, and many other Third World cities. The sidewalks in commercial areas are generally crowded. You don’t feel you’re violating local mores in walking on them. (This is not so true, however, around the National Museum and in the parklands west of the Klang, where tourists are more likely to go than locals.) There are plenty of traffic lights, and car drivers generally obey them (motorcyclists not so much). And there are sidewalks along most streets in the central city, which do not seem to be encroached on too often, although they could still use better upkeep.

In other respects, however, pedestrians soon learn that they’re not in, say, Switzerland. For example, as elsewhere in Asia, those on foot sometimes have to wait several minutes for traffic lights to change. This is a deeply irritating—and easily reduceable—annoyance. Even more serious, the chief contributor to pedestrian precariousness in Kuala Lumpur is that drivers of turning vehicles basically never yield to pedestrians. This is perhaps above all a cultural problem, and I don’t know whether even draconian enforcement and steep fines would solve it. For what it’s worth, this is not a concern at all in nearby Singapore, where drivers making turns generally yield to pedestrians much more reliably than they do in, say, American cities. The problem of casual driver aggressiveness is (curiously) not even mentioned in the government reports and newspaper stories on walkability that I’ve seen, which tend to focus on improving the infrastructure rather than changing the culture. Of course, the former might be easier to implement!

It cannot be stressed too much that central KL occupies only a tiny part of the KL urban area (sometimes called the Klang Valley), which now has a population approaching eight million. You really can’t talk about conditions in the central city without considering what it is part of. The statistics are messy and difficult to analyze, but it’s pretty clear that automobile ownership in Malaysia is higher than one would expect on the basis of income alone5; perhaps half the urban area’s households have access to a vehicle. The KL area is crisscrossed by an unusually substantial network of expressways, on which traffic generally flows fairly well, except when it doesn’t. Traffic jams are thought to be a major problem. I certainly haven’t visited all of KL’s many suburbs but am pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that housing outside the center consists mostly of apartment buildings and what most Americans would call row houses. It is dense by American standards, but it is definitely mostly set up for automobile use nonetheless. The Kuala Lumpur urban area is no model of compact urban development. In an urban area consisting mostly of automobile-oriented suburbs, it’s easy to see why pedestrian comfort in the central city hasn’t been a high priority. There are of course government agencies responsible for planning, but I have the impression that planners in KL (like many of their counterparts elsewhere) spend more time decrying “sprawl” than actually doing anything about it—they just don’t have the power6.

Planning’s one great success has been the establishment of quite an elaborate rail network.

The Monorel passes office buildings, high-rise parking facilities, apartment buildings, and some older structures.

KL’s government decided in the early 1990s to deal with the congestion problem by building rail lines, and (like many other governments at the time) it enlisted the help of private enterprise. Three different rail lines were built: a monorail (called the “Monorel” in Malay); an elevated railway; and an elevated railway with a longish subway section through the central business district. The latter two lines are called “LRT”’s even though they are completely grade-separated. The government also had KTM, the national railway, upgrade suburban railway lines, and it oversaw the construction of a new, genuinely high-speed line to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (the “KLIA Ekspres”) and the new capital in Putrajaya (served on the airport line by local trains branded the “Express Rail Link”). All of the suburban rail lines and two of the rapid transit lines come together at KL Sentral, a railroad station and shopping node that’s so bustling that in passing through you might think for a moment that you were in Western Europe or Japan—until you try to walk there (it’s practically impossible).

Inside KL Sentral.

The rail lines aren’t perfect. Because of the way they were built, the lines don’t fit together in an altogether rational way. Transfers among the lines can be awkward and only became free after the government took the system over in 2004 (and there is still no fare integration between the rapid transit lines and the “komuter” railroads). Still, the government has maintained its commitment to improving the rail system. KL Rapid, the government agency responsible for urban railroads, is in the process of building a fourth line that runs from the far northwestern suburbs to the far southeastern suburbs (an isolated segment in the northwest has opened), and two more lines are planned.

KL Rapid LRT, Monorel, Komuter, KLIA Eksores, ERL

Passenger rail lines in the Kuala Lumpur area. Data mostly from OpenStreetMap and the OpenStreetMap files at Metro Extracts, modified considerably. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over orange ones.

Generally, the trains seem to be fairly crowded, but most trains are short, and patronage overall (at something like 400,000 passengers a day) has actually been somewhat disappointing. One factor may be that the trains (except for the line to KLIA) are rather slow. The two “LRT” lines to Putra Heights, a suburb maybe 22 km from the central city, each takes more than hour from central KL.

In other words, while the train system is in some ways quite impressive, the best it could be expected to accomplish in the short run is to make a small dent in Kuala Lumpur’s orientation to the automobile7. Kuala Lumpur is not going to become a pedestrian paradise any time soon. That doesn’t mean that its central city couldn’t be made a little more pedestrian-friendly, if only to improve conditions for all the train passengers expected to arrive there, not to mention tourists likely to share their thoughts on the Internet.

  1. Ross King, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya : negotiating urban space in Malaysia. Honolulu : Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with University of Hawai’i Press2008. (There is also a National University of Singapore edition.)
  2. Zakaria Juriah and Ujang Norsidah, “Comfort of walking in the city center of Kuala Lumpur,” Procedia, social and behavioral sciences, 170 ( 2015), pages 642-652.
  3. N.I. Bahari, A.K. Arshad, and Z. Yahya, “Pedestrians’ perception of the sidewalk facilities in Kuala Lumpur’s commercial areas,” International sustainability and civil engineering journal, volume 1, number 2 (December 2012), pages 28-36.
  4. See also the newspaper story “Pedestrian facilities need upgrading for KL to be world-class city,” The Star online, 12 June 2015.
  5. See, for example, Noresah Modh Shariff, “Private vehicle ownership and transport planning in Malaysia,” International Proceedings of Computer Science and Information Technology, volume 26 (2012); and Jamilah Mohamad and Amin T.Kiggundu, “The rise of the private car in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia : assessing the policy options,” IATSS Research, volume 31, issue 1 (2007), pages 69–77. Malaysia has a per capita GDP is something like $9,800 (as estimated by the United Nations), but at PPP it’s approximately $27,200 (as estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency)—the exchange rate makes many things cheap.
  6. See, for example, Malik Asghar Naeema, “Policies and issues concerning urban sprawl and compact development paradigm adoption in greater Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia”, MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program, Working papers series (2016).
  7. One source describes an ambitious but surely unrealizable goal of having 50% of the population move by transit in a few years. See Onn Chiu Chuen, Mohamed Rehan Karim, and Sumiani Yusoff, “Mode choice between private and public transport in Klang Valley, Malaysia,” Hindawi, the scientific world journal, volume 2014 (2014), article ID 394587, 14 pages. Other sources report somewhat more modest but still perhaps optimistic goals, for example a 40% modal share by 2030. See, for example, “40% public transport modal share achievable, says SPAD,” The Star online, 12 May 2015.
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Why aren’t there more pedestrians and transit users in high-density Westwood?

An important article by Mark R. Stevens in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association1 suggests that an increase in population density leads only to a modest decrease in automobile use. The article is based on meta-regression analysis, a technique familiar in medical research that has the great advantage of increasing validity by merging the results of numerous case studies.

The author finds that there is some relationship between density and automobile usage, but that the “elasticity” is only between .22 and .10. That is, a 1% increase in density would reduce driving between .1 and .22%. This is an incredibly important finding, since densification of American cities has often been proposed as a way to decrease automobile usage.

The article comes with several critiques from other scholars2. Some point out that an elasticity of .22 is not so low. Others criticize various aspects of the study. I’m particularly inclined to agree with the criticism of Ewing and Cervero that the meta-regression technique is flawed in this case by the inclusion of several studies of foreign cities, including several Third World cities. In Mexico City, for example, many well-off people live in close-to-center-city high-density neighborhoods—and are far more likely to own, and use, automobiles than the relatively poor people who tend to live in lower-density, often informal developments at the edge of the city. It’s not clear that instances like this are particularly relevant to understanding the relationship of density and driving in cities in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. Still, cases like this do not really undermine Mark R. Stevens’ basic finding that the correlation between increasing density and reduced automobile usage is not spectacularly high.

I spent last weekend in Los Angeles, and I was particularly reminded of this article when I passed through the stretch of Westwood along Wilshire Boulevard just east of Glendon Avenue. I have no special knowledge of this area, but I’ve visited it many times and have always been struck by the near absence of anyone walking on the streets despite the presence here of numerous 25-or-so-story apartment buildings. There may be no urban residential district in the United States with bigger buildings and fewer pedestrians. Here’s a photo:

The Westwood Wilshire corridor looking east from a couple of blocks east of Westwood Boulevard.

The lack of pedestrians is in many ways somewhat surprising, and not only because of the area’s density. The Westwood Wilshire corridor is close to UCLA; there are many stores and quite a number of pedestrians in nearby Westwood Village; and the area has excellent transit: Wilshire Boulevard has some of the most frequent bus service in the United States3. But you sure don’t see many pedestrians on Wilshire Boulevard, with the partial exception of a tiny number of people on their way to or waiting at bus stops. And, well, it’s hard not to seem a bit racist in talking about this, but the fact that most of the people you see at bus stops or walking look Hispanic suggests that they aren’t the people who live in the apartment buildings; the area is less than 2% Hispanic. Presumably many of these people work in the buildings in one capacity or another. I’ll admit that the river of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard is a deterrent. It’s not very pleasant walking there (although I suspect that most pedestrians would hardly notice if they had some company). There aren’t any stores on this stretch of Wilshire either. But, still, you’d expect a high-density residential area to be a little more, well, “vibrant.”

All this led me to look up census data for this area when I got back home. There are some difficulties with interpreting census data in this district, because there are small apartment buildings and single-family houses behind the wall of tall apartment buildings on Wilshire, and the tract and even the block-group and block boundaries inevitably cover areas of both high-density and medium-density housing. None of the census numbers apply to the apartment buildings only. But they still tell you something. In 2010, there were 6457 people living on the first six or seven blocks of Wilshire Boulevard east of Glendon Avenue4. The population density of these blocks was 16,150 people per square kilometer (41,828 per square mile), which is pretty high. Here’s a map:

Population density in part of Los Angeles’ Westside, 2010, at the block level. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. GIS data from NHGIS.

For anything other than rudimentary population figures, you must look at American Community Survey data at the tract or block-group level. In the three tracts that cover the bulk of the area5, 74.6% of the working-age population drove to work and only 1.2% took transit in 2008/2012. Here’s a map:

Percent of workers 16 and over who took public transit to work, 2008/2012, by census tract, in part of Los Angeles’ Westside. The Westwood Wilshire corridor described in the text is outlined in black. The low-density area with high transit use west of the corridor is the West Los Angeles Medical Center of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. GIS data from NHGIS.

In other words, the Westwood Wilshire corridor, despite its density, is extraordinarily automobile-oriented.

I also looked at some other census numbers. The corridor is a well-off, cosmopolitan area. Per capita income in 2007/2011 was high at $83,274. There are a fairly large number of older people (23.2% 65 and over) and few children (10.9% less than 18). 32.2% of the population was born outside the United States. The ancestry of the population is 11.2% Iranian and 8.6% Russian; it’s very likely that most of the people with Russian ancestry are Jewish. Tracts with somewhat similar characteristics (although with many fewer Iranians) in New York (parts of Forest Hills, say) or Chicago (along Lakeview Avenue in Lincoln Park, for example) would have many more pedestrians and a much larger transit share.

When I’ve asked local people to account for the absence of pedestrians in this area, I’ve gotten an answer along the lines of “Nobody walks in LA,” and, when I’ve asked about the low transit use, the response has mostly been a grimace. An ethnographer must be a little skeptical of the responses (s)he receives, but, while there is no way to be certain, perhaps in this case one should trust the answer. In Los Angeles doing errands on foot and bus riding are associated with poor people, and many middle-class people with a choice will not do errands on foot or ride buses6. Cultural prejudices matter7. There is also of course the fact that, in an urban area with a weak downtown like Los Angeles, transit just isn’t as useful for as many work journeys as it is in cities with a stronger center8.

It must be added that, despite the stereotype, there are plenty of places in Los Angeles with a substantial number of pedestrians, including quite a number largely frequented by members of the middle-class, for example, the walkway along the beaches in Santa Monica and Venice; central Santa Monica; the Melrose District; and perhaps central Hollywood and (increasingly) parts of Downtown. There are also areas where poorer people congregate, notably Broadway downtown. Of course, it’s significant that pedestrians’ goals in most of these areas are often recreational. You don’t see many people who are, say, carrying groceries home on the Third Street Promenade.

Data from the Westwood Wilshire corridor, in other words, support Mark R. Stevens’ argument in the article cited above that the relationship between high density and low automobile use isn’t as substantial as one might imagine it would be. One possible lesson to draw is that changing the culture of places like the Wilshire corridor would be more effective in reducing driving than building infill. Of course, this isn’t something that can be engineered by government action.

It’s an interesting and important question whether the arrival of Metrorail to Westwood in something like 2024 will lead to more transit usage and more pedestrians. It might. I lived in Washington, D.C., as the Metro Red Line was being extended into the northwest sector of the city. After stations opened, many more people could be seen walking in the streets. Presumably automobile use declined during this period. Since rail transit is usually not quite as stigmatized as—and is also faster than—bus transit, it’s perfectly logical that adding rail in areas of high density would have some effect.

But new subway lines are far and few between. There are plenty of urban neighborhoods in the United States with fairly high densities where only a change in culture would seem able to reduce automobile use.

  1. Mark R. Stevens, “Does compact development make people drive less?” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 7-18.
  2. See previous footnote, pages 19-28, especially Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, “Does compact development make people drive less? The answer is yes,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 83:1, pages 19-25.
  3. The 720 express, according to the printed timetable, runs as often as every 2 minutes during rush hour and every 8 minutes at midday. There are also local buses.
  4. That is, the first six blocks on the north side of Wilshire and the first seven on the south side.
  5. Tracts 2652.01, 2652.02, 2656.01. These tracts cover the Wilshire corridor as well as several adjoining blocks. The three tracts had 9261 people in 2008/2012 and a population density of 6860 per square kilometer. I am pretty sure that most of the population in these tracts lives in apartment buildings on Wilshire.
  6. In the 5-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, there’s a highly significant negative correlation (-.332) at the tract level between the percentage of workers 16 and over who use public transit to get to work use and per capita income; that is, higher income is strongly associated with lower transit use. In the Chicago metropolitan area, there’s a (not very significant) positive correlation (+.057) between these two variables.
  7. So, probably, does the proximity of UCLA. 16.0% of the working-age population in the three tracts reported that they walk to work. They’re not very visible, however. Perhaps they quite reasonably avoid Wilshire.
  8. Here’s a related factor. Despite the frequency of bus service, it isn’t very fast. It takes nearly an hour even on the 720 to travel the 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) between Westwood and downtown Los Angeles. There aren’t that many stops, but there are dozens of red lights and a huge amount of traffic to contend with.
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Fantasy transit in Chicago: a proposal

Building urban rail lines has always been expensive, and one of the consequences of this is that many more lines have been proposed than built. The shelves of Northwestern University’s excellent Transportation Library, for example, contain approximately 75 books or reports in which rail lines for Chicago are proposed; only something like a dozen of these lines have actually been constructed1. Of course, numerous proposals have been made for building lines that have never even made it to the books and government reports that are collected by libraries. Here’s a 1913 proposal on a map at the University of Chicago Map Collection that was only published in cartographic form. None of the proposed new lines was actually ever implemented.

The Internet of course has been a perfect home for proposals to build new urban rail lines. Numerous “fantasy-transit” sites discuss these. Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations, which features long cost-benefit analyses of proposed lines, may be the best of these sites. It has quite a lot of competition2. Other sites that deal with urban transportation issues in general, like Yonah Freemark’s The Transport Politic and Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit, have also often discussed potential new lines.

I’ve enormously enjoyed reading the posts on these sites—if you like urban rail, then contemplating new lines is a simple pleasure—but I don’t know how much effect they’ve had on actual public policy. To take just one example, if the politicians and government officials who actually decide what to build had paid much attention to what gets written on these sites, thousands of additional kilometers of “heavy-rail” transit lines would have been added—while most of the numerous short, slow, infrequent, and expensive street-running streetcar lines that have been constructed or started in the United States over the last decade would never have been considered worth building.

Discussions of new transit in Chicago in recent years have been very much like discussions of new transit elsewhere. There have been hundreds of proposals to build new lines, hardly any of which seem to have much chance of actual implementation. One example is TransitFuture’s proposal to create a grid of new CTA lines mostly to the west of the existing lines.

There have also been numerous proposals to make better use of the rail lines now run by Metra, the commuter rail agency. Many of these lines run through dense areas of the city and inner suburbs but have few city stops and infrequent service. Adding stops and service, and instigating fare integration with the city transit agency, the CTA, would seem like a no-brainer, but, despite all the proposals, nothing ever happens. The chief reason may be institutional. Metra clearly feels that longer-distance commuters constitute its major market (although many of the city stations do a great deal of business). It also fears anything that could lead to a loss of revenue.

The model for making more intensive use of suburban rail lines is of course Western Europe, where numerous cities have to a large degree integrated their rapid transit and suburban rail systems. Paris, London, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Oslo are perhaps the cities that have moved furthest in this direction. In all these places, suburban lines have been brought through the inner city in tunnels; the lines run as often as subway lines typically do; and one fare lets you ride on both the subway system and what was once the suburban system. This arrangement solves several problems at the same time. Frequent service on the suburban lines brings genuine rail rapid transit to numerous areas that did not have it and (often) express subway service to areas already served. Inner-city tunneling brings the suburban trains from peripheral stations to places where travelers actually want to go. And, even if the suburban trains themselves don’t take you to your destination, improved connections with the existing subway system enormously increase the range of easily reachable destinations. Furthermore, fare integration encourages full use of the entire system. In addition, the reduced role of stub-end stations at the edge of the CBD allows much faster service and eliminates the need to store trains on expensive land close to the city center. And (in some cases) electrification of suburban train lines (required for passage through tunnels) has made the trains faster and quieter.

Similar arrangements are rare outside of Western Europe, but they do exist. In Asia, Tokyo and Osaka have joined their suburban and urban rail systems by allowing subway trains onto the suburban railways and making through fares available. In the Western Hemisphere, only São Paulo has set up a system somewhat comparable to those in Western Europe (although without any new tunneling): subway lines and the old and much improved suburban lines have been joined into one gigantic system (see my earlier post on this system). There are some moves in this direction only in a small number of cities in North America. Denver’s brand-new suburban rail lines have fare integration with the rest of the transit system, and Philadelphia built an underground line connecting its two suburban train stations that opened in 1984, but there is no fare integration with the subway system. Furthermore, both Toronto and Montréal are planning an enormous increase in service levels on certain suburban train lines (although apparently with no fare integration in Toronto).

There have been proposals to set up “through-running” of a sort in Chicago, of which the most serious is probably CrossRail Chicago. This proposal avoids the need for downtown tunneling by suggesting that lines be joined via the St. Charles Air Line south of downtown. CrossRail comes much closer to being a thoroughly worked-out scheme than just about anything else proposed by members of the public. If it were actually built, I have no doubt that life in Chicago would be improved enormously, but it does need to be said that the line would have the peculiarity of not serving the central Loop at all, much less its northern extension. It also would have poor connections with the CTA, which does not have any rail line to Union Station, or, in fact, to most other Metra stations in Chicago and its suburbs3. The fact that CrossRail in one form or another has been around for a decade without acquiring significant government support could be interpreted in any number of ways. Maybe it just isn’t quite radical enough to excite very many people.

Perhaps I’ve missed something obvious, but I’ve never actually seen a completely worked out proposal for through-running Chicago’s suburban trains that included service to the Loop proper and to its northern extensions4. The geography is, indeed, a bit awkward, since service from the north now ends up in stations west of the Loop. Pedestrian Observations blogger Alon Levy, a supporter of through-running in New York (where the geography is also awkward), in a discussion of through-running in Chicago, seems to have just given up. But I wonder whether this is not rather premature. It is true that new downtown tunnels would be fantastically expensive and that the cost would have to include electrification of the lines passing through them. In a city and state with a structural deficit of billions of dollars a year, it might seem absurd to imagine that money could be found. But let us imagine that the federal government does indeed get into the business of building infrastructure on a large scale in the next few years and at least fantasize what might be done with it.

One obvious problem with rail transit in Chicago is that it (inevitably) tends to focus on the central business district as it was some decades back, when it was largely confined to the Loop proper. But the most prestigious retailing in Chicago’s CBD moved north, up Michigan Avenue, many years ago. There is only one rail station in this area now, the Red Line’s Chicago stop, and it’s three blocks from the major retail establishments at, and near, Water Tower Place. This area, in fact, is not just a retailing center. Numerous hotels and densely built-up residential districts are close by, as are Chicago’s most prestigious hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and its neighbors, the highly regarded Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Chicago Children’s Hospital. There are also numerous offices in the area, and even more closer to the River, a few blocks south. Setting up through-running of suburban train lines would ideally solve the problem of poor rail transit in this area.

As it happens, Metra’s major north-south line (UP-North) is roughly 2 km west of Water Tower. Why not run this line east from just south of the Clybourn station over to Michigan Avenue (or just east of it)? Passengers wanting to travel south to Ogilvie Station (formerly the Northwestern Terminal) could change at Clybourn, which is served by two UP lines. There would be connections with the Red and Brown Line stations on Chicago Avenue. The tunnel would turn south somewhere around Michigan Avenue (or maybe Columbus). It would need to be very deep, partly because the area is so built up, and partly because the turn near Water Tower Place would only be possible with a radius large enough to require passing under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the already electrified Metra Electric at Millennium Park. There would have to be another east-west tunnel somewhere south of this, perhaps under Monroe Street, that would have connections with Red and Blue Line stations as well as with those on the Loop. Again, a very deep tunnel would be required, partly so that it could pass under the existing subways and other infrastructure and partly because large-radius turns to and from Metra Electric and the tracks to Union Station would require going under some existing buildings. The tunnel would join with the existing tracks north of Union Station (and, in an ideal world, with the Rock Island tracks as well).

Here’s what this looks like on a map:

Metra and CTA in central Chicago.

Central Chicago showing proposed new Metra lines as well as existing CTA and Metra lines. The filled circles are stations. The large green circles mark both new stations and existing stations that would presumably acquire new underground tracks. Most of the base data come from the City of Chicago’s data portal.

And here’s the larger picture: a view of Chicago and its inner suburbs showing the relationship between CTA lines and Metra rapid transit lines:

CTA lines and the five Metra rapid transit lines mentioned briefly in the text. Assumes that rapid transit is extended only to inner suburbs. There are of course many other possibilities.

This arrangement would permit many different service patterns. Perhaps Metra Electric (“IC”) trains could be rerouted through the east-west Loop tunnel and end up in O’Hare (thus providing the express service to O’Hare that Mayor Emanuel has been supporting). Trains from Evanston (or further north) might pass via Water Tower and the Millennium Station to the east-west tunnel, and turn south at Union Station to, say the Burlington Line (although there is more city demand on the Rock Island Line, which now terminates at the LaSalle Station). Additional suburban lines could be joined in eventually.

Service on the Chicago and inner-suburban portions of the main suburban lines might be every 15 minutes all day and every 7.5 minutes through the east-west tunnel (since two lines would share it), and could, of course, be even more frequent during rush hour. If more suburban lines were brought into the system, service on the shared tunnel stretches could become even better. Chicago and its inner suburbs would thus gain an enormous amount of new rapid rail transit that would in fact be much more rapid than the existing lines. Suburbanites would find it much easier to get where they wanted to go, either because the trains would actually take them there or because connections would be easier. The elimination of noisy diesel engines on the affected routes would improve the environment. And fast-accelerating electric trains could make a few additional city stops without increasing their total transit time unreasonably. The trains would also no longer have to crawl into stub-end stations at 10 kph, since the stations would be through stations.

Altogether something like 5.8 km of tunneling and several new stations would be required. This construction, along with electrification, might cost something like ten or fifteen billion dollars, a huge amount but not an unimaginable sum in an urban area of perhaps eight or nine million people if there were a generous federal subsidy. The Chicago urban area is only a little smaller than the Paris and London urban areas where much larger rail building plans have been completed, and where even larger and more expensive projects are under way. Construction would of course take several years but would not have to be enormously disruptive, since the new tunnels would generally be so far beneath the surface.

Of course, all this is just a fantasy!

  1. Figure based on a quick perusal of titles with subject heading “Local transit—Illinois—Chicago (or: Chicago Metropolitan Area)–Planning” or having a call number beginning with HE4491.C4. I didn’t look at every item.
  2. See blogroll on Pedestrian Observations for a very partial list.
  3. I acknowledge the exceptions, Irving Park, Main Street Evanston, Oak Park/Harlem-Lake, 35th-Lou Jones/Sox-35th. Downtown, the LaSalle Street and Millennium stations are within a block of CTA lines.
  4. “Itinerant urbanist” Sandy Johnson once proposed an east-west Loop line, but it misses the Near North Side.
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The “park connectors” of Singapore

Singapore is often described by urbanists as having gotten a great many things right. An explicit goal of Singapore’s planning is to have a “car-lite” society. Singapore’s government has taxed automobiles at a very high rate for many years. It also charges for parking and for automobile access to its downtown. In addition, an excellent two-line rail system was built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and since 2000 it’s been extended by an enormous amount.

Northeast Rail Line, Singapore

The interior of a car on the Northeast Rail Line, Singapore. Note the open gangways. The Northeast Line, like other new rail lines in Singapore, is driverless.

Furthermore, Singapore has built a huge stock of reasonably high-density public housing and has induced most of its population to move in. In recent years it’s upgraded most of the original structures. As a result, Singapore is often said to have the world’s most elegant public housing.

Pinnacle@Duxton, recently constructed public housing in Singapore.

Many statistics support the view that Singapore’s planning has been pretty successful. Public transit usage is very high and continues to grow. Traffic jams are rare. Air quality is chiefly compromised by the burning of forests in nearby Sumatra, not by locally produced automobile exhaust.

A more cynical view would note that automobile ownership of something like 15% is pretty substantial given the high taxes. There is quite an elaborate network of freeways covering the island, and the cost of entering downtown by car (between 0.50 and 2.50 Singapore dollars depending on the time of day, that is, approximately between 0.35 and 1.75 USD) is not enough to discourage driving there. Roads in Singapore are actually pretty crowded. There is also the odd issue that the association of automobile ownership and wealth has perhaps not surprisingly added to the prestige of owning a car1.

Then there’s the question of facilities for pedestrians. I’ve been in Singapore every few years since the 1990s, and the thing that used to bother me most was how difficult it was to walk long distances in Singapore. It’s always been comfortable enough to walk along Orchard Road (Singapore’s main central shopping area) as well as in its downtown, and to some extent in near-downtown carefully preserved ethnic districts like Chinatown and Little India. All these areas are pleasantly crowded; they mostly have wide sidewalks; and the urban landscape has an attractively complicated texture. But everywhere else one had to walk along busy roads with few pedestrians and to wait endless minutes for red lights to change. The high-density HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects with their tower-in-a-park designs and lack of shopping streets or complete grids seemed especially unattractive for walking. Furthermore, most of the island’s many parks were somewhat empty, and I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all the runners in parks were ethnic Europeans, that is, presumably expatriates or tourists. I asked Singaporeans about this on several occasions and was reminded that it was always hot and humid in Singapore (it is) and that urban pedestrian life was simply not part of Singapore’s traditional culture. This may be perfectly true, but it’s also the case that a rail system cannot function fully unless some of its users are willing to walk to it. I haven’t been able to help wondering whether Singapore’s distinctive addition of people-movers (called the “LRT”) to its rail lines wasn’t a function in part of its citizens’ reluctance to walk even short distances to the trains.

Things have changed since the 1990s. Singapore’s planners have clearly realized that poor pedestrian facilities were anomalous and have begun remedying the situation, and I spent some time last week exploring the results.

Part of the Whampoa park connector, which winds past many HDB (Housing and Development Board) projects north of downtown.

Most of the new pedestrian facilities are part of a system of what are called “park connectors,” built largely along the many partly artificial waterways that drain the island (Singapore gets more than 2300 mm of rain a year)2. The name is a little odd and may reflect a reluctance on the part of Singapore’s planners to take pedestrian facilities quite seriously. The park connectors do often connect parks, but, in fact, they don’t always, and I was struck by the number of people walking along the park connectors who were carrying shopping bags. That is, the “park connectors” get some practical use too. But you also see quite a number of hikers, runners (who seem to be native Singaporeans), and even some cyclists.

Singapore MRT lines and park connectors.

Map showing rail lines and major pedestrian facilities in Singapore. The latter include all official “park connectors” and some adjoining segments of the Southern Ridges and Singapore River trails. Short paths in parks are excluded. Based on data from OpenStreetMap (but I’ve modified a great deal)3.

Parts of the system of park connectors date as far back as 1992 (and some follow routes that existed before this), but growth was slow at first. There were 12 km of park connectors in 19964 and perhaps 100 km in 20105. In recent years much more energy has been put into constructing them, and in September 2015 the park connector system reached 300 km in length. Many new segments are under construction or planned, including a 150-km Round Island Route. (For comparison, the rail transit system is up to 170 km.) As the system has grown, the park connectors have been given much more consistent visual branding

Standard signs along park connectors. There are also fairly standard maps, and “PCN” (for “park connector network”) is painted on the ground every so often.

and they are even increasingly mentioned in tourist literature.

A small fragment of a “Singapore Island map” on the verso of: The official map of Singapore. Singapore : Reddot Maps, 2017. Several of the major park connectors (along with other tourist attractions) are shown on the map.

In addition to formally designated park connectors, there are also some urban trails through the few areas of more or less natural landscape left in Singapore. A series of what were once rough trails along the Southern Ridges near the old port have been improved and even acquired an extremely pleasant canopy-top walkway.

Forest Walk in the Southern Ridges.

There are also some pretty nice trails up to Singapore’s 164-m high Bukit Timah (the highest place on the island). I suspect that Singapore here, as it must do in many other ways, is competing with Hong Kong, which has what may be the world’s best network of urban trails. There is nothing Singapore can do to acquire Hong Kong’s mountains, but it’s come as close as it can with the Southern Ridges and Bukit Timah trails.

Besides these trails, the Rail Corridor that was left by the removal of tracks on the Singapore portion of the old Singapore-Kuala Lumpur railway is supposed to be turned into an additional facility for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s been described as Singapore’s “High Line,” but, in fact, it’s nothing like the High Line, since only a small part of it is raised, and it mostly passes through industrial or medium-density areas. It’s more like many of the rail trails that have been built all over the world in recent years.

The unimproved Rail Corridor between the Hillview and Cashew MRT (subway) stations.

Fixing the Rail Corridor up will take some money since there are missing bridges and a need for improved drainage, but, when I was in Singapore, the whole southern part of the Corridor was closed to facilitate the work.

A missing bridge in the Rail Corridor near Hillview MRT station.

Singapore’s pedestrian facilities are definitely still a work in progress. There are many gaps in the “network.” This doesn’t matter in the way it would for a rail network, but it does matter some. Also, most of the routes intersect with numerous streets, and only in a few cases is crossing facilitated by tunnels or bridges. Sometimes crosswalks help (Singapore drivers usually respect these), but, whenever there’s a major street to cross, park connector users must deal with a slow-to-change traffic light. Cyclists are even more inconvenienced than pedestrians by the lack of long rights-of-way. There is also the larger issue that, in building park connectors mostly along watercourses or in parks, planners have of necessity paid little attention to where people might actually want to go. This is of course a problem with pedestrian facilities all over the world. They mostly get built where it’s easy and cheap to build them.

Despite these caveats, Singapore’s pedestrian connectors strike me as a major accomplishment. One can be as dubious as one wants about the authoritarian side of Singapore’s government, but one must admit that Singapore’s tradition of central planning has resulted in some extremely impressive urbanism.

  1. For additional information on the history of Singapore’s planning, see (among other sources): Martin Perry, Lily Kong, and Brenda Yeoh. Singapore : a developmental city state. Chichester : John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
  2. Major sources: Planning Singapore: from plan to implementation / edited by Belinda K. P. Yuen. Singapore : NUS Press, 1998, especially pages 31-41. Also: the well-indexed major newspaper Straits Times and the National Parks Website.
  3. Closely spaced parallel linear features are difficult to show on maps generated with GIS since the lines used to represent them can overlap, and one must choose which comes on top. On this map red lines are shown over blue ones which in turn can cover purple lines.
  4. Yuen, previous footnote.
  5. Mark Lewis. The rough guide to Singapore. London : Rough Guides, 2010.
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