The American Conservative and the 50th anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This year is the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Influential conservative magazine The American Conservative (a conservative political organ which hasn’t been given over to Tea Party reactionaryism) has an interesting article commemorating the occasion. Of particular interest to Portlanders, even if you disagree with every word of it, is this bit by TAC transportation expert William Lind:

The first three chapters of Jane Jacobs’s definitive book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are on sidewalks. Had she lived in a city other than New York and written thirty years earlier, her fourth chapter might have been on streetcars.

New York had streetcars, but unlike other American cities it also had (and has) a comprehensive transport system. Subways and streetcars have somewhat different urban functions, but New York City’s subways did ensure that, once the streetcars were gone, public transportation remained the choice for most New Yorkers.

Elsewhere, the ripping up of streetcar lines and their replacement with buses also ripped the urban fabric. Most people like riding streetcars, but almost no one likes riding a bus. The substitution of buses for electric streetcars drove most former streetcar riders to drive.

When people took the streetcar to town — and every American city or town with 5,000 or more people once had streetcars — they also spent a lot of time on Jane Jacobs’ all-important sidewalks. There, they performed multiple functions: eyes on the street, office worker, restaurant diner, shopper, theater-goer and more.

Once they drove into the city, their time on sidewalks dropped and with it shrank the number of roles they filled. They drove as close to their (usually single) destination as they could, parked, and walked only as far as necessary. When their business was done, their car drew them like a magnet and as soon as they could press the starter pedal they were gone. Stores, restaurants, and theaters moved to the suburbs where parking was easier. In time offices followed, and the city’s sidewalks emptied except for the occasional beggar or wino. My home city, Cleveland, lost its streetcars in 1953, and the downtown’s decline began. If Ohio had tumbleweeds, they would now blow down Euclid Avenue.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin that have brought streetcars back have found the sidewalks come to life again. So have shops, theaters and restaurants. Streetcars are pedestrian facilitators, more so than subways. People walk, take the streetcar, then get off and walk some more.

Cities need streetcars. They are not a cure-all; if people do not feel safe on city sidewalks, nothing will move them to walk there. But if a city can restore order, streetcars are more likely to fill its sidewalks with people than anything else.

Lind repeats a point made by many others about streetcars: they are an extension of the sidewalk. Personally, I would like to think that busses can also play the same role (and in many cities, including Portland, they do). One point which must be made, and is made in Zef’s article on the trolleybus, and in this site about Portland’s old trolleybus system (thanks to Douglas K.) which was dismantled three years before Jacobs’ book was published, is that back when many legacy streetcar and trolleybus systems were converted to gas-powered bus; the busses of the time were noisy, foul-smelling things; far more so than modern diesels (let alone hybrids).

Often we here get wrapped up on regional transit solutions–light rail, commuter rail, express bus, and BRT–and treat the stopping patterns of local service as a liability. It is a liability when one must depend on local service for longer-distance routes; but it must be remembered that quality local service is an important assert for any urban area.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to The American Conservative and the 50th anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

  1. AL M
    October 8, 2011 at 4:40 pm Link

    “Elsewhere, the ripping up of streetcar lines and their replacement with buses also ripped the urban fabric. Most people like riding streetcars, but almost no one likes riding a bus. The substitution of buses for electric streetcars drove most former streetcar riders to drive.”

    ~~~>I sincerely doubt that losing streetcars for buses is what made people want automobiles.

    And I’ll say it again, there will be a time in this spoiled country of ours where mass transit will become a necessity, and people will stop behaving like spoiled brats asking for Mercedes when the only thing available is an old Ford station wagon.

  2. Ron Swaren
    October 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm Link

    Influential conservative magazine The American Conservative (a conservative political organ which hasn’t been given over to Tea Party reactionaryism)

    So reducing government spending is reactionary? I thought government geared up only when there was a peculiar danger. Example: World War 2. Furthermore, Albert Einstein, William Teller and others who worked on the atomic bomb dramatically reduced our spending in that era. Was that reactionary?

    and people will stop behaving like spoiled brats asking for Mercedes

    Do you mean like the ones with the “Obama 08” bumperstickers? But the upside of this cultural (versus, political) trend, is that there is plenty of incredibly cheap real estate in Detroit! Which might make an excellent lab for testing out new policies. It would be cheap to buy in there, and there is now plenty of wide open space for bike trails, streetcar lines, urban farms, etc.

    And I’ll say it again, there will be a time in this spoiled country of ours where mass transit will become a necessity,

    This could be true. It’s not like it was in the hippie hay days when you could get a cheap car, which was cheap to repair, and not be required to insure it. Now it is just as cost effective to buy some thing brand new, unless you are skilled and have the time to work on an old one. However, everyone gets old and present day drivers may become transit dependent for their own independence, unless they have some other strategy in mind, like unlimited kids to drive them everywhere.

    As far as streetcar over bus for internal urban circulation, weren’t London’s routemaster buses pretty popular? And the last (and only) time I rode the Portland Streetcar I honestly didn’t get any special thrill up my leg.

  3. Alexis
    October 8, 2011 at 6:44 pm Link

    That take – although perhaps better than one can usually hope for from any sort of conservative — strikes me as overly simplistic at best. It entirely ignites the key problem, which is not less attractive transit but a transit-hostile development pattern, which encouraged driving. Putting streetcars where buses are doesn’t reverse that problem and by itself (without redevelopment) is not a solution.

  4. EngineerScotty
    October 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm Link

    I think that Lind’s thesis is that the conversion from electric streetcars to gasoline-powered (not diesel-powered; those came later) busses accelerated the conversion to the automobile. This happened when much of the land-use patterns were still far more urban and transit-appropriate than today. The first busses to enter production reportedly were VERY unpleasant to be around.

    Whether Lind is endorsing replacing bus with streetcar today, I don’t know.

    As far as “tea party reactionaryism” goes, by that I don’t mean small government, a position that TAC continues to hold. The reactionaryism refers to the more obnoxious parts of the hard-right agenda–the culture wars, the complete and utter hostility to all things urban, the intermixing of fundamentalist religion and politics, and in many cases, the racism and xenophobia frequently found on the far right. TAC maintains its distance from all of that.

  5. bjcefola
    October 9, 2011 at 8:34 am Link

    I think the first paragraph of Ryan Avent’s piece is worth reading for perspective. Transit choices are important, but so are a lot of other things in determining livability.

  6. Jim Lee
    October 9, 2011 at 11:05 am Link

    Yo Ron!

    It is Edward Teller. You are confusing him with the guy who shot the apple off his kid’s head.

    Albert Einstein had nothing to do with building nuclear weapons, other than signing the famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt, which actually was written by Leo Szilard. Neither did Lise Meitner, who first understood that mass-energy equivalence could release 200 mev per nucleon.

    I did, however, for in a very small way I helped test the first submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missile, as my first job out of college. In defense I can only say that streetcars have killed more people than submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles.

    In fact, one nearly killed Ed Teller. His crippled leg resulted from a streetcar interaction in Budapest.

  7. AL M
    October 9, 2011 at 1:40 pm Link

    There is no mention of converting street cars to buses as of any significance in the HISTORY OF THE AUTOMOBILE.

    I had never heard anything like that till reading it here.

    People bought cars for the same reason they buy them today.

    You get your own space and you get where your going when you wanna go, not when the bus/streetcar/light rail/ train wants you to get there.

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