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Mass Transit and the Future of the American City

By Matthew Moore (B.Arch candidate) | This essay argues that mass transit systems are the only realistic and viable option to mend a dispersed and broken city. It leverages Glenn Yago’s analysis of the benefits of mass transit to imagine a more integrated future for Charlotte, North Carolina.


The introduction of the automobile became a key component to the decline of the public transit system. Once manufacturers were founded to support the growing demand of personalized and individual automobiles, growth of related industries were prompted as well creating an industrial district around the periphery of the city. Oil, rubber, metal, glass and mining industries soon followed and demanded the need for the expansion of paved highways and streets in order to arrive at work. In the midst of a post-war economy, the automobile and suburban home with its white picket fence became a sign of freedom, though a freedom only existing outside of the city.

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Horse-drawn Street Carriage, New York City (c.1830)

Beginning in the 1800’s the American city has seen numerous modes and styles of mass transportation throughout its history, ranging from horse-drawn buggies to electric streetcars and underground subways. However, towards the end of the 1900’s, almost a century and a half later there had been an unprecedented decline in the use of public mass transit. Many city buses lay in waste and rail lines abandoned as the need to transport the masses in and out of the city has mostly fizzled out. Neighborhoods and other districts have expanded and relocated away from center city area to the outermost periphery. These areas once accessible by streetcar can only now be reached by way of the automobile and the highway.

Glenn Yago, in his book “The Decline of Transit” addresses four main structural factors used to assess change at the city level. One aspect looks at the physical characteristics, population and density of the city. The next studies the position of the city within the national context. Another aspect  is the economic structure of the city and the types of industry that have settled there. Finally, Yago looks at the main corporations that hold influence within the city. All of these elements are contributing factors that he believes stimulate change in the urban fabric. He also compares common German city models to American ones. Both countries underwent similar industrial phases of growth in the middle of the 20th Century yet look distinctly different. For the German model, Yago references the city of Hamburg as one that had experienced significant industrial growth. The workers there pressed the governing body for a better way to move around the city and back and forth to their jobs more efficiently.

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Trolley Network in Hamburg (c.1900)

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Contemporary transportation networks in Hamburg

The city bolstered their existing infrastructure to accommodate the increasing number of factory workers by way of additional rail lines and such. He then references the American city of Los Angeles; one of a similar population density yet is almost completely dependent on the automobile. The two outcomes give us a clear delineation of the differences between the older European cities versus those of relatively newer origin in the United States. The public transit systems in Europe adjust to the existing structure of the city while many cities in America are adjusted themselves by the transit systems. For example, in Charlotte, NC it is evident that the city is defined by its roads and highway systems, consequently creating districts and subdivisions within communities all on its own. However, as the Hamburg model shows, it is important to design the transportation with the city in mind rather than designing the city with the transportation in mind.

There are many benefits received from a well-organized public transit system that can lead to the sustenance and growth of the city. One being transportation of more people. The more people in and out of the city everyday the better. Along with the sheer numbers of the people also come more skilled laborers that can invest time in the existing jobs within the city. More entrepreneurs have an opportunity to increase the amount of commerce that takes place, thereby increasing the amount of jobs as well. Allowing more people to have access to the city only creates a favorable domino effect for the local economy.

The increased use of public mass transit essentially removes cars from the highway and other roads reducing traffic, congestion and wait time. With fewer cars on the road, there are also reduced amounts of pollution being released everyday into the air every citizen breathes. Fewer cars on the road also make for more walk-able city streets. The more people there are at the street level the safer the environment will be. A safe environment only attracts more small businesses and people seeking a place to live. These pieces all comprise the model for a thriving community, one that is self-reliant and sustainable leading to a continuous cycle of city growth.

The ideal city is one that is safe, self-sustaining and always productive. It should not be divided or isolated in any way; this only creates division and hierarchy between races and economic classes and eventually dissension among the city’s own. The cohesion of the urban fabric needs to be found in the city’s public spaces where everyone can interact. The home is not public, the workplace is not even public either, but somewhere in between has to be the public space for everyone. Mass public transit is not only safer, but it is economical, environmentally friendlier, efficient and the only way to properly enhance a city’s growth.

Bibliography:

Cox, Wendell. “Breach of Faith: Light Rail and Smart Growth in Charlotte.” http://www.publicpurpose.com/charlotte.htm. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

Elias, C. E. Metropolis: Values in Conflict. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1964. Print.

Jaffe, Eric. “Public Transit Is Worth Way More to a City Than You Might Think.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Moss, Stephen. “End of the Car Age: How Cities Are Outgrowing the Automobile.” http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/apr/28/end-of-the-car-age-how-cities-outgrew-the-automobile. Rockefeller Foundation, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

“Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture.” AIA RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

“Toward a More Sustainable Charlotte.” Toward a More Sustainable Charlotte. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Yago, Glenn. The Decline of Transit: Urban Transportation in German and U.S. Cities, 1900-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.

Young, Jay. “Infrastructure: Mass Transit in 19th- and 20th-Century Urban America.” Http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-28. Oxford University Press, 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

 

 

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