I was reading a rather famous attack on the notion of transit, and wanted to set the record straight on a couple of things about transit.
Transportation, essentially, is a utility.
A utility service that citizens pay for as a perquisite of living in this nation. Mobility and access are every bit as vital to our well being as clean water, sewer, electricity, telecom, or natural gas. Well designed utilities deliver maximum services with minimal cost and minimal risks. Transportation is actually the oldest utility, given that list. Without the ability to go and get things, we would not have survived beyond the bacteria stage.
The second oldest utility is water, first delivered a bowlful at a time, but now delivered by cast iron pipes. River or well water is chemically and mechanically sterilized, pumped to reservoirs or towers above most of the residents in each community. Gravity does the rest.
Water becomes sewage after we use it once, except where water is more expensive than pipe. Water and sewer were initially upstream and downstream along the same creek, and still are, although many county or city sewer systems may deliver water from one river to another. Water and sewer are separated vitally by an air gap between faucet and drain that always keeps clean water above used or dirty water. This ensures that sewer water will not get mixed with clean water. Another air gap is enforced by the “S” or “P” trap below every drain in the US, keeping sewer gases, mostly hydrogen sulfide and methane, from folding the air where we live and work. Sewer pipes leave our houses as 6” PVC or cast iron pipes, and collect to concrete pipes of several feet diameter by the time they reach the municipal treatment works. Sewage is the treated before being released to the river. This is especially important where somebody’s downstream is someone else’s upstream.
Speaking of methane, the first modern utility was natural gas. Once called “town gas”, it initial y could only be piped short distances, and had to be carried by tank wagon or boat to cities that didn’t have local mines. At great risk and expense. Only when large pipelines got airtight enough, even at junctions, could natural gas become a nationwide commodity for municipal use in the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout the country, natural gas, mostly methane, is mined like oil or captured from decomposition at landfills. The vast majority is mined, and the rise of tracking has made it much cheaper than coal as a power source. Biogas has yet to contend with the economy of scale of mining. Natural gas has to be pressurized and delivered to homes via a hierarchical distribution systems of pipes, between 48” and 2” in diameter, and then stepped down in pressure for delivery to homes. The gas meter in your house, if you heave 0on, looks like a flat disc because it is absorbing that pressure and converting it to a pressure that is safe for household appliances. Without it, a stream of stinky gas would be a jet. Houses without pressure regulators don’t last long, as any spark results in a violent explosion.
Electricity, like natural gas, has gone from a local to national commodity. We knew very little about it by 1800, in the 1830s we thought there was no way an electric motor could do useful work (the motors burned out before spinning fast enough to do work), and by 1880 the first municipal electric plants were in place. The first big consumers of electricity were the trolley companies, spreading rapidly through the 1890s. Today’s electricity system generates power remotely at large coal, gas or hydro power plants, steps up the voltage for transmission throughout the region, and then steps the voltage back down for building consumption. The next electricity system will be more distributed, with local wind, solar, and even methane plant providing most electricity for places where we live and work.
Telecom has evolved greatly in the last two centuries, from letter carrying over the past few millennia, to the telegraph in 1844, the telephone in 1876, cable in 1924, fiber in 1965, cellular phones in 1973, and DSL in 1984. These technologies all filtered from the wealthy or the state to the public, inevitably via the richest places first, but widely within years or decades of their invention. Mail was the first impetus for roadbuilding in the US, and other forms of transportation, like rail and air, were sold as better and faster ways of moving mail around the nation. The telegraph, a successor to the semaphore telegraph of 1792, was the first electric form of telecommunications, using a 5 bit system of long and short taps to encode all the letters of the alphabet and numbers. The telephone has gone from a national monopoly to a deregulated set of local monopolies or limited competition between few carriers. Each address on the network is connected by relatively thin bandwidth to a router, which switches for telecom trunk transmissions consisting of thousands or even millions of single host transactions every second.
Each of these utilities started over a hundred, or even a thousand years ago, and spent a long time serving the royalty and wealthy alone before industrialization, automation and markets brought their technology with reach of every one in America. Today. All these utilities are cheaper and easier to use than they were a century ago. I could walk to the nearest tap and get water that millions have died for throughout history. And most notably, all these utilities work by concentrating service and infrastructure, separating the business of production, transmission and distribution. Generally, “wide pipes” serve the multitude, while each of us only need “narrow pipes” for our household needs. These pipes are expensive to set up, and require constant maintenance. This expense is largely why utilities aren’t free.
Transportation is a utility, in that it serves a public need, costs money for infrastructure, and moves goods (us and our stuff) from where it is to where we want it to be. Just as the unit of water and sewer is gallons, natural gas is cubic feet, electricity is watts, and telecom is kilobyte, the unit of transportation is people and goods. The infrastructure should be appropriate the scale of need, but it is way too large. The reason for this is simple. We spent most of the last 20th century confusing transportation with traffic. The road network does indeed progress from local to collector to arterial to freeway and back again for many journeys n and by design. All places built in the last 80 years have had to accommodate cars within their property, a shock for those who thought they were building a domicile or running a business. The unit of transportation in America has been the car, truck or SUV, and we’ve used the space to prove it.
If the unit to transportation is actually people, the infrastructure needs of transportation are mush simpler. Where housing, jobs and shopping are close enough, there is no reason transportation cannot be done with much cheaper walkways and bikeways, with traffic ways sparsely located for deliveries and longer trips. Many places are built to the scale of traffic, and it is perfectly appropriate that a 24 foot wide local road (maintenance budget ~$20k / mile) be their finest scale transportation infrastructure. But there are many places where traffic is an inappropriate burden on the scale of life.
We made a mistake by thinking that the only way any American could get anywhere would be by car. It would be like delivering water to homes by firehose, gas at explosive pressures, or electricity at 12 thousand volts.
Next up, I’ll write a bit more detail on the health implications of traffic.
I barely bike anymore. Every time I do it is this wheezing affair along the sidewalk next to six lanes of traffic on the way to some exhausted coffee shop. I tried biking in my neighborhood and nearly died from the hills and boredom of one house, the next yard, after another. There is no majestic goal in the suburbs, just one shop after another. And there is little pleasure in the pain of moving my long dormant legs over and over again. I have been sitting too long in this school, in that office. Doing mind work without any body work.
I wouldn’t dare drive in the street in this condition. I know what it means to be stuck behind a slow weak biker in traffic. Being that slow weak biker, I stick to the sidewalk out of deference to the greater mass and speed of traffic, but also out of fear. Fear of being honked at. Fear of the revving engine. Fear of an involuntary soda. Fear of looking the fool. Fear of my feet falling out of the toeclips and ripping my pants on the spinning pedal. That has happened.
The involuntary soda has happened, long ago, in an unfamiliar part of Atlanta. I violated some family van’s expectation of what the road was for on a long hill, so they decided to give me a shower in fruit punch as they revved up the hill past me. Young and cheeky. I thanked them for it, robbing them of the satisfaction of my demise. That was when I was at the peak of my strength, and I was more amused than dispirited by the intended insult. It was illustrative of the Atlanta attitude towards bikers in the road, though.
Biking has fallen from an adult activity of the well-to-do to a children’s hobby in 50 short years between 1880 and 1930. The first highway department, a board of inquiry under the department of agriculture, was commissioned in 1893 to investigate national road paving policy for the benefits of bikes, not cars. Until very recently, the 1970s at the earliest, bikes were seen as the province of children, to be set aside or given away with the first drivers license at 16. In the last the years, cities have begun to build for bikes as a more fiscally conservative mode of transportation. However, the majority of America has no choice, they have built for traffic, so they have to keep building for traffic. Throwing good money after bad.
The beginning of my fall from biking was when I learned to get around by car, but the transformation was not immediate. When I worked in IT in Atlanta, I started out biking to and from work in all kinds of weather. Then I learned that my parking credit could be used to pay for transit. I had no interest in driving and parking to work, but I could see the use in taking the train back from work. It was cold and dark when I got off work at midnight, after all. Why not take my bike down into Five Points and catch the let train home. The cars that time were;t crowded at all, and it would be a short, bearable drive home from the station after that.
Then I got married, and transit continued to tempt me. I made sure when shopping for places with my new wife to look for places within walking distance of a train station; The regional rail in Philadelphia was not frequent like MARTA, but it was huge, convenient, and on time most of the time. We lived five miles from school, mostly a nice scenic drive along the banks of the Scuyllkill, but a straight hill the final mile up to our place. The street was a former stream, and it showed in the steep aspect of that street. Better to walk up and down part of it to get to the train every morning and night, than to have to bike up the whole length of it in the cold of the night,. I maybe biked back and forth from campus a coupe dozen times in two years at school. Each time seemed like a worse idea than the last, when I could just the riding the regional rail into school without expending any effort.
Since Philadelphia, we have lived in the DC suburbs. I was able to walk through a metro station to work, but there was little else to recommend walking or biking in this area. Everything has plenty of space for packing and lanes for driving, but nothing to recommend walking. The nine blocks of downtown Fairfax nearby were built out before 1900, but everything else was built with the car, not the biker or the walker, in mind.
Yes, this is a mewling post, but I think it holds an important lesson. I don’t bike where biking isn’t obvious, and biking isn’t obvious in most of America built since 1930. More on this Monday.
Last year, before I started this writing project, I took a trip to my hometown, Atlanta. I wanted to know something about the experience of history, so I took a train trip down to Atlanta. Form 6 PM to 8 AM, sitting in an assigned seat under an air conditioning vent, my sinuses drying out from the constant fans. I must not have slept more than 30 minutes at a stretch that whole night. So I found out what my great grand parents knew. Long distance train travel was not trivial. Unlike me, my great great grandparents thought it was unimaginably fast.
I’m glad I had the experience, even if it cost me no less than an airplane ticket would have. I wasn’t exactly slumming it, but I was certainly involved in some forced nostalgia.
I thought about the “Flying Machine” stage coaches along the King’s Highway (US 1) that would get mail and passengers between Philadelphia and New York in 3 days, leaving three times weekly from either city. We can now make that drive in 3 hours, easy. Two hours and some change by train, actually.
I had breakfast this morning from a refrigerator that has been dutifully plugged into the wall since we bought our townhouse three years ago. A century ago, refrigerators did not even use freon, much less HFCs. Most houses did not have electricity, though all the new ones were being built with the new fad. Instead of going to the supermarket once a week, as we do today, my great grandmother would have gone to various markets almost daily. She didn’t have the ability to keep food in the house very long, but she had a much better sense of the meaning of “Bigger than a Breadbox”
This is not a post about nostalgia so much as an acknowledgement that we have come far from a century ago. What was routine is now unendurable. I see no reason why this process is going to slow or stop in the future.
When a Problem Comes Along…