A few weeks ago, I was visited by a quartet of friends, several of whom are transportation geeks… er, enthusiasts. Reprising a transportation-themed tour I led two years ago, I took my guests on a six-hour excursion around the metropolis. This time, the number of modes of transportation increased from seven to ten: Thong Lor red bus, Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat, taxi, third-class heavy rail, non-air conditioned city bus, Chao Phraya express boat, ferry, tuk-tuk, Bus Rapid Transit, and Skytrain.
During a March visit to Singapore, I decided to ride the subway out to the nether reaches of the island to visit the light rail lines. Singapore has three light rail lines that form four loops connecting to stations in the rail-based public transit network. They were built with the express purpose of serving master-planned housing estates, giving residents a door-to-door rail service that allowed them to get around without increasing road-based traffic.
The light rail itself is clean and efficient, with the automated cars running regularly on elevated tracks that weave between housing towers. Below is a video that overviews my experience on the system, including a startling discovery I made about how technology is used to solve a perhaps unforseen privacy problem.
Matters of urban planning and design have always interested me and for a short while in university I was an urban planning major. Examples of transit-oriented land use, like the developments that surround the light rail lines in Singapore, make me think about ways that similar lessons could be applied in the United States.
A country with a plentitude of land, since World War II development in the US has been oriented towards the automobile, resulting in more and more sprawl and fewer and fewer neighborhoods where one can walk from home to anywhere useful. With rising fuel prices and ever-increasing congestion on the roads, it amazes me that there has been continued resistance not only to public transit, but transit-oriented development.
There are a few examples in the United States of what is sometimes called “New Urbanism”, a design philosophy that promotes more walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods that include mixed use buildings – shops, businesses, and residences in the same general area. Not unlike traditional older neighborhoods in an urban environment, there are small shops on the main streets, some apartments overhead or in the surrounding blocks, and then single-family dwellings set further back. Orenco Station, a neighborhood in the Portland, OR area is a good example of this type of planning.
(Comparing the “suburban sprawl” photo earlier in this entry with the master plan for Orenco Station, you’ll notice that suburbia has a lot of dead-end streets, which means there’s always a long way to go to get out of the neighborhood.)
Some defining elements of this new style of development include:
The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly ¼ mile or 1,320 feet (0.4 km).
There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.
At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than a tenth of a mile away.
Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
As I look at these design elements, I see of list of things that have a whole lot of “pros” and very few, if any, “cons”. While the US will never go the route of Singaporean style land use – there’s no comparable acquiesence to the wisdom of the government, for starters – it does seem that a more comprehensive approach to land use would benefit the United States and our quality of life in the decades to come.