I’ve been working on a project for a research center in New Brunswick over the last few months. The legwork has involved conducting interviews with officials at Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and state DOTs to document their experiences with TELUS, a database-management platform that’s employed for logistical and compliance purposes. Agencies use the software to assemble their federally-mandated Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs), track their infrastructure spending, classify and prioritize individual projects, and share project data. A web-based version helps officials comply with SAFETEA-LU requirements for public transparency; a land-use projection model works in tandem with TELUS to allow agencies to predict future traffic and land use patterns, as well as employment and population growth.
From what we’ve learned, TELUS seems to have been a big help for state and local transportation agencies. Instead of copying information back and forth between e-mail accounts, Access databases, and Excel sheets (as had been the practice), those that adopted TELUS now have a global framework for managing their project data and making it available. One problem that dogs all of the software in this niche is a lack of standardization among competing platforms. A number of state and local agencies have developed their own programs to carry out the same tasks that TELUS handles. The programs all seem to have been developed separately, with little regard for compatibility with others. In some cases agencies require their subordinate partners to submit data in their proprietary formats, making the adoption of an outside framework complicated. There’s a period of this that occurs in every wave of development– whether it’s rail gauges, or radio frequencies, or operating systems. Individual participants can waste a lot of effort and money by picking the wrong horse. It’s interesting (as an observer).
At the end of the research, two observations (personal, not directly related to TELUS) stand out. The first is the enormous role that the federal government plays in local infrastructure projects, especially in conservative, rural parts of the country. The second is the lopsided preference that federal funding gives to highway infrastructure, as opposed to passenger rail, freight rail, bicycle/pedestrian provisions, and ferry/shipping services. It’s almost a cliché that mass-transit is an insolvent business model, and one that requires massive public investments, while cars and trucks remain ubiquitous symbols of potent American individualism. Imagine how that picture would change if, instead of the highway system, the feds maintained all of the rail infrastructure, and allowed private companies to use it, for profit, at little or no fee? If the highways were all maintained by private entities who had to raise revenues through tolls, or forgo their maintenance?
I’ll post a link to our report when it’s published.
Americans really are driving less, and New Jersey residents are riding the train more often. This trend is good news for proponents and developers of more compact, traditional towns and neighborhoods– and for proponents of design priorities that don’t assume everyone is flying past at 45 m.p.h.
The Atlantic has an article by Jordan Weissmann entitled, “Why Your Prius Will Bankrupt Our Highways.” It paints an ominous picture of the relationship between gasoline taxes and federal highway funding. I think it’s interesting that proposed public spending on rail infrastructure is reliably controversial in the United States, but not the subsidizing of motor travel through public spending on roads, highways and related infrastructure costs. It would be fair to say that the business model for private railroads would be a lot rosier if the government built and maintained all of the tracks, switches, and stations across the country, without controversy, and the private sector had only to supply the actual engines and rail cars.
Weissmann’s article also, indirectly, makes the case for land use policies that discourage sprawl and facilitate more compact development patterns. I’ve been reading about this topic lately in connection with some work that I’m doing for a research center. Studies have found that, in addition to the staggering highway costs that are generated by car-based land-use patterns, added costs for the development and maintenance of water and sewer infrastructure, private sector utilities, and lost productivity due to traffic congestion also grow in direct correlation with low-density, sprawl-type development. These externalities ultimately redound to taxpayers, utility customers, and other consumers, where they are shared by town-dwellers and sprawl-dwellers alike. In traditional towns and cities, these costs were borne more directly by those who would benefit– a practice which strongly encouraged efficient land use.
The New Yorker ran a piece, earlier this week, about the resurrection of Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York City subway map as a new, interactive, online feature by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Emily Moser’s Metro-North blog, I Ride the Harlem Line, was discovered, and covered, by the Times. And NPR reported on Ken Jennings’s new book, Maphead.
Hammond printed these three unique, regional maps of New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia in its 1910 New Reference Atlas of the World. All three are copyrighted before 1910, so they might also have been published in earlier atlases. Together, the maps offer a nice snapshot of development across three major Eastern regions at the end of the Victorian period, and just before cars really began to influence urban land use patterns. (Note the railroads.) These are the only three maps from Hammond’s regional series that I’ve been able to find. Would be nice to see others if they’re out there. (Chicago? San Francisco?) Maps of American states and cities-proper, from the same atlas, can be found at the US Digital Map Library.
One of the most interesting land use riddles is the question of how traditional towns and cities so often achieved such good results in terms of their layouts, massing, and architecture, given the much smaller toolbox of legal devices that existed prior to the early 20th century. Did people simply have better eyes in the past? Were they more inclined to cooperate with their neighbors? It’s hard to believe that human nature has really changed that much.
Here are some things I’ve been able to come up with. I’m sure there are others:
(1) Tradition. Some writers have suggested that the advent of more thorough land use laws actually tied the hands of builders who had once worked in their own rich tradition of aesthetic solutions. As early as 1909, Sir Raymond Unwin observed that English building bye-laws were twisting the architecture of their communities in unintended ways. Intuitively, this observation makes a good deal of sense, but it doesn’t answer the entire question. That is to say, if we accept that certain aesthetic traditions of folk architecture suffered a fatal blow when they ran up against the advent of technical legal requirements, we still don’t know what motivated their evolution in the first place; or what has prevented them from adapting, over the subsequent decades, to the fairly standard legal and transportation paradigm shifts that are now nearly a century old. In other words, we still have the basic question: why do people build so much crap these days? This question may be begging another, more fundamental one about how much crap really was built in the past. That is because low-quality buildings are more likely to have fallen apart or been torn down since they ceased to be new, making the new ones much easier to find. And even at that, a trip through certain parts of Jersey City would dispel any romantic notions about US urbanism during the Victorian period. Still, there is something uniquely awful about certain elements of the post-World War II American landscape.
A fire insurance map of Brooklyn from 1868 shows building footprints and owners' uses. Source: NYPL.
I think solving the riddle about what’s gone missing requires figuring out what fostered the greater communication between parcels in towns of the past. This is a separate question from what caused the decline in quality of the architecture of individual structures, and it goes much more to the essence of what effective land-use planning ought to address. That is, a dozen boxes could be arranged along a table in a logical way, or they could be scattered around haphazardly. When assessing whether you have order or chaos, the colors and shapes of the individual boxes are less important than their qualities and placement with regard to each other. And while there is a basic order to the technical arrangement of Euclidean suburbs, even a cursory comparison of a cascade of strip malls and a 19th century town center would reveal that Euclidean zoning doesn’t approach the intricacy and specialization that can be found in traditional towns and cities. So, aside from tradition, what factors drove the organization of urbanism– when it worked– before land use laws?
Leicester Square, London. Preserved by Tulk v. Moxhay.
(2) Private law devices. Between private parties covenants were available at common law. Covenants could be useful for ensuring a certain consistency across development after a parcel was subdivided, but they were somewhat limited in their permanent application because, in order for covenants to bind subsequent title holders, the law required something called horizontal privity between their original parties. Essentially, this meant that the affected parcels had to have originated from a single property, or at least from owners who shared some legal interests when they made their agreement. Because of this, neighboring owners couldn’t simply covenant to have their properties bound by a set of rules in perpetuity. Eventually, more flexible equitable servitudes were recognized by chancery courts in America (early 19th century) and England (following the 1848 case of Tulk v. Moxhay), but I have no idea whether these played a significant role in town planning.
(3) Building codes, bye-laws, etc. In Town Planning in Practice (1909), Unwin described the UK’s building bye-laws, which were forerunners to modern building codes and schedules of zoning regulations. Their scope included a lot of what’s regulated today– but not uses:
Under the modern urban bye-laws adopted in most English towns the number of houses to the acre is … limited by the regulations which fix, first, the minimum width of streets; secondly, the minimum space allowed to be left at the back of buildings. 
Building regulations cover such a multitude of matters, and the combination of circumstances under which difficulties may arise are so numerous, that it is quite impossible to frame absolute regulations on all these points without a considerable amount of needless harassment and restriction of really good buildings. 
So, much of the regulation that now falls under the zoning umbrella was established well before the advent of land use zoning, in the forms of building codes, fire codes, and health and safety regulations. The history of how these ordinances came about, and became increasingly elaborate, would likely shed more light on some of the dimension standards that guided the layout and massing form of traditional towns.
(4) Physical constraints. Before the onset of industry, building materials and engineering capabilities simply did not permit the height or sprawl that are now possible. Also, the distances between buildings and the canals, highways, and railroads had to be walkable, or at least sufficiently short to travel in reasonable times with the help of animals.
(5) The market. The realities of physical constraints put a premium on maximizing land use efficiency on parcels close to transportation arteries; with the hard physical work of transportation as its alternative, crowding was better than distance. The tension between the desire to maximize the use of space and the physical and economic constraints of pre-industrial building techniques presumably resulted in the relative consistency of the traditional urban scale.
From all of this, we can start to see the landscape that influenced traditional urban development in the common law world. Before land use planning, a town developed in the matrix of a delicate balance of tradition, private covenants, ad hoc bye-laws, physical constraints, and market forces. Presumably, community social pressures also played a role. I suspect that this balance more accurately reflected the interests of communities and their individuals than what we have today, and that this balance is what began to fail when confronted in the mid-19th century by the super-capital of large industry. In the wake of that moment, the traditional cultural-legal-market constellation was simply lost.
The story of what’s happened since that time is the familiar one.
My grad school friend, Dan Schned, works for the Regional Plan Association in New York City. He asked me to share this link to a video that the RPA has put together: essentially, a plug for Northeast high-speed rail. It’s hard to believe that the political case for building this basic infrastructure in such an intense region even needs to be made.
The Flushing I.R.T., or the 7 train, would be extended to Secaucus.
This proposal, if completed, would mark a significant step toward the seamless incorporation of Hudson County, New Jersey, into New York City’s urban core. This is a process that has been unfolding since the earliest days of the 20th century, when the PATH train (or the Hudson Tubes, if you like) first provided two heavy-rail, subway connections between Lower Manhattan and Hudson County– replacing the ferries that once linked railroad stations on the New Jersey waterfront with New York City.
If it were built, a Midtown connection to, presumably, uptown Hoboken and Weehawken, and then to Secaucus, would close the deal. Almost inevitably, it would bring about the upgrade of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail (HBLR) line, since the right-of-way of the latter would link the Subway and the PATH by a north-south route, much like the G train links the subway lines that run out from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. It’s easy to imagine Hudson County becoming even more of a sixth borough with this sort of rapid-transit connectivity. In fact, this would be the first time a NYC subway line ventured beyond the city limits.
Hudson Tubes, 1909.
This approach compares favorably, especially on a local scale, with the late, great ARC plan. First, it would solidify Hudson County’s place, in conjunction with Newark, as the distinct urban core of New Jersey. Second, like the ARC, it would increase the number of mass-transit seats that are entering Manhattan from New Jersey on a daily basis, thus alleviating the current capacity-busting rail schedule under the Hudson River. Third, unlike the ARC, it would accomplish this increase in capacity without a parallel increase in the availability of single-seat access to Midtown from the suburbs. This is important: in my view, the lack of additional single-seat bragging rights would make the increased capacity’s impact on development patterns more favorable to the redevelopment of suburban town centers, because, frankly, it would have less marketability for the kinds of developers who only seek to sell luxury units to Midtown commuters. Finally, an exception, of course, would be found in those parts of central Hudson County which would be directly served by the subway extension. These limited areas would see a rapid and powerful rise in demand: this, in an area which is already heavily urbanized, still undervalued, and which would, in my view, be an appropriate focus for very-high-density new development.
The Crain’s article cites a total cost of about half the projected expenditures for the ARC. This strikes me as a simple, practical solution, given the current political and budgetary situations, and the region’s ongoing rail capacity needs.