Four transportation options in the new, denser suburbs

Leigh Gallagher, author of The End of the Suburbs, discusses some of the transportation options available for denser suburbs:

Many new experiments are in the works involving ride-sharing, and while none are likely to scale anytime soon, it’s a fix that draws heavily from the influence of Silicon Valley. As my colleague Michal Lev-Ram reports in the lead story in Fortune‘s New Metropolis issue about the end of driving, Google is partnering with GM on a pilot car-sharing service at its Mountain View headquarters that gives employees access to a fleet of 50 all-electric Chevrolet Spark EVs that are linked up to a mobile app that matches drivers and cars for morning and evening commutes. (This isn’t too dissimilar from Streetsblogger Mark Gorton’s idea for what he calls Smart Para-Transit, based on a fleet of vehicles with a central dispatch that matches riders and destinations.) In Palo Alto, Mercedes-Benz is testing a “Boost by Benz” program that shuttles kids around to piano lessons and soccer practice in brightly colored vans. Lev-Ram also notes that GM and Toyota recently said they would start giving discounts on new car purchases to Uber drivers…

Kannan of Washington Metro believes cities need to seriously rethink buses, which are much cheaper than rail, carry lots of people, and can go anywhere. “Today’s buses aren’t your father’s buses,” he says: they’re high tech, clean, energy efficient, sleek, and in some cases, highly amenitized. (As a longtime customer of New York’s Hampton Jitney, I can vouch for the quality of an “amenitized” bus ride.) There’s still a stigma against buses in this country, but it’s conceivable that this mindset could change. Consider the huge popularity of the controversial commuting buses in San Francisco operated not just by Google but by Facebook, eBay, Genentech, and others. And witness the rise of intercity carriers Bolt Bus and Megabus in recent years — especially among those transit-happy, texting Millennials as a dirt-cheap alternative to Amtrak travel up and down the Northeast seaboard (I’m no Jitney snob; I’ve taken these a lot, too). Something bigger may be going on…

There’s another solution here, too — the idea that the best way to build New Suburbia is off the back of Old Suburbia. Many developers are seizing opportunity to build updated, urbanized housing stock where transit already exists. In Libertyville, Illinois, a prewar suburb 35 miles north of Chicago, John McLinden has developed School Street, a row of 26 porch-adorned single-family homes with barely a few feet between them on narrow, Chicago-sized lots. The development runs right into Libertyville’s 178-year-old main street, Milwaukee Avenue, a vision in tightly packed boutiques, mom and pop retailers, restaurants and “2 a.m. bars,” as McLinden touts. Right behind it is where residents catch the North Line into Chicago. McLinden is now taking his model to nearby Skokie with a new development called Floral Avenue. Skokie sits on the Chicago Transit Authority’s yellow line, also known as the “Skokie Swift” — so named in 1964 as a two-year experimental service funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CTA, and the Village of Skokie to show that mass transit could be adapted to service the new suburban market.

Gallagher suggests two options that are already popular – cars, which won’t be completely eliminated in suburbs or even in many American cities, and transit-oriented development – and two that may be harder sells. It could be particularly difficult to get suburbanites to buy into ride-sharing and buses. Ride-sharing requires coordinating schedules, potentially traveling with strangers in relatively tight quarters, and a loss of independence. Buses take advantage of existing road structures but have a reputation and again limit independence.

I wonder if ride-sharing and buses can only really attract suburbanites if density reaches certain levels. What is the critical point where the suburbanite decides it is easier to take the bus as opposed to driving? Is it the cost of gas, more route options, nicer accommodations and more middle- or upper-class appearances, the price of parking (some still argue parking is way too cheap and plentiful in the United States), or something else? All together, there could be delicate dance of putting together mass transit alongside denser suburban development.

One thought on “Four transportation options in the new, denser suburbs

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving | Legally Sociable

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