Cities: February 2005 Archives

Car-free cities?

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It's audience participation time -- I'm going to throw out a question, and I'd like to see your answers in the comments or via trackback.

There are cities like Tulsa where a car is an absolute necessity for survival. Nearly the entire city was built post-Model T, with the assumption that everyone had a car at his disposal -- very low density, no sidewalks, segregation of uses. A day's necessary travel may put 30 or 40 miles on the odometer. Even with a good public transit system, getting around would be inconvenient, and we don't have a good public transit system.

There are cities like New York where a car is an inconvenience. The city was built when most people had to get around on foot, and the public transit system is excellent (even if the natives don't believe it).

There are cities in-between -- most people get around by car, but it is possible and practical to live comfortably without one. I suspect this is true of a lot of college towns. Some parts of town would be inaccessible to you, but there is at least a densely-developed core where you can find housing, employment, shopping, and entertainment within walking distance. Savannah, Georgia, seems to fit this description.

So here's my question: In what American cities / metro areas is it possible to live comfortably, as an employed adult, without a car? I'm not looking for speculation -- I'd like to know if you've managed it yourself or know someone who has. I'd be especially interested to know of cities where people have managed to raise a family sans car. I'm excluding dorm-dwelling college students -- it's easier to get by without a car when you don't have to buy your own groceries, get to a job, or maintain your own dwelling. Also, by the phrase "live comfortably," I exclude having to walk five miles along an arterial street with no sidewalk and bad lighting to get to your job. Some folks here have to do that to survive, and I applaud their determination, but it doesn't make Tulsa a city suited for car-free living.

A couple of things prompted this. One is that I've been working on a piece about how urban design affects the independence of people with disabilities, inspired by the contrast between someone I met recently in New York and some folks I know here in Tulsa, and how easy or challenging they find it to get around on their own. I am coming to believe that every city of a certain size ought to preserve or recreate at least one area where car-free living is possible, for the sake of accommodating those who can't or shouldn't or choose not to drive.

The other thing that prompted this question is a post by Dawn Eden about her job search. She doesn't drive, so the job needs to be some place where you can survive without a car. That made me wonder if there are places besides older, bigger cities like New York where that is possible.

One more ground rule -- your anecdotal evidence should be from the last 20 years, more or less. Both my grandmothers got through most of their lives without driving, living within walking distance of the downtowns of Dewey and Nowata, Oklahoma, respectively, but in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, these towns offered all the basic necessities downtown, and many merchants would deliver. (Their husbands drove, so they weren't completely car-free, but most of the time a car was not at their disposal.) Now that everyone has a car, we'll drive several miles for better prices and better selection -- the small neighborhood store can't compete, and living car-free in a small town isn't an option any more.

I'm looking forward to your responses.

The latest issue of Forbes explains why cities keep building more convention space when the convention industry is shrinking. After one story of failure after another, we read this:

"The assumptions that go into feasibility studies are the problem," says Anne Van Praagh of Moody's. "The outside firms have no financial stake in the business."

Robert Canton, director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' convention and tourism practice, offers this defense: "We don't recommend to build or not to build. We're just being asked if there is a potential demand."

The answer is almost always yes. Out of 75 potential projects reviewed by the firm that Oregon hired, only 4 were deemed completely unfit. SAG partner Jeffrey Sachs says that is evidence of his shop's "objectivity." "You lose clients if you shoot down projects. They've already made up their minds by the time they come to us," he says.

Where do the experts get their rosy predictions? "We have to make a lot of assumptions. This industry isn't tracked very well," says Sachs. The most oft-cited data come from Tradeshow Week, which is owned by Reed Elsevier, a British company that also produces 430 trade shows. Its primary measure of the industry's health is its annual list of the 200 best-attended shows, making for a convenient survivor bias, and based solely on data from show managers who have an interest in masking serious declines.

Advisers' conclusions often fly in the face of logic. Consulting firm Convention, Sports & Leisure was hired by Cincinnati in 1999 to ask meeting planners what they thought of the city as a show destination. Only 39% answered positively, trailing perceptions of Kansas City (60%), Boston (56%) and Nashville (62%). CSL subtly encouraged construction by suggesting the city could improve its image. Cincinnati is under way with a $160 million expansion. A study for Minneapolis done by Coopers & Lybrand in 1994 went so far as to suggest that obvious obstacles to success like frigid temperatures and location could be overcome by "specific marketing efforts."

Read it, and, if your city is silly enough to dump more money into this dying industry, weep.

On the town


Spent some time Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in Greenwich Village, the picturesque and historic neighborhood that was rescued from ruination in the early '60s by a band of "anti-growth, anti-progress" meddlers who stopped Robert Moses' plans to turn the area into freeways and parking lots. (Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a leader in that fight. Here's a good interview with her that tells some of that story.)

(You Tulsa folks, read those articles and tell me if you don't think the rhetoric from the "pro-progress" bunch sounds a bit familiar.)

Tuesday evening I showed up on my own for Tuesday Night Trivia at the Baggot Inn, a pub on West 3rd Street. I was welcomed onto a team by Jill and Corey, two-year regulars at the competition, and we were joined later by Barry, Frank, and Nick Sarames. (Nick got a mention - with his last name badly misspelled - in Wednesday's New York Observer profile of Dawn Eden. I recognized him when he came in - while at the Will Rogers Memorial, Dawn remarked on Nick's resemblance to the Oklahoma legend.)

Corey came up with our team's name, taking a shot at the prize for the funniest name: "Michael Jackson: From Kiddie Pool to Jury Pool." Eleven teams competed through five rounds of 10 points each -- general knowledge, current events, top 10, audio round, visual round. My principal contributions were recognizing a list of area codes as belonging to the state of Texas, and knowing that Sen. Jon Corzine was planning a run for governor of New Jersey. There was considerable controversy over which baseball team Tropicana Field was built for. A couple of teams pointed out that Tropicana Field (aka the Suncoast Dome) was built to lure the San Francisco Giants to Tampa Bay, but the official accepted answer was the team that plays there now -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

In the top 10 round, the team gets a half-point for getting one of the items anywhere in the list, and another half-point if it's in the right place. Nick drew from his encyclopedic knowledge of pop music to rattle off Madonna's first ten top-forty hits in order -- forgetting only one, and putting the team on the path to triumph.

The audio round required recognizing 10 songs based on 30 seconds of the guitar riff. Easier than I expected -- all of them had been hits. The final, visual round involved 10 photos of guys who go by Al (e.g. Gore, Capone, Roker, D'Amato, Kaline, Franken) -- a half-point for knowing the last name, a half-point for knowing the full first name.

Our team led after the first three rounds with 25.5 points and finished with 43 points, a solid victory. The prize: A $25 bar tab for the team, which left us with $12 bucks and a tip to cover between the six of us. One of my teammates said there are other trivia nights at other pubs, some for considerable cash prizes, but the competition is cutthroat and one or two teams dominate -- Tuesday Night Trivia is much friendlier and much more fun.

(This is the second team trivia triumph I've been a part of in a little over a year. Last January I was invited to join my best friend from school and some other classmates and friends of friends on an existing team at the annual Holland Hall Trivia Night. The team had run close in previous years, but last year we blew the competition away. For winning each of us won a $25 gift certificate to In the Raw Sushi and a couple of passes to Philbrook Museum. Pretty nice. The trophy, a gold-spray-painted wooden shoe atop a gold-spray-painted foam-core obelisk, was susceptible to spontaneous disassembly. It spent some time in our living room, but another team member planned to take it along for a climb up Mt. Kilamanjaro. He didn't say which of the twin peaks he planned to climb.)

Wednesday night I headed to the monthly meeting of one of New York City's two Young Republican clubs. (This was the official party-sanctioned club.) There I caught up with Scott Sala of Slant Point, and we had an interesting conversation about local Republican party politics and the inner workings of the party machinery here and back home. Scott was a credentialed Republican National Convention blogger; we first met up at a Communists for Kerry rally in Union Square the Saturday before the convention. I chatted with Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk, too -- we met at a blogger event just before the convention. I spoke to a Republican city council candidate named Bob Capano, who is running against an incumbent Democrat in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn in this year's elections. I also met a woman who said she's planning to attend the 2005 Texas Blogfest in Dallas in March.

It was a nice break to get into the city and to renew some acquaintances, meet some new folks, and walk down some pleasant city streets.

Newark arena to cost $310 million


Earlier this week, the City of Newark, New Jersey, and the New Jersey Devils signed an agreement to build a new arena in downtown Newark for the hockey team. The arena will hold 18,000 fans and will cost $310 million, $210 million from the city, $100 million from the team. It's supposed to be completed in time for the 2007 NHL season, not long from when Tulsa's similarly sized arena is scheduled to be complete.

Granted that cost of land and cost of labor is higher in Newark than in Tulsa, but it still ought to concern the folks running Vision 2025, given that they have less than $200 million to spend on the same size arena, with the added burden of carrying out starchitect Cesar Pelli's grand vision.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from February 2005.

Cities: January 2005 is the previous archive.

Cities: March 2005 is the next archive.

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