Jane Jacobs on Transportation


I recently finished reading the new(ish) compilation of Jane Jacobs’ shorter writings, Vital Little Plans.

Jacobs’ writing is the closest things modern American planners have to holy scripture. Sadly, for those of us who spend our time thinking about transportation, there hasn’t been an enormous amount of her work to chew on. Reading Vital Little Plans was a chance to glean more of what Jacobs had to say about the way we move through our cities.

There is one transportation issue where Jacobs’ position is fairly well known: her much-publicized opposition to urban expressways. And, indeed, you’ll find many passages in the book denouncing highway investment that sound strikingly contemporary:

“Los Angeles, where at rush hour the cars on the great freeways crawl at 10 miles an hour, the same speed the horse and buggies used to achieve, where the poor have no practicable way to reach jobs, where the exhausts have turned the air into a crisis, where expressways, interchanges and parking lots occupy some two-thirds of the drained and vacuous downtown.”

A City Getting Hooked on the Expressway Drug, 1969

This is well known Jacobs territory. It’s not surprising that the patron saint of walkable neighborhoods opposed new automobile infrastructure in cities. But some of her other positions are startling.  Readers might be surprised to learn, for example, that Jacobs was at least as ferocious a critic of public transportation management as she was of highway investment.

In her 1969 piece, Strategies for Helping Cities, she describes a transportation “status quo that is predicated on inconvenient, deteriorating, obsolete public transit” and highlights the “unwillingness of local government to permit competition to its services […] in public transportation.”

This was not a one-off critique of public transport planning. In The Real Problem of Cities, a speech given on the inaugural 1970 Earth Day celebration, she excoriated the entire idea of centralized government control of transportation systems:

“The surest way to arrange that the status quo is not going to be disturbed, that development is not going to occur, that a problem with us now is going to be with us indefinitely, is to centralize responsibility for defining it and for administering funds directed to its solutions. The very strategy itself is fatally at odds with a goal of problem-solving.”

Perhaps her most scathing critique of public transportation systems was written almost 25 years later, after Jacobs had relocated to Toronto. There, in 1994, she helped co-found a still-active group called the Consumer Policy Institute, and penned a letter focused on the problems of public transit in Toronto. It’s worth reading in full:

“Affordable, convenient public transit is vital, yet Canadian cities are plagued with costly, inadequate systems. Time and again, transit managements and politicians with public funds at their disposal embrace foolish, extravagant policies while ignoring common-sense alternatives and neglecting innovative thinking. Those decisions are paid for in higher fares, lost customers, rotten service, tax subsidies and lost opportunities.

It used to be reasoned that public service monopolies would benefit from lack of ‘wasteful’ competition and economies of scale. They don’t. The post office is a notorious example. Only when that monopoly began to break down did many badly needed innovations from independent businesses become available. Or consider long-distance passenger rail services: they are a disgrace, forever deteriorating yet becoming more costly.

Good service delivery must be responsive to customers’ ever-changing needs, not protected from customers by limiting their choices or evading failure by winning government favors. Hopping the gravy train is no way to run a railroad or any other successful commercial service.”

First Letter to the Consumer Policy Institute, 1994

The use of “gravy train” to describe public investment will resonate with those readers familiar with Toronto’s disgraced former mayor Rob Ford. Indeed, the general tone of Jacob’s piece – questioning the wisdom of public management of transportation – is more reminiscent of writing from the political right than the political left. As demonstrated frequently throughout Vital Little Plans, one of the most satisfying elements of Jacobs’ writing is her ability to scramble simplistic assumptions about political alignment and urban policy.

So if not the traditional right/left political divide, what motivated Jacobs’ pointed and repeated criticism of public transport management? Reading through the various selections in Vital Little Plans, it becomes clear that the common enemy she is attacking is top-down, centralized control of complex systems.

For followers of Jacobs, this should not come as a surprise. The founding ethos of her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is that city success flows from the bottom up. There, she casts the villain as government planners who have a utopian vision of what cities should look like; they destroy functioning urban fabric because they are too far removed from its use to even notice that it is succeeding.

Here, in various selections from Vital Little Plans, Jacobs’ argument against public monopoly control of transportation is similar: a single government agency is liable to miss opportunities for innovation, be biased to the status quo, and ignore changing consumer demands.

Given her love of bottom-up organization and distributed decision making, I suspect that Jacobs would have been a supporter of ‘informal transit’ systems like collectivos, matatus, dollar vans, or jeepneys, although there’s no writing about them in this volume. Those systems tend to be composed of thousands of independent actors, each with a financial incentive to meet consumer demand, and without centralized control of routes or individual driver behavior. While that has often made them the enemy of public authorities, I imagine it would have made Jacobs a fan.

Her thirst for new ideas, did, it’s worth noting, lead her to support some transportation ideas of dubious viability. Most notably, she expressed enthusiasm for a system that sounded like the cultish Personal Rapid Transit. She also waxes poetic at various points about cable-cars and high speed ferries.

The key takeaway for me is not so much that she thought any of these schemes would necessarily be successful. Her broader point was that restricting the ability for new ideas to be attempted always leads to stagnation, in urban transportation as in society at large. In one passage of The Real Problem of Cities, immediately after excoriating the New York City Transit Authority for ignoring potential new technologies, she underscored the paramount importance of the search for creative new solutions:

“To maintain the status quo is impossible, in this or in most other things. In most activities, and certainly taking society as a whole, we must be creative or else resigned to decay. This is not simply an imperative of modern economies. It is an imperative of the human condition itself.”

The Real Problem of Cities, 1970

Jacobs died in 2006, so she didn’t get the chance to see most of the recent wave of new technologies in urban transportation – carsharing, bikesharing, ridesharing, or autonomous vehicles. While I suspect she wouldn’t not have gone in for techno-utopian claims that any one solution would save the city, I imagine she’d be cheered by the fact multiple different solutions were both proliferating and competing.

Her writing in Vital Little Plans makes clear that she took supreme pleasure in challenges to the status quo. Whatever she might make of the individual players, I suspect she’d be heartened that there’s more being challenged in urban transportation today than there has been in a very long time.


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