Review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Vintage, New York: 1961) by Jane Jacobs is justifiably one of the premier books on planning ever written. Written at a time that was the peak of all that we know now is wrong about planning (slum clearance, large public housing complexes, single use zones, freeway construction), the book can now, fifty years after it was originally written, truly be seen as visionary. But there have been lots of reviews of Death over the years; as this site is dedicated to public transit how about a public transit-tinged review of the book?
Overall, there is very little discussion in the book of public transit, and most of the discussion is in Chapter Eighteen, which deals with the automobile. For Jacobs, automobiles are bad for cities for three major reasons: one, the provision of roads has caused the destruction of many vital neighborhoods in American cities; two, the provision of auto-related services such as parking lots and gas stations ruin the diversity of interest that propels cities to life; and three, neighborhoods that rely on the car will never be able to achieve a high enough density to thrive. Inferred from the above reasons is that public transit is a necessary replacement for the car because a truly vibrant neighborhood will attract users from other places in the city and send its residents to other places in the city - places likely to be to be too far to walk or bike. Interestingly, in this chapter, as she does throughout the book, Jacobs ignores the issues of suburbs - presumably, the people who choose to live in suburbs deserve their bland lifestyle and if they want excitement and interesting places to go they should move to the city.
On page 369, she discourses more broadly about public transportation, stating that "there is no point in developing [public transportation] during an era of city erosion". In other words, public transit cannot save a city; it can only help a city that is already on its way back. While many of Jacobs ideas have been accepted into common planning practice, this one has not, judging from the plethora of streetcar and light rail projects proposed and otherwise under development around the country. For every success like Portland's streetcar line (which attracted development that would have occurred anyway), we have colossal failures like the People Mover of Detroit . Fortunately, at this point we do not have to worry about repeating that error in Detroit, as the proposed Detroit light rail line seems to be dead in the water for the time being.
Unfortunately, even if we wanted to help improve transit during an era of city erosion, declining funding means that service reductions and fare increases are all too common, further eroding the network. The popularity of funding transit by the sales tax, whose revenues decline as a city declines, further accelerates this transit "death spiral" where service reductions and fare increases reduce ridership, which results in the need for more service reductions and more fare increases, which further reduces ridership, etc.
Jacobs overarching conclusion seems to be that great cities cannot be planned; they must be left to develop organically - a development that, unfortunately for politicians only concerned about the next election, can take not only many years but, in the case of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian cities, many centuries. Wise transit systems recognize that like great cities, great transit systems cannot really be planned, apart from the development of a solid grid system as eloquently described by Jarrett Walker in Human Transit . Jacobs continues: "the development of twentieth-century public transportation (something we have never possessed) has to follow a rise in custom and clearly anticipated custom". More than any other city Vancouver, B.C. realizes this by gradually upgrading a bus line from local bus to frequent local bus to rapid "B" line bus to rail as ridership gradually increases.
In addition to a "rise in custom", Jacobs also states that public transit can be developed due to "clearly anticipated custom". Clearly anticipated custom would no doubt arise from matters beyond the control of the transit agency - for example, from a new high-rise office or residential development. Since the city planning department would be the one approving the construction of the new development, it follows that if a transit agency would like to have clearly anticipated custom it should work closely with the city planning department to promote transit-oriented development . While a few cities have close relationships with their city planning departments, especially in Ottawa, Ontario, where OC Transpo has the ability to force changes to development projects to make them more transit friendly, this is certainly an area that the majority of transit agencies could do better in. Effective transit requires effective land use; without effective land use, transit will never fulfill its potential no matter how much service is provided.
Historically, the years in which transit was most successful in the United States were also the years when transit agencies were directly involved in land use to the extent that streetcar companies built their own housing estates so that the residents could then use their transit services. While transit agencies in other countries continue to be directly involved in real estate, perhaps most epitomized by the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway, we no longer see this in the United States. Perhaps instead of remaining passive observers to changes in their service area transit agencies need to becoming more aggressive in shaping the kind of service area that they would like to serve.