Transit Makes Traffic Worse: And That’s Okay!

Nathaniel Rich had an interesting review of two recent books about the urbanist Jane Jacobs in the November issue of The Atlantic. It was fascinating, particularly where he shows how as a young writer Jacobs praised praised urban renewal and tall towers with that same voice of certainty that a few years late she would use to condemn those same practices. But he gets it wrong when in summarizing Jacobs’ impact, he states that “no one questions anymore . . . that investment in public transportation reduces traffic.”

Actually, many question this, including me. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that it makes car traffic worse, not better. Subways, buses and so forth, when successful, promote more people living and working in smaller areas, which means there is less room for cars, whether on the streets or parked. This is a bad thing only if you view public transit through the myopic lens of its effect on driving. If you view public transit as making it possible to live without a car, or fewer cars, or to live in a place with more stuff around you, than the equation changes. My Brooklyn neighborhood is a terrible place to own or drive a car, but it’s precisely because of that that it is great in a lot of other ways. And it’s the extensive network of public transportation, from subways to buses to public bikes, that makes it the way it is.