Cities are made of space and people, we must not forget about both of these.

Manning Centre ‘researcher’ fails to understand basic urban geometry

First off, I have a few thank you’s. First, thanks to Global/AM770 for deciding to put ‘researcher’ in the title of an article with no actual researchers in it, which caught my attention (I’m going to assume Keating won’t mind that I assumed he’s not a researcher). Second, thanks to Peter McCaffery and his unnamed, un-cited sources for giving me a great post idea when I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump. Finally, thanks to Shane Keating for giving me hope that the people making decisions in our city understand at least the very basic idea of how cities and geometry work.

Give the article a read, it’s pretty short, and sets the stage well.

It seems there is a trend going on where people have decided that we as humans can out-tech even the basic principles of geometry. I don’t want to draw comparisons here, but even the genius Elon Musk seems caught up in the whole idea.

Cities have a scarcity of space

To understand why the McCafferty quotes are so deeply misguided, we need to at least start by accepting that, believe it or not, living in cities is kind of “in”. Has been for the past while, in fact. Here’s a graph to demonstrate that:

Surprise, people are living in cities more and more [Source/Wikipedia]

People, whether for economic reasons, social reasons, or some other reason, want to live closer together. And when there is a desire to live closer together, there is a scarcity of space. We need space to move and live, but that competes with the advantages we see in living closer together. There is a push and pull, and finding ways to use our space better makes that tug-of-war easier on both ends.

Again, believe it or not, cities take up space. We talk about cities in two dimensions because, while we do have a certain amount of vertical space, it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to reach as you go farther up. Managing the two-dimensional space is what makes cities successful.

People in cars take up more space than transit

Here’s a quick geometry lesson with a back-of-the-envelope calculation: When you draw a box (or a cube, if you like) around a car with zero or more people in it, we get a box with an area of about 70 square feet. With an average vehicle occupancy under the 1.2 mark (and certain to be lower if cars don’t need a driver), that’s 0.0171 people per square foot. A typical LRT car, takes up about 815 square feet of our precious urban space. Even with only the seats taken by (68) people and nobody standing, that’s 0.0834 people per square foot. Already that’s almost 5 times the space efficiency, with room to grow. I won’t even get into parking space.

If numbers aren’t your thing, here’s a picture that relays the same message:

This should be a pretty common picture at this point [Source]

Oh, and while we’re at it, here’s one for autonomous vehicles:

Yes, those three images are the same. [Source]

If the Manning Centre is all about municipal efficiency, why not question the cost of sprawl in our city, something that is certainly exacerbated by or the cost of giant projects like the ring road? Perhaps that too, is part of the lack of understanding.

By the way: I spoke with a pilot friend of mine, who apparently constitutes an ‘expert’ at this point, and he gave me some insight on the idea of ‘flying cars’. Use of the skies, especially over cities, is not a free for all. They have lanes and direction just like vehicle traffic. Flying is an incredibly complex process and has a very limited capacity for the number of individual planes that can be in certain airspace at the same time, whether flown by man or machine.

Councillor Keating and I don’t always agree on transportation issues, but I will give him kudos for seeing right through the madness:

…until we get to the Jetsons’ hovercraft that can go anywhere, we still have a determination by finite space, and that’s what we have to overcome,”

Don’t forget about people

There’s one more point to make here, and that’s one about people. Again, surprise surprise, cities are filled with people. I’ve already talked about some of the benefits of the Green Line with respect to cost, and many of the comparisons are the same whether people are in robot cars or regular cars.

A sweeping acceptance of technological change in urban transportation tends to forget about people. They tend to forget about the social justice and equality that is attached to transit. They forget about the social separation that comes from surrounding ourselves with metal. They the social status that is applied to who can afford a flying car and who cannot. These ignorances are dangerous, they build walls around people when we should be connecting and understanding. These metal boxes are what Heineken was telling us to tear down. A blind acceptance of the latest technology builds them up. They have in the past, and they will in the future.

I will give McCafferty the benefit of the doubt on that one – it’s easy to get caught up in technological change. It’s easy to imagine a future where everything is shiny and instant.

The reality is there is a lot of hard, thoughtful work to be done. So let’s keep it thoughtful, please.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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