In her book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs complains that freeways as built are good at getting people to macrodestinations (downtown) but not microdestinations (particular addresses within city center). In her example from Toronto, this is correct, but in general, each mode of transportation will be good at serving microdestinations in an urban form that’s suited for it. Cars are not good at serving an intact city center; but equally, transit is not good at serving suburban sprawl, and regional rail that’s not integrated with urban transit is not good at serving urban destinations away from immediate train stations.
The idealized job center in an auto-oriented city is the edgeless city. Even the edge city, as explained in Lang and LeFurgy’s now-paywalled article Edgeless Cities, is too dense, and becomes congested too quickly; indeed, Tysons Corner is infamous for its lunchtime rush hour conditions. Ideally, cars drive from low-density residences to low-density office parks, primarily on freeways but with fast arterial connections at both ends; the freeway network in the auto-oriented city serves an everywhere-to-everywhere set of origins and destinations.
In such an environment, transit can’t do well. The distance between suburban attractors is too great for an easy walk, and the roads are too wide and fast for a pleasant walk. Buses and trains can serve a general macrodestination (“Warwick Mall/CCRI”), but not individual microdestinations, not without splitting and cutting frequency to each destination or detouring and raising travel time. The buses serving Warwick Mall and CCRI have hourly frequency, and are a long, uncomfortable walk from the hotel in Warwick I needed to go to. Judging by the frequency, I’m not the only person who chose not to use them, and take a taxi instead; everyone who has a car or who isn’t extremely price-sensitive does. The only way transit can serve such a destination is by concentrating development near the station – in other words, making a mini-transit city in the sea of sprawl, which generally conflicts with the goal of easy station parking.
In a city, the opposite situation exists. It’s easy to just pronounce transit more suited to dense city centers than driving, but the situation is more complicated. Transit, too, thrives on good connections to microdestinations. It can’t serve employment that’s dense but evenly dispersed in a large area – people would need too many transfers, and the result would be service that’s on paper rapid and in reality too slow. Instead, it works best when all destinations are clustered together, in an area not many subway stations in radius.
In this view, one failure of urban renewal is its failure to recognize that most people who visit city centers are going to do a lot of walking, and amenities should make it easier rather than harder. Traditional urban renewal would build cultural centers and other projects at the fringe of the CBD, to help its growth: Lincoln Center just north of Midtown, Civic Center just southwest of the San Francisco CBD, Providence Place and Providence Station just north of Downcity. In New York and San Francisco, there’s at least rapid transit serving those destinations, mitigating the effects. In Providence, no such thing exists. It’s an inconvenient walk from Kennedy Plaza to the mall and the train station – it’s not too long, but it crosses Memorial Boulevard right when it turns into a freeway on-ramp. Walking to the Westin, immediately adjacent to the mall, is practically impossible without rushing across roads without crosswalks. Even the walk between the station and the mall, which were built together and are close to each other, is much worse on the street than on a map, again involving crossing auto-centric roads.
Organic city amenities do not look like this. If they cluster at the same location (for example, 125th Street in New York, or Thayer Street in Providence), they tend to be along roads that facilitate rather than hindering pedestrian movement. And if they don’t, they are all located along a rapid transit network in its shared service area, where it is still a tight mesh rather than a network of radial lines.
In view of the recent emphasis on parking policy, due to Donald Shoup but now mirrored by other urban planning and transportation experts, the observation is that in any city center, on-site parking is difficult to find. Even in cities that make downtown parking relatively easy to get to, people can’t hope to park at every single microdestination, so instead they trip-chain, driving into the city and parking but going to multiple points within the city, all within a short and easy walking distance from one another. This is roughly the urban geography of the French Riviera, which combines easy parking with a dense, lively center in Nice and a fair amount of urbanity on some streets even in auto-oriented secondary cities such as Monaco and Menton.
The connection to regional rail is that, historically, it descends from intercity trains, and therefore the conception of connecting the suburbs to the city is very macrodestination-driven. To name two egregious American examples, the Boston’s north side lines and Caltrain both connect many suburbs to the city while also connecting people to the suburban tech job corridor, but in reality miss the biggest job centers at both ends. North Station is two subway stations north of the CBD, and as a result ridership underperforms the south side lines; 4th and King is far enough outside the Market Street CBD that it’s not close to the CBD jobs – the proposed Transbay Center site, which is, is located near more jobs than all existing Caltrain stations combined. And if microdestination-level service to an already transit-oriented CBD is bad, then service to other urban destinations is worse: urban station spacing is wide, there’s no attempt to develop near stations, and the poor integration with local urban transit ensures that even people who could be willing to make the last-mile transfer don’t.