Book Review: How Cities Work

Marshall, Alex. 2000. How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. Austin: University of Texas Press.

This is a very pessimistic book. The sub-theme of the book is “don’t bother trying anything because everything sucks and nothing works.” But his main purpose is to simply point out that Land Use, Transportation, and Economix are all interrelated, and that every time we make a decision regarding one of them, we need to fully understand how it will impact the others. Each decision has secondary impacts that decision-makers often don’t fully understand.

Some of the relationships between land use, economics, and transportation are tricky. For example, when someone decides to build an exurban home, they are contributing to the failure of any retail business that does not provide parking. Another example is that those who choose to ride bicycles “to reduce traffic congestion” often end up causing more congestion (one slow moving cyclist will cause more traffic congestion than if he/she had simply driven and added one additional car to the traffic flow). Again, our constant pursuit for rock-bottom prices is a goal we can achieve (Wal-Mart) but it will come at the expense of higher transportation costs, store employees who don’t know anything and can’t offer advice, and encouraging (not just facilitating) customers to live further away.

He argues that land use is a result of transportation, not the other way around, which is why, he argues, solutions like New Urbanism will never make any significant change to our society. New Urbanism attempts to change transportation by first changing land use – in the wrong order. He argues that a change in transportation will automatically result in a change in land use, but changes in land use will be very slow to result in any changes in transportation habits.

It’s a good read although my eyes got a little droopy during a chapter or two.

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