Density is a tool; Access is the goal

I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Jarrett Walker, a highly-regarded transportation consultant who has worked on, most recently, Houston’s reimagined bus network.  Walker makes the good point that ultimately, transit is in the business not just of laying X miles of rail tracks, or even moving people Z miles, but of providing people freedom to access the places they need and want to go: work, school, church, restaurants, stores, parks, etc.


Access here is the stuff of life. Can I get to that job interview on time? Can I get home from work in time to see a movie? Can I meet my friends for dinner? Does this okcupid match live close enough to make dating possible? When my daughter asks to play on the traveling soccer team, can she get to practice?

The context of Walker’s talk is public transportation network design. But access is just as much an issue in land use–what buildings, parks, roads, etc get built where. Whether you’re driving, riding, walking, biking, ubering, or whatever, the basic fact is that you can reach more destinations in the same amount of time when those destinations are close together. And more destinations means more opportunities–whether that’s opportunities to work, to learn, to shop, or to meet people. This was the basic lesson I took from living my own life in different parts of Boston.

This shouldn’t be a complicated or counterintuitive concept. Even with a car, traveling from one end of Austin to another is already quite a daunting trip to make more than occasionally. The more people Austin gets, the more destinations there will be–economic, cultural, or otherwise. But the more we spread out, the less access new and old residents will have to each other and to the destinations we create. We are foreclosing options by where we build.

This isn’t to say that density is the only ingredient necessary for access. There’s plenty of ways to build density that doesn’t afford much access. You can arrange your streets so that, even though two places are near each other, the path you must take to get between them is far. You can enforce a strong separation of complementary uses (homes here, shopping there, offices over there), so that, even though there are a lot of people near you, you have to go far in order to go to work or get Indian takeout. You can place density mostly on corridors, rather than in a grid, so that people must traverse the whole length to have access. This is why you often see the same people who argue for more homes in central Austin also fighting for removing gates from streets or allowing restaurants on 45th St. The connection is about removing barriers to access.

I don’t blame anybody for watching city debates and thinking that they’re mostly about abstract concepts they don’t identify with–sidewall articulations, dwelling units per acre, floor area ratio, headways, lane allocation. These are important parts of implementation. But at the heart of the matter is whether we as a city can make room so that everybody has a chance to participate in meeting new people, building a career, finding love, getting an education, seeing great music, and whatever else we want to do. The more distance we put between ourselves, the fewer opportunities we have.

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