Page from Image of the City, 1960

While reading through some of the response to my last post on Beacon Hill, I couldn’t help but go back to a big influence on my thinking, Kevin Lynch. Lynch, who lived from 1918 to 1984, was a professor, planner, writer and seminal thinker. Many of Lynch’s early writings and notes that influenced his most important work, Image of the City, are available at an online archive, called Perceptual Form of the City.

One of the most interesting documents is called “Morning with a cab dispatcher,” the notes Lynch took after spending a morning trying to understand Boston from the perspective of the guy who sends out and tracks cabs.

I have to credit Lynch for the process underneath Zero Based Zoning, the idea of starting land use planning and code writing with use rather than building form. Planning is not about pushing things around on a map, or bus routes, or zones, or even demographics; what matters is the people. Lynch thought planning started with listening to how people use their city first.

Despatcher receives request, computes nearest “stand” (or cruising zone), calls first cab in line in this “stand”, and places his peg in proper number in “occupied” section. Other cabs report local pick-ups, and their pegs are also removed. As fares are completed, cabs report their new “stand”, and their peg put in proper column. This goes at rapid, overlapping rate.

Lynch describes how the dispatcher “pictures” the city as he does his job.

[The dispatcher] says he does this in his head so quickly that hard to describe, but that he does not picture Boston as a map (he never uses one). Rather as though he were driving through streets himself (probably at a very rapid rate). Basically he organizes from the main streets, associating addresses and minor streets from the way they “come off” the mains.

Like many of us, the cab dispatcher has a way of dividing up the city conceptually that doesn’t necessarily correspond to an official map or plan. He knows the city based on key buildings and how they relate to big streets, little streets, and other land marks. The dispatcher knows Boston based on the way he uses his city, not based on how it’s zoned. The same is true of bus drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and police.

You’ll notice that there is nothing transactional going on in “Morning with a Cab Dispatcher;” that is, you don’t hear a litany of gripes and fears coming from the cab dispatcher and how he wants those addressed. The listening that Lynch does isn’t about, “what do you want?” That’s what our Seattle process has become, a kind of cage match between interests worried about change or what we can get from the process, not an honest appreciation of how a neighborhood is used by people and how that can be improved as more people move in.

Maps, plans, frameworks, and land use codes are important, but they should be a result of listening to how people use and want to use their city, not arbitrary building heights. And they should never be about codifying fear or attenuating someone’s profits. Planning is really the story about our hopes for the ever changing city, not a defense against change. Lynch’s work can help us train our brains to ask, “how do we prepare for change?” rather than figuring out how we can avoid it.

From an original typed page of "Morning with a cab dispatcher"

33 Replies to “Plan for Change: Kevin Lynch’s Morning with a Cab Dispatcher”

  1. Roger’s advocating unlimited power for developers and trying to sell it with Hayekian reveries. It’s still just unlimited power for developers.

    1. It’s also astounding he’s using Boston as an example to support his ideas. I really can’t think of an American city with more control over development standards than Boston.

    2. Hayek or not, why do you want to cling to central planning for cities?

      No one complains about “unlimited power for interior decorators”, even though you can do whatever you want to the inside of a house (except for very targeted restrictions designed to ensure safety). There are no rules dictating the amount of computers Microsoft is allowed to own, or the amount they are allowed to pay their developers. Why do you take it as a given that we have the right, or the moral authority, to dictate how tall they can build their buildings?

  2. Like many east coast cities, during Mr. Lynch’s life time Boston went from a city of 670 thousand in 1910, to a peak of 800,000 in 1950, to a decline from his birth to of 570 — or a loss of 100,000 people!

    So, his study would be in the world of a “Climax Ecology” when the underlying design had basically been set (not likely to build a new marble courthouse with declining population) and hence, the job is to optimize around existing design.

    If the population trends for Washington are anything like Oregon’s that may be the case here.

    So let’s imagine a no to low growth scenario. At that point, it actually gets really interesting for Transit Planners as they can work against a static set of origins and destinations. A cab dispatcher, for example, would have very likely routes that could be optimized by depots and so on. Trains would have stable schedules and demand. Highways could in fact be increased, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the effect of more suburban areas being built to fill capacity.

    1. Not that that the building of FREE FEDERALLY FUNDED Highways had anything to do with that loss of population…

    2. The population decline is also related to a decline in average household size from 3.31 to 2.13 from the peak to 2010. There are actually more housing units in Boston today than there were at the peak.

    3. Population within the municipal boundary of Boston is meaningless. Municipal boundaries typically are based on conditions in effect long before mass auto ownership and freeways completely changed the geography of cities in the mid-20th century. The real economic unit is the whole metropolitan area. In the case of Boston, it’s grown every decade since 1790, with the exception of 1970-1980.

      Municipal Boston’s population declined considerably from 1950 to 2003, but metropolitan Boston’s population increased by around a third. If you think that kind of population trend means less pressure on the transportation infrastructure of municipal Boston, I have a bridge to sell you.

      (I’m not sure why we’re talking about Boston — Roger’s post wasn’t about Boston at all, it was about an approach to looking at cities. This whole tangent is pretty far afield.)

      1. It always amazes me how readily people use facts and figures without a notion of what they mean.

        Another major one is density. If you took all of Seattle’s population and shoved it into Capitol Hill, the calculated “density” of Seattle wouldn’t change, even though the density of the area where people live would be as high as Manhattan. Weighted density is a much more useful number, and yet virtually no one uses it.

      2. Charles: Yes, you could, but you’d still have a more meaningful metric by weighting by population.

        In general, I’m skeptical of any metric where massively different patterns can compress into the same answer. With population-weighted density, any movement of people will be reflected in the number. With land-weighted density, that’s not true.

  3. I’m not sure how Roger fits his enthusiasm here for “an honest appreciation of how a neighborhood is used by people” with his ongoing distaste, if not contempt, for those people when they come out and advocate on the basis of how they use their neighborhood, what they care about in it, and what they don’t want to give up about it…

    1. I’m sorry, but “Pay for my $500,000,000 subway station, then go back to your subway-less neighborhoods and leave me alone” is not a valid expression of “how I wish to use my neighborhood.”

    2. Thad,

      You might want to re-read the last two paragraphs.

      I’d love to talk with you and your neighbors about how you use your neighborhood. I’m even interested in hearing how we can make it better.

      I am not interested, however, in preserving what you care about in it and what you don’t want to give up about it at the expense of everyone else, including people who want to move in to your neighborhood.

      When change comes it wipes out some good things we know and also some bad things we know; the work of planning is to increase the overall good while limiting the bad.

      Preserving what we know is good now at the expense of the future common good isn’t progress and it isn’t sustainable, it is, using your word, contemptuous.

      1. Roger, I’m curious if you take your own medicine. The About Us link says you live on Capitol Hill. Do you live in a single family home, or a large, dense, multi-family building?

        PS, your silence will answer my question.

      2. I don’t know where Roger lives, but what does Roger’s choice of place to live have to do with his opinion of what other people should be allowed to do with their property? Is he not allowed to support gay rights if he’s not gay?

    3. Martin, it matters to me if someone walks the talk. It speaks to credibility. Their facts can be correct, but if they don’t practice what they preach, they are not someone I want to listen to. When Al Gore lectures me and others about the evils of excessive consumption and calls for personal sacrifice, and he’s living in three homes, one a 20 room, 10,000 sq. ft. mansion, he’s loses credibility with me.

      1. I suspect you’re disinclined to listen to Roger regardless of where he lives, but where has Roger written about “excessive consumption” and “personal sacrifice?” Where has he demanded that anyone move out of their SFH?

  4. I’ll agree on one point: new developments need to FUNCTION. Engineers need to be involved in a project from the planning process on. I’ve seen too many parks, buildings, and entire neighborhoods that are architecturally attractive, but are under used because they don’t work for people. Discontinuous walkways/roadways and unusable spaces are very common. Flying sidewalks over the waterfront won’t attract users unless it connects destinations. Likewise, a barren waterfront park would be no benefit to the city (but it would look nice!). Empty spaces invite crime and misuse. On the other hand, NYC’s subway isnt pretty but it is usefull. New development first has to work, then can be dressed up later by architects. Simple is better.

    1. By that logic, we would have chosen a real working water front that generates billions in economic activity instead of a tourist attraction that generate a fraction of that and also results in lost business to Seattle’s rival to the south.

      1. We have a working waterfront, just a few feet to the south. It’s designed for today’s needs. The 19th-century linear-model “working waterfront is now obsolete.

        The old piers now need to be maximally utilized for mixed commercial/recreational purposes, rather than minimized as a shrine to brick and grass.

    2. Like the newer apartment buildings built near Lake City Way in the Lake City neighborhood. I was looking for a place for one my elders to live, but came up short. Nice concrete sidewalks built in front of each building — but not connected to anything but street pavement at each end. What good is 100 feet of sidewalk there if you can’t walk safely to Lake City Way or to Fred Meyer?

      1. I thought about this when I was out running Saturday. I’ve wanted to run or bike down the SODO trail for a while, just because I like checking out new trails and paths. But it’s so poorly connected to other good pedestrian and bike infrastructure that it’s really not all that useful. And it doesn’t solve any of the real problems with pedestrian and bike infrastructure in SODO.

        But… since there is a trail, and a bike lane on Royal Brougham (that ends just short of the trail), and two pedestrian/bike bridges over the Duwamish (Spokane St and 1st Ave S), we can easily state our needs. “We need to improve the quality of the pedestrian and bike connections between the north end of the SODO trail to Pioneer Square and the International District.” “We need to create a quality cycling route from the current south end of the SODO trail to the Spokane Street viaduct, and then on to the 1st Ave S Bridge.” In many cases the fact that we have something built already makes the next steps easier to envision.

        100 feet of sidewalk, by itself, sucks (just like a couple isolated miles of bike path sucks)… but it’s at least the start of a network, and illustrates the need to complete the network.

      2. +1, Al. And given the rate we’re building new pedestrian infrastructure, the presence of *any* sidewalk network helps, by giving us pieces to connect together. Even if we’re building 100′ at a time, at least we’re building something.

  5. The U.S. Postal Service also divvies up Boston. And every other city, town. and region. On a six day per week basis. They cover every address. The USPS goes from every address to every address. In the world. I thought this to be a somewhat goofy article. Rather pointless to me. Really. The USPS has been there and is still doing it. Though recently losing money, for obvious reasons, the USPS logistics are second to none in my opinion.

    I am sure many will argue, but, a somewhat goofy article, to me.

Comments are closed.