Mike Lindblom wrote a pretty decent story on the idea of gondolas in Seattle. Unfortunately the headline touts the gondola as a solution to a “traffic mess,” which plays into the narrative of transit as a means to improve the flow of car traffic. Most of us view transit as a way out of auto dependence, not a way of making our car commute faster. Nevertheless, the article gave fair play to what might seem like an outlandish mode of travel for Seattleites.20130219-115049.jpg

But there’s another big issue for innovative transit solutions like gondolas: supply and demand. In order to create the demand that would support lots of transit innovation, we need to aggregate that demand geographically. That means dense, compact development patterns.

I’ve pointed out before that when we disperse demand, we end up increasing the costs to operate transit, a cost soaked up by government subsidy. When we have lots of people in one place, it’s more efficient and cost effective to get them where they need to go and back again.

I love the gondola idea. But if we’re going to create more transit supply (which can be expensive to build), we need to work on the demand side too. Seattle and the surrounding region has a tendency to forget that while modes are important (BRT, light rail, monorails, gondolas etc), there must be adequate, dense demand to make them competitive with driving.

With housing, we fuss about price while at the same time, restricting supply – we need to do the opposite. With transit, we’d also have better outcomes for affordability if we allowed more density. In the case of housing, increased supply has a salutary effect on price, while in the case of transit, an increase in demand has a similar salutary effect.

Density solves the demand problem for transit, concentrating it in fewer places, creating efficiencies and even competition between modes and innovative solutions (think about all the car sharing going on for profit!)

Gondolas in Seattle? Absolutely! But don’t forget the density.

11 Replies to “Housing and Transit: Supply and Demand Works for Transit Too”

  1. Pretty much. You could do something like a gondola cheaply if you allowed significant height increases along the route as part of an LID.

  2. I see what you mean, but the word “density” as a rallying cry is extremely misleading. The word has been ruined and doesn’t mean anything. You can have terrible suburban housing developments in Kent that might econometrically pencil out as ‘density’, but are patently anti-urban, or effective vertical suburbs that might be built high, but contribute nothing to an environment people actually want to live in.

    Too many people today conflate density with height. Real interactive density can be better achieved by other means. “Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities,” writes McMahon. “But no we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.” Neighborhoods like Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and the Fan in Richmond were largely built before the age of elevators and they are all dense. New Orleans’ “French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.” The real issue isn’t just height and the massing of people and work, but of enabling interaction and recombination.

    1. I hate this argument. It comes down to:

      A “There are lots of ways to create density that don’t look like modern density! Look at all this stuff in the past.”

      B “Does that stuff pencil out today?”

      A “Well, no…”

      B “Okay, will you help with the regulatory changes to make that stuff pencil again, like removing parking minimums?”

      A “Don’t take away my parking!!!!!”

      The phrase “vertical suburbs” is meaningless, too. Right now, limiting height limits density. Without actually championing specific, actionable changes to, say, replace parking levels with residential levels, height is how we get density.

  3. How about we offer height increases in exchange for providing a station in the building, or subsidizing the transit line?

  4. I disagree.

    Transit and density are inversely proportionate.

    A wide transit system can allow for building in low cost areas while avoiding the social costs of traffic and pollution.

    1. It can, yeah. If you don’t spend any public money on subsidizing cars. No free roads, no free parking. Otherwise, when you build those “low cost areas”, because your destinations are so dispersed, transit isn’t competitive.

  5. Disagree about the headline. It reads not as suggesting a gondola could be “a means to improve the flow of car traffic,” but rather as suggesting that it could—like any public transit given dedicated right-of-way—offer a congestion-free solution for those on-board in a way the 8 never will. I’ve railed against the Times’ transit headlines in this past, but this one is fine.

    1. The problem with the Times article is that it’s misleading – it paints a gondola in a good light, while they ignore the real transit work on the table.

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