Cities and Cities
November 7, 2021 8:32 AM   Subscribe

Why Tokyo Works - "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation."[1,2,3] (via)

"The automobile has dissolved the living tissue of the city. Its appetite for space is absolutely insatiable; moving & parked, it devours urban land, leaving buildings as mere islands of habitable space in a sea of dangerous & ugly traffic." —James Marston Fitch, NY Times, 1960

Where growth went: How different cities answered America's urban rebound - "The more charts you look at, the more Portland's stands out."[4,5]

Microcities - "Michael Eliason has a great piece (hosted at David Roberts' substack) describing the kind of experiments with the urban built environment that are common in parts of Europe but unheard of the in United States."[6,7]
It should be noted that these developments are largely the result of urban planning competitions. This is in stark contrast to the US, where we incorporate little to no urban planning and essentially let the market drive development, with no forethought to livability, open space, schools, walkability, and so forth.

Citizen participation is also a major component of these projects. Unlike in the US, this participation isn’t a wasteful exercise whereby local homeowners get to block new homes and preserve the status quo. Rather, these processes allow residents to have a say in what their new district can look like, where things should be located, and what kinds of open space or car-free areas it will have. It is true democratic planning, facilitated by spatial planning policies that are both top-down and bottom-up. We should probably take note.
posted by kliuless (14 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
With adequate mass transit you can build a lot more density.

Here where I'm living in California the traffic is just getting worse and worse since the transit infrastructure isn't keeping pace with the housing expansion, such as it is.

I lived in West LA 1985-1992 which was reasonably dense (and generally parking-constrained due to sky-high land values) but was in my 20s with just a bicycle and limited my sphere of movement to the 1 - 2 miles of Westwood. (It was a good life)

Emigrated to Tokyo 1992-2000 and never even thought of getting a car. But I did move to be within walking distance of the main expat grocery store, which added $300/mo to my rent I guess.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 9:00 AM on November 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

where the rich use public transportation

And kids as well, unaccompanied. And as for the rich, the reason all the trains in Japan are so good is the rich use them for long-distance too, unlike (for example) Amtrak.
posted by Rash at 9:05 AM on November 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Everything zoning the Anglo world has done has been in the name of segregation. We have a single family house on 1.7 acres that's less than a third of a mile from the town center. I can't do anything with it to help solve the housing problem. The town is basically "KEEp THE CHARacTEr OF ThE nEiGhbourhooD" which is basically code for no poors and as little black people as possible. Put a multi-family dwelling out the back? Nope. Expand the carriage house into a small studio which we could let out for cheap? Nope. Can I even setup something to run a business and receive customers? Fuck no!

I could apply for permission to put down an MDU but I would need 5(!) acres of land, two hundred and fifty linear feet of frontage (!) in front of a state numbered highway (!) or 60 feet of right-of-way (!). How the fuck is any normal person supposed to meet that? Short answer: they're not supposed to. Because this is New England and in New England when we have land that's not useful we're supposed to make giant lawns and a little bit of forest.

Colonialism basically ruins everything.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:08 AM on November 7, 2021 [29 favorites]

"A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation."

That really is an fantastic pull quote.

And speaking of public transport, here's what's in the just passed U.S. Infrastructure bill:
The package would provide $39 billion to modernize public transit, according to the bill text. That's less than the $85 billion that Biden initially wanted to invest in modernizing transit systems and help them expand to meet rider demand.
The funds would repair and upgrade existing infrastructure, make stations accessible to all users, bring transit service to new communities and modernize rail and bus fleets, including replacing thousands of vehicles with zero-emission models, according to the White House.
The deal would also invest $66 billion in passenger and freight rail, according to the bill text. The funds would eliminate Amtrak's maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor line and bring rail service to areas outside the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, according to the White House. Included in the package is $12 billion in partnership grants for intercity rail service, including high-speed rail.
The funding is less than the $80 billion Biden originally wanted to send to Amtrak, which he relied upon for decades to get home to Delaware from Washington, DC.
Still, it would be the largest federal investment in public transit in history and in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago, according to the White House.
posted by gwint at 10:01 AM on November 7, 2021 [11 favorites]

It's where the rich use public transportation.

I will forever remember working a city's giant New Year's Eve event some years ago that had around 30 different stages with a shuttle bus that would take attendees between them. Two very obviously well off people in their 50s or 60s wearing expensive furs were my fellow passengers at one point and one remarked to the other, "I don't think I've ever been glad for public transportation before."
posted by Candleman at 10:05 AM on November 7, 2021

This is one of those threads where I feel compelled to recommend Robert Caro's book The Power Broker, Robert Caro's book about Robert Moses and how his near-total control over NYC metro area infrastructure construction during the middle of the 20th century profoundly influenced the city and the people in it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:58 AM on November 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Living on the North lakefront in Chicago is kind of an interesting experience.

I don't drive and haven't in almost 25 years now. I've made extensive use of public transit in three countries - Canada, USA and UK. All have been okay with various different twists and turns but the differences between countries is tiny compared to differences I experience using public in Chicago within just a few blocks.

I joke that the buses along the lakefront in Chicago are like giant multi-person limousines. You have express buses and regular buses. The frequency is high. The customer base is very well off and mostly either work commuters going to the Loop and back or people going out for evening entertainment. You sometimes even get people clearly heading to things like the Opera or Art Show openings in their finest clothes and furs.

Then if you go just one block away from the Lakefront and take the bus it is a wildly different experience with wildly different customers. The SES plummets almost instantly. Service takes a dive. There are no express buses and the buses are extremely stop and go and constantly stuck in traffic and off schedule. The route coverage is still pretty excellent and I personally don't mind it that much but the drop in service quality and the near complete absence of middle class or higher people as soon as your are not on a lakefront bus is just so.....stark.
posted by srboisvert at 2:38 PM on November 7, 2021 [7 favorites]

Also the Northside lakefront bus lines are the among the highest ridership lines in the city.
posted by srboisvert at 2:41 PM on November 7, 2021

I lost track of the number of times I sat next to someone on the train in Japan whose wristwatch could have been traded straight up for a perfectly serviceable car.

Just the insurance and taxes on my cars here in the US are a decent fraction of what my train fare used to be in Japan and that’s the base cost before I even drive a mile.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 5:05 PM on November 7, 2021

@BrentToderian: "when Seoul, Korea removed the Cheonggyecheon expressway in 2003 & replaced it with a restored stream & 1000 acre park in the city's centre, not only did it transform the city's public life & economic success, but the traffic got better."
posted by kliuless at 6:59 PM on November 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

The main link is an interesting article, which is honestly sort of a surprise coming from Metropolis, which, like the city of Tokyo itself, its own little story of gentrification.

Metropolis is essentially the free English magazine in Tokyo, and it got its start far in the distant past under the name Tokyo Classified, and, as the name suggests, it was mostly a free magazine mostly made up of want adds, for sale notices, personals ads, language exchange notices, and concert listings. I still use the same bed frame I bought through the magazine a depressingly long time ago. It was a mainstay of English teacher in Japan life, until a while back, they rebranded as Metropolis, going overnight from a weekly rag listing the top cheap eats, or places to travel on a budget to a glossy magazine hawking luxury goods to wealthy expats. As far as I know, the classified ads still live on in a vestigial sense, but it's been years since I picked up a copy (and, yeah, also a long time since I've been to places where it's available).

The thing is, and this was largely left out of the article, the magazine's gentrification reflects what's happening in the city. Yes, rents and mortgages are still incredibly low, largely in part to a move to block AirBnB (as far as I understand the recently enacted laws, short term rentals are only allowed if you own the property outright, and condo associations here are generally powerful enough to keep people from buying a condo to rent out). Instead of tons of apartments and houses being hollowed out for short-term rentals, tiny hotels have sprung up all over the city, and, as soon as tourism opens up, they'll be full again.

Yet, the city is changing, being torn down and rebuilt all around us. Akihabara is a shell of what it used to be, most of the small shops that gave it its cache have been razed, and yet more of the shiny steel and glass high rises take up most of the area around the station. Shibuya is just coming out of several years of construction to reveal its new face, an expensive playground for the wealthy, complete with a shopping mall/food court complex built over a park with of the cities oldest and largest homeless encampments. Metropolis, along with a number of other publications, gave rave reviews to the commercial complex, highlighting the new park on the roof of the complex which has gates and closes at night. I don't remember hearing any of the PR pieces masquerading as journalism mentioning if anything was done for the homeless, or if (most likely) they were just told they couldn't stay there.

This is the new Tokyo. Areas praised for their culture or personality attract developers and speculators, the area is razed, and the same shiny buildings are built, holding the same luxury brand stores for the same segment of society that can afford them. The apartments along Omotesando, holdovers from postwar housing scarcity, yet emblematic of the area were among the first to go (second, after Roppogi, really), replaced by Omotesando Hills, the initial commercial tumor in the cancer that's effectively killed Harajuku. Tsukiji was raised, ostensibly, for a transport hub for the Olympics. Now that they are over, I'll bet a shiny 500 yen coin with anyone who wants that it's a matter of time before the area is luxury condos overlooking the Hamariku Gardens and the Sumida river. Plans are underway to put some of the highways built for the 68 Olympics underground, allowing for the rivers that have sat in their shadows back into the light. The plans that I've seen so far for the Nihombashi area is a riverwalk for, essentially the wealthy, filled with high end restaurants and shops.

A little further south, the curbside bars and plastic crates for tables on the streets izakayas of Yurakucho (site of more than one MeFite meetup) are fading away, while just south of them, under the tracks, there's an (that word again) upscale recreation of them, complete with "public" toilets only available to paying customers, and prices far, far beyond the cheap eats and drinks the area was famous for.

There still are some parts of Tokyo that haven't been razed for the Mori Building Co, but at this point, it's a matter of time. The new PM is paying lip service to working on wealth disparity, but the hard truth is that the minimum wage is just barely $10, and most workers' salaries haven't gone up in half a decade while luxury brands are posting record sales. High end car dealers are selling out their stock while the average restaurant worker in the city makes just a little over $1100/month.

The city does work, and yes, public transportation is a huge part of it. Increasingly, though, there are two cities, and Metropolis and most of the other media here (English language or in Japanese) long ago realized which part of the city has the cash.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:02 PM on November 7, 2021 [15 favorites]

Is Shimokitazawa still cool, or has that been gentrified to death as well?
posted by acb at 7:58 AM on November 10, 2021

It seems to be still cool, but the powers that be are busy ramming a highway through it, and from what I can tell, it’s pretty much in the stage where parent companies and investor backed shops are starting to open their shops there. I give it three more years before it’s starting to look like (current) Harajuku.

Not that I’m any kind of arbiter of cool (I live in Chiba and am old, I had cool surgically removed by mandate), but Kichijoji, Koenji, and, oddly, Asakusabashi and the area around the Sumida is supposed to be the as of yet not spoiled hot shit.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:45 PM on November 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

As if things weren't as bleak as they needed to be, in the last week or so, there's been an announcement floating around (sadly, TimeOut has the only English version I've seen, filled with their trademark gushing about any new place to go shopping for the same old shit) that Yoyogi park (and Meiji park) will be getting a "Green Makeover."

Somehow this means building a shopping complex in Yoyogi park, which, once again is taking a free to use public space and turning it into a yet another commercial experience.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:41 PM on November 17, 2021

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