The Automobile, The Elevator and The World Bank

Panel of mobility experts at the Annual World Bank SDN Conference. Photo by Matt Kroneberger.

A panel of mobility experts speak to land use and transport at the annual World Bank SDN Conference. Photo by Matt Kroneberger.

Roger Gorham of the World Bank kicked off last week’s Annual Sustainable Development Network panel on sustainable transport with a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright, “The outcome of the city will depend upon the race between the automobile and the elevator—and anyone who bets on the elevator is crazy.” The cart leading the horse in planning today is all too often that of the suburb and the proverbial horse, its natural partner: the automobile. Right bet correctly on the urban milieu.

Putting the present sprawl in context globally, we should take a quick look at Los Angeles.

Contrary to popular belief, LA was not built on the freeway, it was built on transit. A lot of it. The Pacific Electric Railway once had a range of 40 miles inland from the Pacific, and yet now cars are the predominant mode amongst the 15-million inhabitants of LA County, who and experience the 2nd worst commute (Washingtonians have the first) in America.

Henry Huntington, a Gilded Age millionaire, first drove LA’s transit oriented development (TOD) into the orange fields, populated by citrus not citizens. After the trains, the deluge of new people and new homes began: built-in transit oriented development (TOD). Only later due to policy failures, paired with lack of gilded age investments in transit, did the freeways come and the trains rust.

TOD, where it does exist today, would be charming (if not infantile) to Huntington. A single story McDonald’s above heavy rail or even a Target next to a busy station doesn’t mean much when this is on the same block.  In the developing world, will local leaders make use of land and modern technology and leap forward to sustainable land use built around transport?

Elevators v Automobiles: The Race Continues 

Today, we lack Huntingtons, but have planners to create transit-centric communities instead. The problem is capacity. “I don’t recommend it,” noted  MIT Professor Emeritus Ralph Gakhenheimer of integrated transport and land use planning, “and it is the hardest topic out there.” This dispersion was only partly in gest, but captured just how difficult meshing the planning process with transport access is in the contemporary age.

Robin King, Director of Urban Development and Accessibility at EMBARQ, spoke to the difficulties that the most essential unit of transport – the pedestrian – endures with ever widening, auto-oriented roads that make way for ever increasing traffic.  Why is it that we don’t plan for pedestrians? Gakhenheimer’s capacity concerns are part of the problem, but King gave a more realpolitik view. In developing cities, she noted, the people in the cars have more sway with elected officials.

Today, the race is on in middle-income countries, where the formerly poor are eeking into the middle class, and thereby car ownership. How do we actively apply lessons from the developed world’s past failures with density to the developing world’s present? Can we build our way out by building up? Only with policy priorities made by national governments, we can hope that the cart of sprawl does not continue to lead the century-old horseless carriage that is the private automobile.


About Matt Kroneberger

Recent graduate of UCLA in Political Science and Geography - Environment. Fascinated by and active in sustainable transportation, infrastructure, politics and international development.
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