Holiday Book Recommendations Open Thread

Some of us at Streetsblog headquarters were talking about putting together a sidebar listing of recommended books to reinforce the commentary you find on the blog. I put together a few brief recommendations of five of my favorites, but we’re also interested in learning what you’ve all been reading and what you’d suggest to others, so treat this as an open thread on livable streets-related books now that we’re in the midst of the holiday gift-buying season.

Here are five books that really got my attention as I’ve been thinking about transportation policy, land use planning and public space. This list is nothing but one man’s opinion.

3844220.gif1) Transportation for Livable Cities by Vukan R. Vuchic (Center for Urban Policy Research, 1999) Why is the result of adding an HOV lane to an existing highway completely different than converting an existing regular lane into an HOV lane? Vuchic’s look at transportation planning is detailed enough to make the distinction clear. More generally, he notes the difference between the variable, or per-trip, costs of driving versus the fixed costs of car ownership, which don’t change regardless of how many trips one takes, and why we should care about the difference: The greater the proportion of fixed costs (such as annual or monthly insurance and lease payments) to variable costs (gasoline and tolls), the more one who has already purchased a car is likely to use it as much as possible. The more an individual trip costs, the more one will think about not making it, or making it a different way. The same applies to transit, of course, which explains why the monthly unlimited MetroCard is a more monumental innovation than it might seem. Vuchic’s thesis is that transportation planning in the United States has counted on the car being the solution to every transportation problem, rather than as one important element of a well-integrated multi-modal transportation system.

9574001.gif2) The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald C. Shoup (American Planning Association, 2005) This is a companion to Transportation for Livable Cities. Both books look at how standard U.S. transportation and land use practices subtly manipulate fees so as to serve drivers at the expense of everyone else, whether their cars are in motion (Vuchic) or at rest (Shoup). One of the largest variable costs of driving is parking fees, but outside of New York, parking is nearly always free to the driver! Instead, costs of supplying parking are paid by developers, a cost that filters down to shoppers, office workers, residents, museum visitors, etc., regardless of whether they use the parking or not. Despite the title, though, this book isn’t really about free parking so much as it is about zoning codes that require a minimum amount of parking for each land use, and a condemnation of the way those numbers are arrived at (i.e., arbitrarily). Discussions of the esoteric aspects of zoning code sounds like a snoozer? Well, the result is that parking is subsidized to the point of being free, and you’d be a fool not to use it. "Cities insist on ample off-street parking for every land use," he writes. "As a result, most of us drive almost everywhere we go." His contention is that free parking promotes sprawl and disinvestment in cities, and I think he’s on to something.

7064985.gif3) Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950 by Robert M. Fogelson (Yale, 2001) "By the time my father began to practice law in the mid 1920s," Fogelson writes, "most Americans went downtown to work. And not only to work, but also to shop, to do business, and to amuse themselves." Then that changed as Fogelson traces the history of dispersion out of cities of housing, then stores, then even offices. He describes in detail the series of decisions made to rip up streetcar tracks in city after city and divert funding from subways to highways in the first half of the 20th century. This long history puts the recent past into perspective. "Nowhere in urban America is downtown coming back as the only business district, as it was in the late nineteenth century, or even as the paramount and virtually unrivaled business district, as it was in the early twentieth. The almighty downtown of the past is gone — and gone for good. And it has been gone much longer than most Americans realize."

8669778.gif4) South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City by Jill Jonnes (Fordham, 2002) In fairness, it wasn’t just the automobile, highways and availability of cheap gasoline that caused America’s urban exodus. At least in the Bronx, a lot of the people who fled did so begrudgingly, and after being pushed out by high crime and other factors as much as lured out by the promise of the suburbs. In a captivating look at New York’s nadir in the 1970s, Jonnes introduces many characters from the time and describes the myriad factors that led to the destruction by fire of an enormous swath of a once beloved place — not just the Bruckner elevated expressway, but also bank redlining, a lack of owner-occupied dwellings and public housing policy that put arson victims at the front of the waiting list for housing regardless of whether they might also be the arson perpetrators. In all, the book is a portrait of a time when people thought cities were obsolete and the term "planned shrinkage" was actually something people talked about.

11940646.gif5) The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) An alarming look at a future characterized by resource depletion, high energy costs, global warming, and a radical restructuring of the way Americans organize their economic lives, all related to the overuse of the automobile from an upstater who has previously weighed in on, and condemned, suburban sprawl. Schadenfreude-tinged alarmism, yes, but it draws people’s attention to the connection between land use patterns and energy consumption.

A few books I didn’t include. This short list is woefully incomplete.

  • Any officially sanctioned Streetsblog recommended reading list will have to include the work of the brilliant William H. Whyte, whom I’ve omitted only because I don’t happen to have any of his books lying around at the moment.
  • I omitted works by Jane Jacobs and Robert Caro as being too obvious.
  • I would have included The Urban Naturalist, a book of essays and exercises designed to increase one’s spiritual connection with urban places and written by my fiancee, but it isn’t actually published yet.
  • Unfortunately, I didn’t have space to include an entry on the best anti-road rage haiku collection ever published.

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