Infrastructures of Mobility and Design Agency beyond the City. In MONU #19 –  Greater Urbanism, with Emily Goldman
At the advent of the 20th century, the potent combination of the power of electricity and the strength of steel warped the fabric of the traditional city. Through street cars, the spatial limits of the city expanded horizontally, creating new dispersed patterns. Concurrently, elevators and steel frames pushed the city upwards to unprecedented levels of density. Together these technologies created the modern metropolis with its hyper-dense core and hyper-diffused edges.

Transit was the structuring force for urbanism as it ordered relationships space and time within the city.  But this was a short lived situation as it was quickly superseded by the car and the rise of individual automobility. In the postwar period, cars displaced transit as society’s primary medium of mobility and initiated a cycle of decline for mass transit. By the 1970s the modern metropolis had sprawled and mutated into the new regional “megapoli.” In as much as late 20th century cities were “designed,” they were designed for the car and by the car.

The geographic dispersal of suburban living, employment and leisure led to a new pattern: a low-density meshwork that enveloped a weakened historical core. Contemporary conurbations ooze in every direction, spreading across political jurisdictions – old hierarchies of center and periphery are no longer valid.

This reality presents challenges for transit systems which have always been literally and conceptually tethered to a center. This diagram offered predictability: systems could easily expand outwards (into inexpensive territory, easy rights of way) and they could rely the density and desirability of the core to drive ridership.

As the “routine actions” of our daily lives are dispersed geographically, mobility, which was once regarded as a luxury, is now essential to creating a more economically and ecologically sustainable city. To address this, municipal governments in particular are leading the drive to expand and evolve transit systems, but they do so within a new set of political and economic realities.

Municipal governments are finding their agency severely curbed by the fact that the lifestyle territory they are hoping to ameliorate expands far beyond their (physical and geographic) limits of power. Concurrently, tense political realities have placed similar curbs on the agency of designers as NIMBY’s and other entrenched interests box them in.

TOD of not TOD?
One response to these challenges that has gained vocal support from a movement of designers, government agents, lobbyists and activists is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), which they contend is the antidote to sprawl. They aim to direct urban development towards more density and transit and to provide more walkable and sustainable communities.

But how successful are their proposals? Are their concepts well suited to the realities of contemporary urbanism? This essay will critically reappraise the core concepts of the TOD movement, and outline a set of alternative approaches for designers based on concepts of scenario, itinerary and interface.