Category Archives: Transportation

The shopping center paradox

I had a simple (or not so simple) planning problem I liked to pose to students. You’re planning for a currently undeveloped area on the edge of a large city. The area is expected to see significant urban development over the next few decades. The extent of the development is such that you can anticipate a demand for a major retail center to serve the area. This could be a traditional mall, as in the past, or a new life-style center, or some other type of major retail development. The problem is to select the location for this development.

Now for the details. The area is the flat, featureless plain of location theory, so nothing in the topography would favor any location. The area is served by two major transportation arteries, which could be major arterials, freeways, or rail transport. One extends out from the city through the area that will see future development (say north and south). The other transport artery runs perpendicular to the first through the middle of the area where growth is expected to occur (east and west).

So now, where to locate the retail land use? The immediate, obvious answer is at the intersections of the two transportation arteries (with some of the students rolling their eyes wondering why I had even bothered posing such a trivially obvious problem). Correct!

Except not necessarily complete. The intersection of the two transportation arteries creates four corners or quadrants. In which one should the shopping center be located? Now we’re raising a whole host of new questions: In making a plan, how general or specific can or should one be with respect to specifying such a location? What about when you move to regulating development with a zoning ordinance? Do you choose a corner? What if the owner of land on one of the other corners comes in and says that they want to develop a shopping center? Or do you just allow the shopping center development for whomever asks first?

Each time, the discussion would veer in different directions. But it always provoked thinking about the complexities, uncertainties, and limitations in planning.


Nearly everything involves tradeoffs

Those who advocate for urban futures typically describe an ideal urban environment that will be superior to current urban areas. I think they are missing two important facts in doing so. One is that people are different and have different preferences. An urban environment that best meets the needs of one person will fail to be ideal for someone else. The second thing that is seldom addressed is that in making choices about the urban environment (and many other things), nearly every choice involves making tradeoffs among competing objectives. I’ll give a few examples of the latter.

The most commonly considered tradeoff, at least among urban economists, is that between accessibility to the center and space that is the foundation of the standard monocentric model. People can reduce transportation costs by choosing a residence closer to the center or they can have more space for the residence by living farther away. But the tradeoff with space involves not only costs of commuting to the center. There is a tradeoff between having a walkable neighborhood with multiple destinations within walking distance and space for the residence as well. This must be the case because higher residential densities can support higher densities of commercial and other activities. In lower-density areas, commercial activities will be more widely spaced to achive sufficient markets.

In the design of street patterns for residential areas, a tradeoff exists between connectivity and restricting through traffic. High street connectivity supports walkability (though there are other ways of achieving this as well) while restricting through traffic with cul du sacs and curving streets may increase safety, especially for smaller children. I discussed this in an earlier blog post.

Another transportation tradeoff involves the use of streets. Space for lanes used for motor vehicle traffic can be converted for dedicated transit use or bicycle lanes. This achieves very laudable objectives. But it also can slow automobile travel and increase congestion. Political conflict associated with making such tradeoffs can be very real. Los Angeles had reduced the number of traffic lanes in one section of the city to increase safety, including by the addition of bike lanes. This produced an outcry among both motorists and businesses in the area, led to lawsuits, and ultimately to a restoration of the traffic lanes.

Limiting the physical expansion of an urban area to reduce sprawl can achieve worthwhile objectives. But given the laws of supply and demand, reducing the supply of developable land may lead to higher housing prices. This might be ameliorated by other regulatory policies, but those too will involve yet more tradeoffs.

Los Angeles, utopia or dystopia?

As Los Angeles and Southern California began to grow by attracting large numbers from elsewhere in the United States, its environment and opportunities were sometimes characterized as being a utopia. More recently, as a range of problems have developed and increased, some have described the area as a dystopia. Obviously Southern California is not, and never has been, either. Rather, it has become a great example of the importance of making tradeoffs among competing objectives.

A major contributor to the idea of Los Angeles and Southern California as a utopia has been, of course, the natural environment. The year-round sunny climate is really very nice–especially if you left Indiana when it was 6 degrees F. and snowing! The Pacific Ocean and the nearby mountains contribute scenic beauty and abundament recreational opportunities. One time we literally went cross-country skiing in the morning, returned to Irvine, and went to the beach in the afternoon.

As the area was developing, abundant economic opportunities were available to the newcomers as well. With the capturing of water resources, agriculture was a profitable endeavor. Citrus growing was especially important–it wasn’t called Orange County for nothing. Industries were established that benefited from the good weather and sunshine, first the motion picture industry and later the aircraft industry. More industry followed both because of the growing market and the expanding labor force. And there are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But the extremely large numbers of people pouring into the area created problems as well. Greater Los Angeles/Southern Califoria has grown to have a population of over 18 million. I am considering this to include Los Angeles and Orange Counties (the Los Angeles MSA), Riverside and San Bernardino Counties (the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA) and Ventura County (the Oxnard MSA).

Los Angeles is well-known for its notoriously poor air quality, the smog that is some of the worst in the county. High motor vehicle use combined with a topography and climate that can trap pollutants creates this problem (though it must be said that air quality is far, far better than at its nadir in the 1960s as a result of aggressive regulation). The automobile traffic also produces tremendous congestion on the freeways.

Continued population growth combined with the failure to expand the supply of housing at the same rate has led to very high housing prices. Barriers to the construction of more housing have been regulatory, physical (the mountains and the ocean), and sheer distance, as the barriers have channeled development farther and farther from the heart of the metropolitan area. And the high housing prices have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of homeless persons.

Economic opportunities are fewer as well. Like other areas with significant manufacturing, jobs in this sector have been lost in recent decades. The problem was exacerbated in the aerospace and defense industry, which was negatively impacted by the end of the Cold War. Also on the the economic side, California is a high-tax state.

So what about the tradeoffs? During much of the last century, large numbers migrated to Southern California from elsewhere in the United States as the advantages were seen to outweigh the negatives. But their coming contributed to the growth of the problems. At some point, the growing disadvantages have come to slightly outweight the benefits, at least for some U.S. residents. From 2010 to 2015, net migration between Southern California and the rest of the U.S. was 225,000 out of the region. This was more than made up by the positive net international migration of over 370,000, however.

Why the differences between domestic and international migration? Domestic movers are giving greater weight to the problems. International migrants value the positives more highly, likely especially continued economic opportunity. And remember that even among those moving within the United States, this is net migration. People are still moving to Southern California. These movers presumably value the benefits, whether the physical environment or specific economic opportunities or something else, more highly than the problems. Those leaving, on the other hand, are saying good riddance to the smog, congestion, and high housing prices, which they feel have come to outweigh the climate, mountains, and ocean.

Most choices involve tradeoffs. The standard monocentric model of urban location has residents selecting a residence trading off accessibility to the center (lower transportation costs) with more space.

Segregation of land uses is not new

A great deal of (negative) attention has been devoted to the segregation of land uses in newly developed suburban areas in recent decades. The critique is that the development of exclusively residential neighborhoods and the segregation of commercial activities reduces opportunities for walking, requiring increased automobile use. This is sometimes portrayed as a recent phenomenon, bought on by the widespread use of the automobile.

Some perspective is in order, however. Land use segregation is hardly a product of the latter part of the 20th century. The original cause was not the use of the automobile (though transportation was critical). Rather, the initial separation of land uses in American cities dates to the 19th century.

The pre-industrial walking city at the start of the 19th century had very limited separation of different land uses. Given that interaction was limited by reasonable walking distance, different activities just could not be located that far apart.

As the industrial city emerged in the 19th centure, this changed as enterprises sought to capture the advantages of economies of scale and was made possible by improvements in transportation within the city. First the omnibus, then the horsecar, and then electric streetcars and mass transit increased the distances people could travel to work and shop. Factories increased in size and formed increasingly large industrial areas. Larger enterprises required management by concentrations of office workers. The department store emerged to provide a previously unseen variety of goods to shoppers from throughout the urban area. The offices, department stores, and related retail formed the new central business districts, another area of largely segregated land uses.

Of course not all types of establishments saw these increases in scale in the 19th century. For grocery stores, the changes came later. But this was the start of increasing sizes of enterprises, made possible by improvements in transportation, forming areas of segregated land use.

Transportation and “catalog” retailing

The last post discussed the role of urban transportation improvements leading to the development of the department store in the late nineteenth century. And of course the role of the automobile in shaping retail developments in the twentieth century is obvious. This got me thinking about the role of transportation (and communication) improvements in the evolution of retailing where the customer orders goods from a remote vendor and those goods are delivered to the customer.

We tend to think of modern developments such as e-commerce as novel developments. However, I’m going to start again in the late nineteenth century. But first, a brief excursion into the pros and cons of this type of purchase from the standpoint of the consumer. The major advantage is the selection of goods available, the ability to purchase things that are not available in local retail establishments, along with the convenience of being able to purchase the merchandise without having to travel to a store. The major cons are the inability to physically view the items to be purchased and the delay associated with the need for delivery, the lack of the instant gratification associated with physical purchase. Both introduce some uncertainties into the transaction. I am not mentioning price. The vendor saves money by not having brick-and-mortar stores, but this will be offset at least to some extent by the costs of shipping. This could go either way.

The mail-order catalog business emerged in the late nineteenth century with the major vendors being Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The retailers made available a variety of merchandise to residents of rural areas that they otherwise would have been unable to acquire. The development of the railroads along with express freight services and parcel post to deliver the merchandise was undoubtedly a prerequisite. On the communications side, regular reliable mail service had been available for some time. But this mail-order business also required the development of printing technology that enabled production of the catalogs at a reasonable cost. (I don’t know just when this threshold may have been crossed, but I seriously doubt that Ben Franklin could have printed large numbers of Sears catalogs economically.) Just as transportation improvements enabled the rise of the general mail-order catalog, widespread use of the automobile made physical stores accessible to rural residents and led to its decline.

Another wave of remote shopping expanded in the second half of the twentieth century with the growth of specialized catalog shopping with telphone ordering, ranging from clothing (Lands End, L.L. Bean, etc.) to gourmet foods (Dean & Deluca). The attraction to the consumer was access to a wider selection and to specialized goods they could not purchase locally. Some improvements to delivery services helped. UPS did far better than the very long delivery times the post office provided, especially in the past. The role of improvements in communication should not be discounted. Toll-free 800 numbers made the calls free. I imagine customers would not have relished the idea of paying the expensive long-distance charges of the past to make purchases. Again, I don’t know at what point the costs of high-quality color printing for catalogs became reasonable, especially since they send out huge numbers. But it does seem that I saw a lot less color printing in the mid-twentieth century. These catalog retailers also innovated to minimize the risks associated with remote purchasing, offering no-questions-asked returns if something didn’t fit or even if you just didn’t like it.

We finally get to today’s e-commerce. It is noteworthy that Amazon started with books, which have two features favoring this model. First, for any given author and title, all books are the same. There is not the guessing that would be involved in choosing among several green sweaters. And second, with books, the breadth of selection is everything. No brick-and-mortar bookstore can possibly approach the inventory of an online retailer. Amazon and the other online retailers also adopted the policies of the catalog retailers (now, of course, also online) with easy returns and high levels of customer service. Zappos has no problem with your ordering multiple pairs of shoes in order to pick the one pair you want and send the others back.

Obviously the World Wide Web was the innovation on the communications side, making both obtaining informtion on available items and ordering quick and easy. And on the transportation side, the expansion of e-commerce is driving improvements in delivery services, with 2-day and even 1-day delivery becoming commonplace without excessive charges. This, of course, reduces the penalty of having to wait for delivery. Indeed, considering the likelihood of a lag between wanting to purchase an item and having the time to go out to a store, online ordering may be quicker.

Given the rapid developments in e-commerce and speedy delivery, we may be seeing only the first stages in the effects on physical retailers and therefore our urban areas.

Transportation and economies of scale in retailing

The automobile may be blamed for the evolution of big-box retailers, but the effect of improvements to intraurban transportation on retailing began much earlier. This can be seen clearly with the development of the department store in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

In the walking city of the early nineteenth century, most urban residents could only move around on foot. This necessarily limited the distances they could travel and the amounts of goods they could carry. Stores tended to be small and rather limited.

Transportation improvements–horsecars, cable cars, electric streetcars, and more–dramatically increased mobility in urban areas. Cities greatly expanded as residents took advantage of the greater ease of travel. Going to the developing central business districts several miles away became feasible.

A larger number of potential customers could travel to a store located in the downtown area, creating a greater market. This allowed the emergence of the modern department store carrying a far larger range of goods with greater selections. More volume provided greater economies of scale to the store in the sale of its merchandise. But these were also economies of scale from the perspective of their customers, who benefited from the convenience, wider selection, and lower prices.

Coming to shop at the department stores via public transportation did have one limitation, however. Customers purchasing large numbers of items or very large items could find it difficult or impossible to carry their purchases back home with them. The stores recognized this problem and offered delivery of merchandise purchased in the various departments of the store.

This evolution depended solely on the transportation improvements made in the late nineteenth century. It had nothing to do with the automobile. Indeed, at least some department stores continued to assume that significant numbers of their customers would come to their downtown stores using public transportation at least into the 1950s. When growing up and shopping at the large downtown department stores in Milwaukee during that decade, the stores were continuing to offer their delivery services. Of course now, the assumption more often is that customers will be arriving by automobile and can take all but the largest items home themselves.

The joy of cul de sacs

Every day, I go out walking with our little dog, for a half hour, an hour, or even more. We just walk around our neighborhood, going different ways each day, enjoying being outside, being together, and getting exercise.

In the beginning, I was the one taking Daisy for the walk, choosing where we would go each day. We would pass cul de sacs, but I would never turn into one. You’d just have to come back out. You wouldn’t be getting anywhere.



Over time, when we got to a corner, Daisy would indicate a preference for going one way or the other, and since we were not going anywhere in particular, I would let her choose the way. This evolved until now she is taking me for the walk, deciding where to go and when to head home.

Soon after she took over, Daisy decided to turn into a cul de sac. My initial reaction mirrored the reason I never did that: We would just have to come back out. But I followed along…and then started thinking about it. Yes, we weren’t getting anywhere. And that was the point. We were just out walking. We weren’t trying to get anywhere. Walking into a cul de sac was a perfect example of that.

Sometimes Daisy turns into a cul de sac and sometimes she doesn’t, except for one favorite cul de sac which she almost never skips when we are in that area. And whenever she does turn in, I now just smile and think, this is just great. We’re not getting anywhere. And that’s just what I like.