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Rethinking downtowns to improve urban mobility

Jarrett Walker of Human Transit recently published an interesting post talking about downtowns. His argument is that we shouldn’t be planning our transit networks around the traditional notion of a single-centered city.

Here’s a snippet:

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city. Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

Now, there are many cases where a singular economic center still dominates an urban region. See downtown Toronto. And many will argue that the current economic environment is creating more, rather than less, concentrated urban spikiness.

But at the same time it is quite clear that many of our cities have shifted away from a monocentric model to a polycentric one. 

I mean, just look at all employment nodes that have developed across the Toronto region. The idea that everyone comes downtown in the morning and then leaves in the evening has become an anachronism for many. Early in my career I spent 4 years commuting from downtown to the suburbs.

So what is happening is that our cities need to start performing more like point-to-point networks. This isn’t a new thought. But it’s a lot harder to execute on compared to what many cities have been used to. 

You need a critical density of both residents and employers and the right kind of connectivity to create a true “mobility hub.” In Toronto, you could argue that we really only have one of those and it’s centered around Union Station.

But I think that will change for many cities. And when we do get it right, we will be doing a lot to improve the crippling traffic congestion that so many of our cities are suffering from.

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