The Geometry of Justice

Atlanta highway congestion

On a recent trip to Minnesota, a good friend — someone I like and whose opinions I trust — blistered my ear about the self-entitlement of public transit authorities.  He was speaking particularly about Metro Transit in the Twin Cities, but some of what he said could be leveled at lots of transit agencies.


They seem to have a sense that they are doing God’s work, he complained, when in fact they often don’t provide good service to where people want to go.  Too often they are simply serving the needs of suburban commuters who work downtown.  My friend works with people in and just out of prison, who have a great deal of difficulty commuting to work.


“If the MTA can’t get them to work, I think they should go out of business,” he complained.  “I don’t care if everyone has a car–we should get them cars, if that’s what it takes.”


Transit and Social Justice

I understand his perspective.  The goal of transit should be to get people to places they want to go — school, work, shopping and socializing.  If they can’t do that, they aren’t doing a good job.


This is the social justice side of public health as it applies to transportation policy.  Good health depends on social inclusion, which means being able to reach a good-paying job, as I’ve wrote about before.  Without effective transportation, people are cut off from the things that keep them healthy: work, recreation, fresh food, and friends.  Not everyone sees it this way, but for me, transportation is a major public health issue.


Urban Geometry

But I thought about his lament when I read, via Streetsblog, a piece by Jarrett Walker about the geometry of transportation.  Walker’s point is that in a city, you cannot possibly fit enough cars to be able to get rid of mass transit (and cycling and walking).  Walker was responding to Elon Musk’s idea that autonomous cars could someday replace mass transit.  They can’t.  Even the smallest cars are too big.


Walker says that Musk’s idea is ok for suburbs.  I doubt it, because most suburbs have their own gridlock hell–it’s just spread out more.  But I’ll defer to him on that.  The main point is that cars don’t work in cities.


Suppose you could make autonomous cars work in suburbs.  Could you have a city with low density–just suburbs and no real there there?  Of course, that was the promise of Los Angeles.  The experiment in sense succeeded, but massive population growth quickly made the low density unsustainable, and LA is now among the densest metropolitan areas.


Fun Fact: If the LA area were to resurbanize itself, for example to the level of population density of the Houston area, then it would cover an area twice as large as Massachusetts–in fact almost as large as the entire state of West Virginia, a state that extends over 200 miles both north-to-south and east-to-west.  Is this what anyone would want in a city? Would it even be a city, at that point?


The Geometry of Cars

When a city gets to be more than a certain size, say, more than a couple of thousand inhabitants, then simple geometry means that you cannot rely on cars to get people to jobs, friends, and food.  Either density makes it impossible for all the cars to fit on the roads, or the city becomes so spread out that it ceases to be a city in any meaningful sense, and people end up with impossibly long trips for what they want to do.


American and European cities have solved this geometry problem quite differently.  European cities have relied on density to bring people close enough to make mass transit economical for its providers and convenient for its users.  Density also makes biking and walking attractive.  The geometry problem is solved in Europe by using the 3rd dimension.


 Transportation Exclusion

In the US, the geometry problem is solved by excluding people from the solution.  Great highways have been bulldozed through city neighborhoods, mainly African-American ones.  Those who cannot afford the desirable neighborhoods are told to live further and further away, making their commutes long and their homes unaffordable.


A man in Seattle says that his long commute means that “I don’t find time to be a father.” In Jackson Hole, a refusal to increase density means that average workers are becoming homeless.  In Atlanta, a Washington Post article detailed the transportation hell that an unemployed woman has to go through because she is unable to afford a car:

Sixty-nine stops on a bus;

a nine-minute train ride;

an additional 49 stops on a bus;

a quarter-mile walk.


No wonder that a recent study found that commute times — not crime, low test scores or having a single parent — is the single strongest factor in escaping poverty.


This is not by accident.  A planning official in the Bay Area, where teachers and firefighters drive 100 miles or more to work each day, says, “As soon as a project proponent arrives at City Hall with a multifamily development idea, the pitchforks are sharpened and the flaming torches are lit.”  Planning by pitchfork is real, and it’s destructive.


The Geometry of Social Justice

If we in public health think that social inclusion matters, if we think that good health requires access to decent jobs and healthy food, if we think that mobility matters to health, then we have to acknowledge that health requires an inclusive transportation system in cities.  And because that geometry will require greater density, we’re going to have to learn to love our neighbors more than we hate not driving.  It’s the geometry of social justice.

One thought on “The Geometry of Justice

  1. Scott says:

    Good article; bad title. It’s geography (the spatial distribution of phenomona) not geometry (shape, size, relative position of figures)

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