March 13, 2004

More Sprawl Please II

I regularly read the City Comforts Blog because I think that we can do better in how we construct our physical space. The author of City Comforts and I have an on again, off again email correspondance going between us. Surprisingly, he was somewhat on my side in my paen to sprawl as a solution to agricultural overproduction.

It seems his major objection to sprawl is that the commercial strip malls are not very walkable and are simply built in a manner that makes them very unfriendly to pedestrians. As somebody who has actually walked these things, I think this is not, at heart, an unreasonable criticism. The problem is how to find a solution that is practical.

Essentially, most of these commercial zones are mostly reached via passenger car and this is unlikely to change anytime soon barring a knockoff of the Segway that undercuts its price by a large amount. So what's being asked for is a reconfiguration of what is so far a very viable commercial public space model to accommodate what is a very small minority of potential users, pedestrians.

The only way that I can see this going forward is to create either a new mode of transport, either Segway or something very much like it, or creating a very low cost way to create and maintain pedestrian walkways, something like the moving walkways in the Isaac Asimov book Caves of Steel but built for all weather outdoors use with low maintenance. The distances are large, usage is low, so costs explode to maintain conventional pedestrian transportation. I think the moving sidewalk is a lot further off into the future. Getting a cheap Segway might not be so far off though.

In consumer electronics and other established economic sectors, certain price points are well understood. You introduce something above that price point and only a few people will buy it. They're generally called early adopters and have the combination of loving new things for their own sake and plenty of disposable income. But if you get enough early adopters, you can scale up production and lower prices. Once you hit the magic price point, everybody wants one.

But what is that magic price point for a pedestrian like transporter that will make pedestrian style sidewalks economical in sparse suburban commercial construction? And when will Segway style vehicles hit that price point? Once you have the answers to those questions, you've generally solved the problem of architects making pedestrian unfriendly commercial malls in suburban sprawl developments.

Architects, once they know that a new mode of transportation is either here or predictably coming within the lifetime of their development, will accommodate it without much debate. Let's say the magically patent unencumbered $599 Segwee is projected to be three years out. Why would anybody design a shopping mall in 2004 that's designed to last 20 years in its current configuration without taking into account a major new shopping reality that's going to be around for 17 of them?

Thus the problem of unwalkability has a simple technological solution and those who care about such things deeply should, by all means create studies to find the price point and assemble prizes for the first person to create a Segway like device that hits that price point.

Posted by TMLutas at March 13, 2004 12:42 PM