Author Topic: Transportation Changes in America  (Read 9771 times)

matchewed

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Transportation Changes in America
« on: July 23, 2013, 11:10:02 AM »
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/07/22/204550565/how-americans-get-to-work-in-2-graphs

Interesting to see the trend towards every individual owning and using a car to get to work. Perhaps the shifting of the populace towards the suburbs? And I wonder what will happen, if that trend is correct, when people shift back towards cities.

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #1 on: July 23, 2013, 01:33:16 PM »
I find this to be one of those very interesting topics.  People look at the 50s and say how much more advanced we are compared to then.  Sure, more of us can get places faster.  But what do we end up doing?  We make our commutes incredible long.  I know multiple people that grew up in areas where their parents either worked at the factory on the next block or in the downstairs store front.  Talk about a short commute; much more convenient than the 25 mile car ride.

I ride my bike 2-4 days a week.  I figure 13 miles each way is 100 minutes riding.  That's only 40 minutes more than driving, but I get a 100 minute work-out in.  And I save money, but the benefits are less for each mile less you drive.

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #2 on: July 23, 2013, 01:36:19 PM »
I think the interstate highway system has destroyed many cities.  Looking at St. Louis, the city has dropped from 800K people in the mid 20th century to just over 300K in the 2010 census.
The population of the metropolitan area has continued to go up through the same time.

Eric

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #3 on: July 23, 2013, 01:40:20 PM »
I think the interstate highway system has destroyed many cities.  Looking at St. Louis, the city has dropped from 800K people in the mid 20th century to just over 300K in the 2010 census.
The population of the metropolitan area has continued to go up through the same time.

How did you decide to place the blame on the interstate highway system?  Do you really think that St. Louis would be thriving if it had zero highways running to and from it?

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #4 on: July 23, 2013, 01:42:54 PM »
I think the interstate highway system has destroyed many cities.  Looking at St. Louis, the city has dropped from 800K people in the mid 20th century to just over 300K in the 2010 census.
The population of the metropolitan area has continued to go up through the same time.

How did you decide to place the blame on the interstate highway system?  Do you really think that St. Louis would be thriving if it had zero highways running to and from it?

I think St. Louis Metropolitan area would have about the same number of people, and those people would all live in the city.  The interstate highway system was used to build innerbelts and outerbelts where they weren't needed, allowing people to move farther from the city center. 
They should have been used to connect one city to the next, not one block to the next.

Eric

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #5 on: July 23, 2013, 01:56:13 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

MilwaukeeStubble

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #6 on: July 23, 2013, 03:07:03 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

I'm not sure where to fall on this argument, though I do think that there is a similar - freeways hurting the center city - effect in Milwaukee, I'm not sonvinced its that big of an impact.

However, Chicago probably isn't the best example since it has the smallest "limited access highway system per-capita" among major US cities* and all the expressways are extremely downtown oriented (to the point that going from the inbound Kennedy to the outbound Edens requires going on the surface streets). 

Chicago also has excellent transit to downtown, which means that the commute to the city center is a relaxing train or bus ride, depending on where your coming from, while the suburb-to-suburb commute almost certainly involves both heavy traffic and tolls  (which I think are a good thing but there's no doubt people don't like paying tolls on their daily commute).

*I have a citation, but it's not on me at the moment, I can find it later if you want.  This does include the toll roads.

Background for out of towners: Chicago has expressways (freeways) leading into downtown, and collar highways which are primarily toll roads.  The toll roads do not enter the city itself but are very useful for suburb to suburb trips.

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #7 on: July 23, 2013, 06:16:47 PM »
However, Chicago probably isn't the best example since it has the smallest "limited access highway system per-capita" among major US cities* and all the expressways are extremely downtown oriented (to the point that going from the inbound Kennedy to the outbound Edens requires going on the surface streets). 


I believe all of St. Louis expressways are toll-free as I am yet to find a toll road in Missouri.  Our version of 294 and 355 are both free.  Also the distance from downtown to our 294 (I-170) and our 355 (I-270) are roughly 1/2-2/3 of your distances.
It has four interstates that go through downtown and go NNW, NW, SW, SSW.  Then, there's an inner belt(170) and an outer belt(270).  That's before looking at St. Charles, on the other side of the Missouri River (20-30 minutes from downtown STL). 

oldtoyota

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #8 on: July 25, 2013, 01:26:42 PM »
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/07/22/204550565/how-americans-get-to-work-in-2-graphs

Interesting to see the trend towards every individual owning and using a car to get to work. Perhaps the shifting of the populace towards the suburbs? And I wonder what will happen, if that trend is correct, when people shift back towards cities.

I blame the Ford Company for buying up streetcars and putting them out of business. That forced people to "need" cars.


oldtoyota

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #10 on: July 25, 2013, 01:29:57 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

Chicago has "dead zones" in terms of daily life though. I think the other poster is saying St. L would be more densely populated if the highways had connected city to city instead of connecting suburb to city or suburb to suburb. It sounds like the other poster is saying the city pop went down at the same time the suburb pop went up. The implied theory behind that would be that people moved to the suburbs from the city. That's how I read it anyway.




Tony_SS

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #11 on: July 25, 2013, 01:38:17 PM »
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/07/22/204550565/how-americans-get-to-work-in-2-graphs

Interesting to see the trend towards every individual owning and using a car to get to work. Perhaps the shifting of the populace towards the suburbs? And I wonder what will happen, if that trend is correct, when people shift back towards cities.

I blame the Ford Company for buying up streetcars and putting them out of business. That forced people to "need" cars.
They could have went back to horses I believe. But I think the horse owners/breeders/caretakers lobbies against the street car in the first place.

I am from St. Louis, and the city has it's good and bad parts. More people want to get out than stay in, that's for sure. I lived in the city. You are taxed more, there's no real benefit unless you enjoy the culture. It certainly is not the fault of highways that people want to move out of the city limits.

Eric

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #12 on: July 25, 2013, 01:47:08 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

Chicago has "dead zones" in terms of daily life though. I think the other poster is saying St. L would be more densely populated if the highways had connected city to city instead of connecting suburb to city or suburb to suburb. It sounds like the other poster is saying the city pop went down at the same time the suburb pop went up. The implied theory behind that would be that people moved to the suburbs from the city. That's how I read it anyway.

Chicago was an arbitrary example.  Pick any city in the country.  Every single one of them has highways bisecting every part of it.  Yet some are thriving and some are not.  So why would the conclusion be that highways are bad?  It seems there are 100 other reasons that have more impact on whether the city thrives or not.

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #13 on: July 25, 2013, 02:52:41 PM »
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/07/22/204550565/how-americans-get-to-work-in-2-graphs

Interesting to see the trend towards every individual owning and using a car to get to work. Perhaps the shifting of the populace towards the suburbs? And I wonder what will happen, if that trend is correct, when people shift back towards cities.

I blame the Ford Company for buying up streetcars and putting them out of business. That forced people to "need" cars.
They could have went back to horses I believe. But I think the horse owners/breeders/caretakers lobbies against the street car in the first place.

I am from St. Louis, and the city has it's good and bad parts. More people want to get out than stay in, that's for sure. I lived in the city. You are taxed more, there's no real benefit unless you enjoy the culture. It certainly is not the fault of highways that people want to move out of the city limits.

Ahh a St. Louis guy.  You have your facts wrong though.  The city has a 1% income tax.  But the real estate taxes are WAY lower than the suburbs.  Unless you make an extraordinarily high income, city taxes are lower, overall.

Granted I haven't done detailed studies to show this is statistically correct, but all the houses I've looked at show suburban real estate taxes $1000 higher than city.

mpbaker22

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #14 on: July 25, 2013, 02:54:08 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

Chicago has "dead zones" in terms of daily life though. I think the other poster is saying St. L would be more densely populated if the highways had connected city to city instead of connecting suburb to city or suburb to suburb. It sounds like the other poster is saying the city pop went down at the same time the suburb pop went up. The implied theory behind that would be that people moved to the suburbs from the city. That's how I read it anyway.

Chicago was an arbitrary example.  Pick any city in the country.  Every single one of them has highways bisecting every part of it.  Yet some are thriving and some are not.  So why would the conclusion be that highways are bad?  It seems there are 100 other reasons that have more impact on whether the city thrives or not.

Yes, it isn't the sole factor.  However, I think we covered that St. Louis has a much larger highway system than Chicago, particularly when looked at per capita and per square mile (If I'm describing that in a way that you understand?).

I guess the main point is that without crazy highway systems, you don't have suburban sprawl.  It would take 2 hours to get from Wentzville to Downtown St. Louis.  Think of Aurora to Downtown Chicago taking only city streets.

Tony_SS

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #15 on: July 25, 2013, 03:12:18 PM »
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2013/07/22/204550565/how-americans-get-to-work-in-2-graphs

Interesting to see the trend towards every individual owning and using a car to get to work. Perhaps the shifting of the populace towards the suburbs? And I wonder what will happen, if that trend is correct, when people shift back towards cities.

I blame the Ford Company for buying up streetcars and putting them out of business. That forced people to "need" cars.
They could have went back to horses I believe. But I think the horse owners/breeders/caretakers lobbies against the street car in the first place.

I am from St. Louis, and the city has it's good and bad parts. More people want to get out than stay in, that's for sure. I lived in the city. You are taxed more, there's no real benefit unless you enjoy the culture. It certainly is not the fault of highways that people want to move out of the city limits.

Ahh a St. Louis guy.  You have your facts wrong though.  The city has a 1% income tax.  But the real estate taxes are WAY lower than the suburbs.  Unless you make an extraordinarily high income, city taxes are lower, overall.

Granted I haven't done detailed studies to show this is statistically correct, but all the houses I've looked at show suburban real estate taxes $1000 higher than city.

Former St. Louis guy. I knew about the 1% income tax. I rented when I live on the Hill, so I didn't pay any property tax. So I can not compare property tax rates county vs city.

Lifestyle and development are what lead to sprawling. Not just some superhighways they build. They are build because people sprawl out.

No Name Guy

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #16 on: July 25, 2013, 05:36:35 PM »
Everyone talking about the highways DOES know some of the back story I hope on why they came to be.  Recall the highway act was passed during the Eisenhower Administration in 1956.  Remember Ike's former job?  Yes, Supreme Commander of Allied armies in Europe, ~43-45.  He saw the military value of the Autobahn up close and personal and was also part of a 1919 coast to coast convoy experiment for the Army.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Aid_Highway_Act_of_1956
Quote
Eisenhower debated for the highways for the purpose of national defense. In the event of a ground invasion by a foreign power, the U.S. Army would need good highways to be able to transport troops across the country efficiently. Following completion of the highways the cross-country journey that took the convoy [that Ike participated in as a junior officer] two months in 1919 was cut down to two weeks.

There was also another consideration in suburbanization in the 1950's.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_mike

Small, dense cities holding most of the population resulted in a small target set for an attack to wipe the population.  At that time, in the 50's, bombs were so large [even the atomic, in lieu of hydrogen] that bombers could typically carry only 1, which would be used on the city core.  Pre hydrogen bomb, if you were more than about 5 miles from the city core, you'd probably survive since the yields and damage radi were quite modest for a 100kt fission bomb [in nuke bomb terms, of course], versus the multi-megaton hydrogen bombs that followed in the late 50's and early 60's. 

Notice how on the flat lands between the Rockies and East coast how there are ring (or "collar" as noted in previous posts) highways around many cities at 5 to 10 miles from the (then) city center?  Yup.....figured that the commies would nuke the city core, but a ring highway would be far enough out to still be passable to military convoys.  They were originally nothing about suburb to suburb transportation.  It was so you wouldn't have to drive through a radioactive crater where the previous east-west and north-south highways crossed.

Russians popped their first true "big one" November of 55.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_arms_race

Do you think this might have influenced folks a wee bit?  Perhaps, considering the timing of the year before the highway act was passed.

And then the miniaturization of warheads, ICBM's, then MIRVed ICBM's, SLBM's, MIRVed SLBM's, cruise missiles, etc and the now obvious silly premise of a land invasion of the US makes the original rationale for the highways and ring highways kind of silly.  Heck, with (the commie equal of) something like this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UGM-73_Poseidon
You'd scatter the 10 to 14 warheads over an entire city area - hitting every major road junction (5 for a ring plus N-S / E-W), 3 into the city core, and scatter the rest around the 'burbs.

Another underlying tension leading to the highways was the populations disgust with the passenger railroads and the as yet not developed modern airline system.  Read some railroad history books about the time for the back story there.  After crappy service in the 30's, the war years in the 40's with packed and dilapidated pax trains, and continuing high prices and crappy service in the 50's, people wanted to NOT be dependent on shitty service to get from city to city - they preferred to drive themselves.  This, combined with the highways, certainly influenced the blooming car culture in the 50's and 60's - "the freedom of the open road".  And since you had the car already, why not have the nice new, modern suburban house, lawn,  said car in the driveway and a charcoal grill on the patio?

oldtoyota

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #17 on: July 25, 2013, 06:13:42 PM »
Okay, but Chicago has the same thing, collar highways all over the place, and the downtown is a thriving area.  Same with lots of other cities.  Highways are everywhere, in all cities.  I have a hard time seeing why it would be bad for StL and good for others.  Or maybe it's just not much of a factor?

Chicago has "dead zones" in terms of daily life though. I think the other poster is saying St. L would be more densely populated if the highways had connected city to city instead of connecting suburb to city or suburb to suburb. It sounds like the other poster is saying the city pop went down at the same time the suburb pop went up. The implied theory behind that would be that people moved to the suburbs from the city. That's how I read it anyway.

Chicago was an arbitrary example.  Pick any city in the country.  Every single one of them has highways bisecting every part of it.  Yet some are thriving and some are not.  So why would the conclusion be that highways are bad?  It seems there are 100 other reasons that have more impact on whether the city thrives or not.

I was not aware that I was "concluding highways are bad."


Jamesqf

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #18 on: July 26, 2013, 12:16:08 AM »
I guess the main point is that without crazy highway systems, you don't have suburban sprawl.  It would take 2 hours to get from Wentzville to Downtown St. Louis.  Think of Aurora to Downtown Chicago taking only city streets.

Nope, because you had suburban sprawl long before there were automobiles.  That's why there were all those street cars, trolleys, subways, commuter rail, etc.  As for instance the LA commuter rail system that was replaced by the freeways post-1950.  It was built to serve commuters from sprawling suburbs.

You've also got the causation mostly backwards.  It's not primarily the highways that cause sprawl, it's the sprawl that causes highways.  A few people build in an area that has just a dirt road, so the county or state decides to pave it.  That attracts more people, so they widen the road, which attracts still more people, and eventually you wind up with an 8-lane freeway.  But excepting the few areas that grow up along cross-country interstate routes, the highways generally lag the population.

oldtoyota

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #19 on: July 26, 2013, 08:20:19 AM »
Interesting. Evidently, the idea about street cars ending due to car companies is a myth...but people seem to disagree on this point a great deal. I am not sure what to believe about that now.

matchewed

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #20 on: July 26, 2013, 08:32:51 AM »
Interesting. Evidently, the idea about street cars ending due to car companies is a myth...but people seem to disagree on this point a great deal. I am not sure what to believe about that now.

As most things it's probably a combination of many factors. Car companies definitely had an influence on it.

Jamesqf

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #21 on: July 26, 2013, 12:08:32 PM »
Evidently, the idea about street cars ending due to car companies is a myth...

That's not entirely a myth.  What is a myth is that it was cars that caused the sprawl in the first place, when in fact cars replaced the street cars to serve the existing sprawl.  (And people kept coming, so it kept on sprawling.)  If there hadn't been cars, LA (like other cities) would still have sprawled, the only difference is that they would have built more street car lines instead of freeways.

Albert

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #22 on: July 26, 2013, 12:35:49 PM »
I might add that cities in Western Europe did sprawl as well (wherever geographically possible) the difference being that the old city was not entirely abandoned by the upper classes and there was investment in public transport as well.

Jamesqf

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #23 on: July 26, 2013, 03:19:01 PM »
...the difference being that the old city was not entirely abandoned by the upper classes...

That's also true of many US cities, NYC being the classic example.  The ones that were "abandoned" were mostly those, like Los Angeles, where there wasn't a heck of a lot of "old city" there in the first place.

matchewed

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #24 on: July 26, 2013, 04:05:07 PM »
...the difference being that the old city was not entirely abandoned by the upper classes...

That's also true of many US cities, NYC being the classic example.  The ones that were "abandoned" were mostly those, like Los Angeles, where there wasn't a heck of a lot of "old city" there in the first place.

Hmmm, maybe there is something there regarding sprawl rate or somesuch. Population over time/land area over time... interesting topic to look into.

TrulyStashin

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #25 on: July 26, 2013, 09:33:48 PM »
There are multiple interconnected causes, including:

* highways, as noted
* population growth in general
* rising affluence and a desire to segregate along income status
* integration nationwide.  And in the South, the end of Jim Crow
* environmental laws and land use policies, ironically, which made it easier/ cheaper to develop virgin "greenfields" rather than redevelop existing properties or "brownfields"/ polluted areas
* bad schools (whether really bad or simply perceived to be)

Over time, all of these factors combined to create an image problem for cities -- only poor people lived in cities.  For the last twenty years, the trend has been slowly reversing thanks to:

* cultural change/ acceptance of diversity
* cultural change/ the city is cool again
* changes in environmental laws that make it easier to redevelop brownfields or polluted areas
* changes in land use laws that make it harder to develop virgin greenfields in areas more distant from the city; an emphasis on New Urbanism, SmartCodes, walkability, and biking
* changes in tax policies, e.g. tax abatements for renovating an old house
* redevelopment of urban cores with sports stadiums, museums etc (e.g. Pittsburgh)

Some challenges remain -- schools and highways, for instance.  If urban schools could provide the level of education found in affluent (white) suburbs, then the renaissance would be complete and cities would really thrive.   I'm excited to see the shift underway.

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #26 on: July 27, 2013, 11:59:00 AM »
Over time, all of these factors combined to create an image problem for cities -- only poor people lived in cities. 

But that has pretty much always been the case.  The people who lived in cities were poor people coming to make their fortune, or those in the process of making it who had to live close to their work.  Those who could afford to have always lived outside the cities, or maintained country estates in addition to urban town houses.  In the days before mechanized transportation, the "commute" would often be seasonal rather than a daily affair, as for instance the British upper classes coming to London for "the season", then dispersing to their rural estates again.

Albert

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #27 on: July 27, 2013, 01:20:06 PM »
Over time, all of these factors combined to create an image problem for cities -- only poor people lived in cities. 

But that has pretty much always been the case.  The people who lived in cities were poor people coming to make their fortune, or those in the process of making it who had to live close to their work.  Those who could afford to have always lived outside the cities, or maintained country estates in addition to urban town houses.  In the days before mechanized transportation, the "commute" would often be seasonal rather than a daily affair, as for instance the British upper classes coming to London for "the season", then dispersing to their rural estates again.

European cities from Middle ages up to mid 19th century  were often quite unpleasant places to live. One summer in the early 19th century British parliament had to take a break because the river stank so much that it was highly unpleasant to be close for long. Still it isn't true that rich people always moved to countryside. Land owning nobility did, but often very wealthy merchant classes mostly stayed in the city which gave them their wealth. Hence all the fancy houses you see in the old towns of pretty much every sizeable European city not completely destroyed by the last two wars.

American cities with few exceptions like NYC are a bit special. I can't think of any place in Europe where the central and close to central areas would be abandoned and even despised by the middle and upper classes to such an extent as in say Detroit or LA.

Jamesqf

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #28 on: July 28, 2013, 12:40:45 AM »
Still it isn't true that rich people always moved to countryside. Land owning nobility did, but often very wealthy merchant classes mostly stayed in the city which gave them their wealth. Hence all the fancy houses you see in the old towns of pretty much every sizeable European city not completely destroyed by the last two wars.

OK, change "always" to something like "frequently" or "generally".  When you're talking about large groups of people, there are always exceptions to the general behavior.  But I would bet that most of the owners of those fancy city houses also had country places.

I'll even suggest that you see the same behavior these days.  Those (sub)urbanites prosperous enough to afford them often have country places, ranging from simple cottages on a lake to beach or ski condos all the way up to estates: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacation_property

kms

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #29 on: July 31, 2013, 08:02:57 AM »
Jamesqf: highly uncommon in Europe. Maybe because we have less space and more people over here than in the US. Granted, some people do happen to have apartments outside the cities, and a Datscha was quite common in the Soviet Union, but it's very uncommon these days. A place in the country is not something people are actively striving for.

Albert is right, city development in Europe (Albert mentions Western Europe but Eastern Europe is no different in my experience) is very different from the US. Infact, some cities have become so expensive in the last 50 years that people had to move out of the city because they can't afford it anymore. I'm thinking Zürich, Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Warsaw, Prague, etc. I think the main difference is age here. North American cities are comparatively new (the oldest settlement on US soil is St. Augustine in Florida, founded in 1565 - I've lived in a house that was older than that) and have been planned on paper and built from scratch somewhere between the 1600s and 1900s whereas almost all European cities have grown and evolved over hundreds or in some cases thousands of years. That's why an inner city in Europe is so different from an inner city in the US, apart from New York City, Boston, and Chicago, who are very European in that regard.

There's many factors that support urban sprawl but I'm very sure the availability of highways is not one of them. If it were than Germany, with its incredibly dense system of Autobahns and pretty much no unpaved roads left whatsoever, would be one of the most rural countries on this planet yet people are flooding the cities, and forcing the lower income population out into the cheaper suburban areas. In my opinion, gas prices are an immensly important factor. Don't forget that we're paying somewhere between 3x and 5x as much for fuel/diesel so a shorter commute immediately pays off, as does moving into or close to the city where public transport is available.

Jamesqf

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Re: Transportation Changes in America
« Reply #30 on: July 31, 2013, 10:43:21 AM »
Jamesqf: highly uncommon in Europe. Maybe because we have less space and more people over here than in the US. Granted, some people do happen to have apartments outside the cities, and a Datscha was quite common in the Soviet Union, but it's very uncommon these days. A place in the country is not something people are actively striving for.

Not my experience.  Maybe you missed a critical part: "prosperous enough to afford them".  Certainly the places I have visited in Europe have plenty of second homes - the area around Lake Geneva (Leman) in Switzerland is full of them, as is Gstaad. 

In Britain, scenic areas like Yorkshire and the Lake District have many second homes.  In Wales, there was a period not so long ago when Welsh nationalists were setting fire to English-owned summer cottages. 

When I was last there (late '90s) there was a booming second home market in the west of Ireland, while Britons apparently still in the market for second homes in France & Spain: http://www.propertyforum.com/property-in-france/spain-and-france-still-the-most-popular-for-uk-second-home-owners-research-shows.html

Haven't found any really definitive figures, but this page give some rough numbers: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/724632.html

Quote
France has over 3 million second residences.
10% of the French own a second home.
70% are owned by the British followed by the Dutch, then the Belgians
and then the Germans.
Source: La residence secondaire en France.
http://www.residence-secondaire.fr/residence_secondaire/index.php
  (And 24% of the French population lives in rural areas.)

Quote
2.1 million spaniards own second homes in Spain.
1.63 million British own tourist properties in Spain.
Second homes owned by foreigners in Spain.
British 52%
German 22%
French 8%
Italians 6%
Scandinavians 6%
Belgians 3%
http://www.spanishpropertyinsight.com/spanish_property_bulletin_august04.htm