Videos of Bicycles Being Cool

I’m taking a little break from the recent string of in-depth research to look at something a little more fun. Recently, I came across this article by Sarah Goodyear about how Salt Lake City will be the first city in America to implement a protected bicycle intersection. The plan is based on Dutch designs, as well as research by Portland-based planner and designer Nick Falbo.

Protected Intersections For Bicyclists from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

I hope that I’ll be able to see this the next time I’m in Salt Lake (all Mormons seem to end up getting stuck in Salt Lake’s orbit at some point). But also, I was glad to see this video of how a Dutch design could be interpreted for and shared with an American audience. It just made me think of some cool bicycle videos I’ve seen recently and wanted to share. For instance, and speaking of the Dutch, here is a cool video of bicycle traffic in Utrecht.

I almost wish part of this video was shown in real time rather than sped up so that you could see how cyclists interact in real time, and how cycling in the Netherlands is not the sort of extreme, aggressive sport cycling that seems to be the only kind that’s allowed in some parts of America. It is indeed a casual activity for regular people.

Speaking of aggressive sport cycling though, these videos are really cool.



At least of the videos I’ve seen, these sort of downhill urban mountain bike races seem to only take place in Latin America (although the participants seem to largely be speaking English), but you could imagine them taking place in an Italian hilltown or a Swiss village. I just don’t know where we could do it in America; we rarely build on the kind of slopes where doing this would be any fun to watch, we almost never build with those sort of narrow curves and passageways, and even when we do build on hills it’s mostly taken up by rich people who probably wouldn’t want something like this in their backyard.

I wonder what videos like this do for cycling. I could see them sort of raising awareness that cycling is a viable option, but at the same time I could see it creating the perception that the only people who cycle are these sort of extreme types. Either way though, they’re pretty fun to watch.


Breaking Up Big Blocks in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City’s SixtyNine Seventy project is the latest in a long line of efforts trying to answer the question: what do we do with these enormous blocks?

The Second Century Plan. From

Pretty much every major plan for Salt Lake since its initial founding, including the Second Century Plan above, has been about breaking the blocks up into smaller, more manageable chunks. The 660 feet square blocks are the result of generations of Mormon city planning, and there are a number of ways they could be updated. I’ll discuss one idea I stumbled upon.

Salt Lake’s big blocks are based on Joseph Smith’s Plat of Zion, which also had 660 square foot blocks. Despite its intention as a guide for the development of future cities, Smith himself didn’t feel tied to the dimensions of the plan, and diverged from it both in the plat of Far West and in the most significant urban development he undertook at Nauvoo, Illinois. These large blocks were actually realized in Salt Lake and some of the other early Mormon settlements in Utah, led by Brigham Young. However, after the first generation of Utah settlements, the pioneers realized these blocks were too big, and later Mormon towns all have smaller blocks.


You can do a lot with 660 square feet. For comparison, I combed through cities with similar climates to Salt Lake, since climate can and should be a significant factor in urban design. Compare these:

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I was thinking about how to densify these networks while still relating to the original network. Salt Lake’s blocks are large enough that you could straight up divide them into four and still have a reasonably sized block. But while I was playing around, I experimented with connecting blocks diagonally.Nest 3-01

This nesting of a smaller block diagonally within a larger one allows the nested area to relate to the original grid while making blocks smaller. It maintains connectivity while creating smaller, more walkable blocks, and discouraging high-speed through traffic.

Taken to the extreme, you can nest numerous grids within each other, like Russian dolls. This can allow you to gradually transition from a large rural grid, such as the US Township and Range system, to a small walkable grid, with blocks as short as 200-300 feet.

Nest 2-01At more complex levels, smaller town grids could be nested within a larger regional grid that is nested within a national grid. This is one way to transition a large-block area to smaller blocks while continuing the grid and giving a new district a distinct character.

Spotlight on City Creek, Salt Lake City, Utah

City Creek is a recently completed, Mormon Church-funded development in the center of Salt Lake City. In some ways, it does a great job of bringing a facelift to parts of downtown Salt Lake City. In others, it really just feels like a big mall.

Uncharacteristically, I drove to City Creek, and my first experience with the development was the parking. The development has no surface parking; there are three levels of parking located directly under the three block development. In some locations the parking is accessed in the very center of the street. This actually does a great job of narrowing and calming Salt Lake’s infamously wide streets, and creates mid-block crossings on the long blocks of this city.

Part of what I thought was really interesting was how some parts of the development, especially along the outer edge, have not changed. Street improvements at West Temple and 100 South that predated the development are still there. A number of pre-existing buildings on Main Street are still there, and integrate fairly seamlessly with new construction. ZCMI, which was bought out by Macy’s a few years ago, has a great old building which has been lovingly restored and has a great street frontage.

Although there is plenty of parking, City Creek is very transit accessible. Salt Lake’s TRAX line comes north along Main Street and turns west along North Temple Street, with two stations adjacent to City Creek.

There have been significant improvements to the public realm. A small park has been installed at State Street and 100 South. Salt Lake’s wide streets give them the flexibility to create very wide sidewalks, and improvements range from simple trees and lights to significant seating areas with unique and beautiful seats, tables, and planters.

An interesting effect of the new development has been tangential street activity. I saw a handful of new food trucks in the area. On the other hand, there were more homeless people in the area than I was used to seeing in Salt Lake.

City Creek seems to have two sides: a street side, which has a real downtown major city feel; and an inner side, which despite a mix of uses really just feels like a mall. Between these areas are a series of transitional public spaces. These feature entrance markers that cleverly conceal ventilation for the underground parking and speakers that blast pop music, adding to the mall feel. The creek that the development is named for snakes throughout the area, with dramatic naturalistic features including rock outcroppings and native plants. Many of these areas feature fountains and sculptures, including my hated seagulls. There are many high-quality seating areas throughout.

What sort of puzzles me is that City Creek is not a single-use shopping area like a suburban mall; it features office uses and a whole lot of residential, including two new major residential towers. The central parts of two of the three blocks have nice squares built around public water features. But despite these features, it doesn’t feel like a mixed-use neighborhood; it feels like a mall.My favorite feature was a small corner of the development along Regent Street. As the street enters the development, it curves to the east and uphill, and becomes a shared use, curbless street, where bollards protect people from cars and lights cris-cross the right-of-way. The street is cozy, visually interesting, and generally very delightful.

City Creek is sort of two-faced: it does successfully contribute to a high-quality streetscape along the public rights-of-way of Salt Lake City, even calming traffic and activating pedestrian life; yet much of the development, especially on the block interiors, feels like just another mall. I had mixed feelings about it, but it could certainly be worse. And I thought it was funny that, despite the effort to make this a metropolitan development, things about it are still very Mormon:SIDENOTE: As I write this, the eye of Superstorm Sandy is passing near Philadelphia. I feel awful that I am here in Arizona while my friends, and especially my wife, are facing this storm back east. I just want to say to all my East Coast friends, family and readers, stay safe, and I look forward to rejoining you soon.

Why are there no trams in America?

Tram in Grenoble, France. From

Yonah Freemark recently published a story on Next American City Daily talking about the massive growth of trams in France. Throughout the article, he makes a distinction between European trams and American streetcars or light rail. It led me to think, what are the differences and advantages to the various transit systems between buses and subways, and why do there not seem to be many systems like the trams Freemark is describing in my country?

Trams and their Cousins


Streetcar in Philadelphia. From Studio 34: Yoga.

Streetcars are one of the oldest forms of public transportation. Once ubiquitous in American cities, many were systematically destroyed through a conspiracy involving GM, Firestone, and others in the car industry (sounds crazy, I know, but I’m not making it up; GM was eventually indicted and fined). Streetcars are on a set track and usually powered by overhead catenary wires. They are often no bigger than a standard bus, although some systems like Fort Lauderdale’s The Wave feature articulated systems. although some have formal station structures, like the ones in North Philadelphia, many are just standard bus stops. The greatest weakness of the streetcar is that it has no separation from or priority over other traffic, and gets stuck at lights and behind cars just like a bus would. It’s only advantages over a bus are that it operates relatively quietly (although at least here in Philly when they turn the wheels squeak like the end of the world) and they can have an element of either tech-sexiness or nostalgia to them depending on their design, but otherwise, they are no better than a bus. In fact, their fixed path makes them less flexible and harder to service than buses. The tracks also present a danger to cyclists. I have a number of friends who showed up to class with scuffed knees after an unfortunate altercation with a streetcar track.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Emerald Express bus in Eugene, OR. From

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a comparatively new technology. They are buses, and as such do not run on a set track, giving them greater flexibility, and don’t feature wires, which some people view as an asset (although many in Europe are fond of their catenaries). They are virtually all articulated buses, most with two sections but some with three or more, giving them higher capacity than standard buses and many streetcars. Some have station platforms, such as Eugene’s Emerald Express, but others are simpler bus shelters, such as most stops on Boston’s Silver Line. BRT has its own dedicated lane, separating it from car traffic and allowing them to move more smoothly and efficiently, although they generally lack priority at lights. The lack of a fixed track and catenaries makes BRT flexible in cases of obstructions to the lane or repair, and also makes them much more affordable to build.


Trams in Vienna. From

Trams have a lot of similarities to streetcars (such that they have the same page on Wikipedia), but there are important functional differences. Both are on set tracks and usually powered by overhead wires, and share the same physical risks, lack of flexibility, and visual situations. Some have stations, but many are just sidewalk loaded. There are two major differences however: capacity and a dedicated lane. Trams are often longer, articulated systems and can carry many more people than a standard bus or streetcar. They also have their own dedicated lane, with all the advantages that this brought to BRT, as well as having signal priority. Many trams in Europe, since they don’t have to worry about cars running over them, have planted the rights of way under their trams with grass, creating more green space, with all the benefits that that brings (aside from recreational benefits – please don’t play on the tracks!). These systems are more expensive, however, and often run through pedestrian-only spaces, increasing the chances of a pedestrian collision.

Light Rail

Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail. From

Light rail is essentially lighter than heavy rail (commuter rail or most subway/elevated systems) and heavier than a tram. They run on a track and often have wires, although some are diesel powered. They are virtually all articulated and have capacity equal to or greater than trams. They have larger station platforms and stop less frequently than previous systems. This less frequent stopping and a dedicated right of way (sometimes not even parallel to a roadway) make light rail faster from destination to destination, but it reaches fewer places and, depending on the design, can have a detrimental effect on a streetscape. Light rail is the most expensive option so far, but it is considerably cheaper and easier to construct than subway/elevated trains, and many cities in the last decade or so have built these systems rather than going underground.

So why no trams in America?

There are various reasons why other systems are more widespread in the States than the tram. The streetcar is in many ways a holdout from a previous era, and can be operated without taking away capacity from cars, which is always an uphill fight. BRT is a system that allows for a lot of flexibility and little (comparative) investment, and for many medium-sized cities is probably their best bet. Meanwhile, larger cities aren’t thinking about systems for moving pedestrians around their downtowns as much as they are about moving commuters into their cities from the suburbs, and the light rail, with its higher speed, is generally the better option for that. I think that the growth in BRT in America may lead to future tram development: as communities see the success of BRT and begin to demand more capacity, they may become ready for the investment in more infrastructure. Many light rail systems feature somewhat of a hybrid, where they go quickly from community to community in the suburbs but slow down and stop more frequently in town, like Portland’s MAX light rail. As Alex Davies pointed out (under Trams, above), we’re not likely to see trams any time soon, but hey, give it some time and get the Republicans out of the House, and it could happen.

A Matrix of Settlement Types

While in undergrad, we had an assignment in a certain class where we had to ride public transit in Provo for a mile and describe the surroundings we saw. I asked my professor if, instead of riding in Provo, I could ride in Salt Lake City so that I could write about an urban place. “What, Provo isn’t urban?” he said. I was somewhat taken aback. Of course Provo isn’t an urban place, if you think of major cities as urban places. The problem that my professor exemplified is the Boolean division of spaces as either urban or rural, with nothing in between.

The urban transect. From

Some headway has been made with the New Urbanist transect, which introduces the suburbs as a distinctly non-rural and yet non-urban place, and introduces the idea of an urban gradient. However, this does not address the different types of settlements based on size and amount of services. What I propose is more of a matrix, where the rural to urban gradient will cross with a gradient from small settlements with few services to megalopoli. I will illustrate this matrix with examples from areas that I am familiar with.

The Rural to Urban Gradient

Rural Settlements

Rural areas are characterized by an extremely low density of both populations and buildings. Homes are almost exclusively single family on parcels made up of multiple acres, with parcels in the hundreds of acres or more not being uncommon. Industries in these areas are primarily focused on extraction, whether they be agriculture, mining, energy, etc. People in these areas tend to be more self sufficient. They may grow their own food, or they may buy in bulk and store it for longer, since it is a long trip into town for supplies. People generally work close to home, however they would require some sort of transportation other than walking to make trips into town, whether to purchase supplies or to take resources into market. Very few services are offered in these areas. While a store might locate itself at a strategic intersection, most rural residents have to go into a larger settlement for services.

Suburban Settlements

Suburbs tend to be higher density than rural areas, but are still fairly low, with the single family house on .25-5 acre lots being the dominant housing type. However, with more of these houses closer together, the populations in suburbs begin to be higher than in rural areas. One of the defining features of suburban areas is the extreme separation of uses. Work places, shopping and entertainment places, and homes are all strictly segregated, often making public transit or walking infeasible and requiring the use of a car for transportation. Another common characteristic of suburban areas is that they rarely are self-sufficient as far as workplaces. Most workers in suburban areas commute to more dominant areas, whether they be suburban office parks or edge cities, or more traditional urban areas. All in all, suburbs are rarely self sufficient, and must exist in a dynamic relationship with other development types.

Urban Settlements

Urban settlements have much higher population densities than their rural or suburban counterparts, and in many of them multifamily and attached units outnumber single family detached houses. Instead of being separated, compatible uses are mixed, with apartments and offices over retail and stores integrated in working areas. This higher density and mix of uses makes public transit feasible, as well as making it reasonable to walk to destinations rather than driving. Although there is of course some reverse commuting, most urban residents work in the municipality they live in, and unless there is a lack of affordable housing near work spaces, they should be able to live and work in the same neighborhood. Many from surrounding suburbs commute into the urban area for work. Urban areas, of course, are dependent on their rural hinterlands and on each other for materials, but the manufacture of goods and provision of services happens within the city, making it more self sufficient than the suburb.

The Small to Large Gradient

There is a problem with referring to all settlement types as “cities.” Cities are large, generally urban places, although many demonstrate some suburban characteristics. Small settlements made up mostly of residences are not cities. In the English tradition, there has been a gradient of human settlements. Hamlets, villages, and towns all describe these smaller settlements. There is not, however, a similar gradient of types once we reach the “city” level, and here are just referred to by their size. In contemporary society, we have come to see larger settlement types made up of multiple, smaller settlements: the metropolis, with one major, influential city and its suburbs and hinterland; and the megalopolis, a collection of major metropoli that grow into each other. I have collected examples of each of these types and explain how they could be either rural, suburban, or urban. There are probably better examples out there, and I would invite anyone to submit their examples in the comments section, but I can only comment on those areas I am most familiar with.


A hamlet is a very small community which may be simply a cluster of houses. It is overwhelmingly if not entirely residential, but can have a few services, such as a general store or service station, or maybe a school or post office. Homes are virtually all single family. These settlements may be somewhat informal and unimproved, rarely with curbs and gutters if the streets ave even paved. Hamlets are generally on the more rural side of the gradient, and as such, I couldn’t think of an example of an urban hamlet. If you can, please leave a comment.

A Rural Hamlet: King Hill, Idaho


King Hill is a hamlet that sits on the north bank of the Snake River near the eastern border of Elmore County, Idaho. Some people work in the fairly close village of Glenns Ferry or other communities, but most either work from home or on the surrounding farms. The community boasts a post office, a church, and not much else. The roads don’t have curbs, and landscaping is generally informal.

A Suburban Hamlet: Leeds, Massachusetts


Leeds shares some similarities to King Hill. It is small, virtually all single family, and has few services (a church, a school, and a general store). However, Leeds has shrunk somewhat, since it used to be a mill village. The mill buildings still exist, but they sit vacant, and virtually everyone in the hamlet works in nearby Northampton or other surrounding municipalities. This commute pattern and closer relation to other municipalities makes Leeds more suburban than the rural King Hill.


Villages are distinguished from hamlets from a generally greater intensity of development. There is more variety in housing types, which may just be a greater variety of single family lot sizes, but may include townhomes or some apartments. More services are provided, such as restaurants or a small grocery, but most services beyond someone’s daily needs must be found somewhere else. Development may become slightly more formalized, possibly with a commercial main street, formalized tree plantings or park space, and fully improved streets. While villages may exist in rural, suburban or urban locations, the characteristics of a village are similar to those of a neighborhood, which forms a small, defined section of a larger municipality.

A Rural Village: Nyssa, Oregon


As you can already see, Nyssa is significantly larger and more complex than the previously mentioned hamlets. Nyssa was founded as a company town on the Oregon side of the Snake River. It has been slowly losing population since I-84 was routed through the town of Ontario to the north, and so Nyssa in some ways has too many services for its population of just under 4,000. There are a number of churches, two formal parks, a school, and commercial uses along Thunderegg Boulevard and Main Street, and industrial uses fronting the railroad tracks. Although many locals work in these industries or other local services, many still work in the sugar beet and potato farms that surround the village. Nyssa’s Main Street is fairly well designed, but the declining population has taken its toll, and many storefronts are empty. While Nyssa does have its own grocery, a handful of restaurants, a tractor supply store, and other services, many residents travel to nearby Ontario for shopping.

A Suburban Village: Salem, Utah


Salem shares many characteristics with Nyssa. They have similar populations (Salem is just over 5,000). Salem also has a grocery store, restaurants, service stations, and other services. It has less industry, but it does have some. It has some formal green space, especially around Salem Pond. The biggest difference is that while Nyssa is fairly self sufficient as far as jobs, most people in Salem commute to either the nearby town of Spanish Fork or farther north to the city of Provo. Salem also has had more growth in the last few decades where they have abandoned the traditional Mormon grid pattern and have created leapfrog, suburban-style developments. If Salem is able to implement the General Plan that I worked on for them with Long Pine Consulting, they will eventually become more of a town with distinct neighborhoods, but that will take a long time to be fully realized.

An Urban Village: Beaver, Pennsylvania


Part of what makes Beaver urban is its context. Rather than being among fields, it is among other villages, including Rochester, Bridgewater, Monaca, and Vanport. Another is its highly formal nature, which can partially be attributed to its designation as a county seat.


Beaver has a very formal green featuring war memorials and a lovely main street (3rd Street) with a grocery, restaurants, a world-class bakery, and other services. The dense blocks and small streets make it extremely walkable. Most people who live in Beaver also work there, with people from nearby villages commuting in as well. In addition to county facilities, there are a few schools and many beautiful churches.

A Neighborhood Village: East Falls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


East Falls, if anything, pushes the upper population bound of what can be called a village, at just over 10,000 people, but its organization and service structure is definitely that of a village. East Falls is a well-defined area bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the southeast, the Schuylkill River on the Southwest, the Wissahickon Creek on the northwest and Wissahickon Avenue on the northeast. The high population is concentrated closer to the river and Ridge Avenue, but quickly disperses as you head uphill, away from the river, into large lot, single family homes. This transition can be seen with a few images of the path along Midvale Avenue.

The giant pepper at Midvale Avenue and Ridge Avenue. From

Further up Midvale Avenue, at the townhouses that my mom said she wants to retire in. From

Single family houses on top of the hill. From

Commercial uses are concentrated in a mixed use corridor along Ridge Avenue, with churches, schools and other uses spread out throughout the community. East Falls does not have a lot of employment uses and most residents work elsewhere in Philadelphia, but the higher density allows for both buses and heavy rail to be feasible options for transportation.


Towns are the next step up in development intensity. Towns contain all major housing types, including apartments, townhouses, and single family homes. All of a person’s regular needs can be found in a town, including food, government services, repair shops, and many others. In addition, more special or limited services are provided, such as clothing, entertainment, or others. Development becomes more sophisticated, where almost all streets are improved, and in some cases unified “branding” of the town may be employed. One of the defining characteristics of a town is that it is the smallest development type that can be made up of multiple neighborhoods, with varying degrees of independence or interdependence. Like villages, towns can be either rural, suburban (in fact, while suburban examples of hamlets and villages may be more “exurban,” many modern suburbs, including bedroom communities and edge cities, fit into this category), or urban, and can also be part of larger cities, as urban districts.

A Rural Town: Carson City, Nevada


Carson City was originally a mining town of some importance and, as such, was made the state capitol of Nevada when it was granted statehood. Though the mines are no longer a significant part of Carson City’s economy, the fact that it is the state capitol has not only kept it from declining, but has allowed it to grow significantly, and the town now boasts a population of over 55,000. Many residents are government employees of one sort or another, including forest rangers and employees of the BLM. Some residents commute to Reno, but it is a long commute and occasionally the road closes due to snow, so most people who live in Carson City also work there. Though being a town of some size, it has little in the way of suburbs, mostly due to inhospitable building conditions, and much of the surrounding developable land is already a part of Carson City. Neighborhoods are clearly evident, if only by being able to differentiate the old gridded areas from the newer neighborhoods with dendritic street patterns. Services include all day to day uses, along with a few strip shopping centers and, as anywhere in Nevada, a few casinos.

The Nugget, which has a great breakfast, and Cactus Jack’s casinos on the main drag of Carson City. From

A Suburban Town: Rocklin, California


Rocklin was little more than a train stop and a gravel pit before it got sucked into the suburban sprawl that extends northeastward from Sacramento. As such, it has very little traditional infrastructure to build off of, and is an archetypal American suburb.

Pacific Street, Rocklin’s sad little main street: one-story buildings, vacant lots, lots of parking, and expensive branding and improvements that did little to reverse the downward trend. From

Virtually all of Rocklin’s retail uses are car-dependent strip-style retail. The few office and industrial uses it has are also suburban-style, although most residents commute out of Rocklin, either to its powerhouse neighbor Roseville or to Sacramento. Although apartment housing exists, it is surrounded by parking and often by some sort of wall, cutting them off from surroundings and forcing people to drive. The overwhelming housing type is the single family home, and many of the houses are built on the exact same floor plan thanks to much of them being built at the same time in the massive Stanford Ranch subdivision. Although uses are strictly segregated, when I lived there I was able to walk a reasonable distance to school, to a grocery store and to a few restaurants. It was possible, but certainly wasn’t as enjoyable as a walk in Beaver, Carson City or many of the places to follow.

An Urban Town: Northampton, Massachusetts


Northampton, at just shy of 30,000 people, is just over half the population of both Carson City and Rocklin, yet it feels much more urban. This 350-year-old town not only had good urban fabric, but preserved it even during the suburban era, and now stands as a model urban town.

Downtown Northampton on a beautiful fall day. From

Although Northampton does have some strip retail, especially along north King Street, it is centered on a traditional mixed use downtown which provides a wide array of shopping opportunities, possibly even more than an equally urban town because of Northampton’s strong association with various counterculture movements. This, along with smaller lot sizes and a dense network of streets, makes Northampton extremely walkable. Although the population is not high enough to justify rail transit, the town does operate a bus system, along with the other towns and villages of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Northampton’s main economic driver is Smith College, which not only employs most residents of Northampton, but also brings in commuters from other nearby municipalities. Distinct neighborhoods can be identified throughout Northampton, from Smith College to Downtown to Bay State and other principally residential areas.

A District Town: University City, Philadelphia


University City, bounded roughly by 52nd Street, Spring Garden Street, and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, covers a large area and a large population, although much of it is fairly transient. A large part of the population is made up of students who attend Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of the Sciences, which give the district its name. Although there are certainly a number of apartment complexes, University City is a part of Philadelphia, where the rowhouse has always been the dominant housing type. However, it is not unusual for those rowhouses to them be subdivided into various apartments.

Row houses near Clark Park in University City. From

There are a number of mixed use corridors throughout the area, from Lancaster Avenue to the north, to the three main central streets of Market, Chestnut and Walnut, to Baltimore Avenue in the south. These are just the main corridors, and there are a number of smaller scale mixed use areas between them. SEPTA has buses, trolleys, subway, elevated rail and commuter rail in the area. University City, and particularly the Science Center along Market Street along with the universities, are also major workplaces, and more people commute to University City than to any other area in the Philadelphia metro area with the exception of Center City, Philadelphia. The area has distinct neighborhoods, including each of the universities, as well as Powelton Village, Cedar Park, Clark Park, and others.


A city is the next step up in the scale of size and development intensity. Cities are made up of various districts, with various neighborhoods within them. These neighborhoods vary in density and building type, allowing people to have a large variety of choices in where and how they want to live. Cities contain all sorts of services, with larger cities providing more unique, specialized and elite services. This is one of the major distinctions between large and small cities. We don’t really have a word to distinguish between large and small cities, but their size and access to services are very different, as will be discussed below. When you reach this scale of settlements, it is rare that cities exist in a rural environment. There may be a few examples (I was thinking of considering Lincoln, Nebraska, but couldn’t think of any other examples), and if you can think of any, please leave it in the comments section. However, there are many cities that follow a suburban pattern, as well as more urban cities.

A Small Suburban City: Provo, Utah


Provo is a city of about 112,000 people about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. It is home to Brigham Young University and the roughly 35,000 students who go there. As such, there are a lot of apartments in Provo, but is is still overwhelmingly single-family, and high parking requirements and low density limits keep the density fairly low, despite many apartments. Although Provo does have a small, mixed use center, the city is mostly made up of large, single-use districts, and even the center has been hollowed out and few apartments exist there, with mostly offices above the stores and little nightlife. While Provo’s single family housing and single use districts contribute to its suburban nature, it is capped off by its car dependence. Like many Mormon settlements, Provo has very wide roads, which in the automobile era make it unsafe and undesirable to cross them. In addition, Provo requires pedestrians to press a button to cross streets, and the crossing times are very short. Provo participates in the Utah Transit Authority and will soon have a heavy rail connection to Salt Lake, but the buses don’t have great coverage and run infrequently. A Bus Rapid Transit system, which would run from Provo’s new rail station to BYU to Utah Valley University and finally to the new rail station in Orem, has been proposed, but it is not likely to be approved due to funding constraints and the general conservative politics of the city. Provo has a number of districts, including the Bench, the campus area, the East Bay, and others, each with their own neighborhoods.

Provo’s wide University Avenue and two of the tallest buildings in the city. From

A Small Urban City: Allentown, Pennsylvania


Compare the above picture of some of Provo’s tallest buildings with this picture of Allentown:

Center City Allentown. From

Dominated by the 332-foot PPL Building, Allentown’s downtown dwarfs Provo’s in both height and area. It has significant mixed use corridors running along both Hamilton Street and 7th Street, as well as a thriving area around 19th Street just north of the fairgrounds. Although Allentown looks like a bigger city than Provo, its population is only 118,000, barely larger. In fact, the land area of Allentown is only 18 square miles, compared to Provo’s 42, making it much denser. This density and mix of use make Allentown much more walkable. Allentown is also served by the Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority, which has very dense coverage in Center City, although it does get much lighter in the outlying districts. It is the largest municipality in the Lehigh Valley, and as such is where most residents of the area work. It can be divided into a number of districts, including Center City, the Wards, and the West End.

A Medium Suburban City: Boise, Idaho


Many people don’t realize how large Boise actually is. I know that when I went there as a missionary in 2005 I though I would be spending all my time milking cows and picking potatoes. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I entered the city and saw that this would be the area I would begin my missionary service in:

Downtown Boise. From

Boise’s population is well over 200,000, making it bigger than it’s “major city” neighbor, Salt Lake City. Its downtown is actually fairly dense, and has done a good job of preserving the good bones it was built on, unlike Provo. Although it doesn’t boast any major sports teams, it does have a huge sports entertainment industry based around Boise State University, as well as a few minor league sports teams. It also boasts the only dance club I’ve ever been to (after I was done being a missionary), one among many nightlife spots. Though it does offer urban services, and although the downtown is certainly a dense, walkable area, the city on the whole is much more suburban. Boise, like many western cities, grew immensely in the last century, partially do to an aggressive annexation policy that has added much low density, sparsely developed land to the city. The single family home is the dominant housing type. Outside of the downtown, uses are largely divided rather than mixed. The city is very car dependent with a weak bus system, and I can say from experience that riding a bike in many parts of the city involves taking your life into your hands. Boise is the largest city in Idaho and in the Treasure Valley and as such brings in many commuters. There are a number of distinct districts in the area owing to the topography as well as to man-made barriers such as I-184.

A Medium Urban City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


I wondered if some of my local Pittsburghers would be unhappy with me putting Pittsburgh in the medium city category. At one point it was one of the largest in the country and even today enjoys many big-city amenities. However, with a population barely over 300,000 and still in decline as of the last census, it is hard to put Pittsburgh in the same category as New York and Los Angeles. It is a very unique city. It has a number of very dense districts such as Downtown, the Strip and Oakland, while many of the outlying neighborhoods include small single family homes as well as small apartment complexes and attached units. Pittsburgh’s extreme topography allows for high density development in valleys and on flat hilltops while keeping steeper slopes in a natural condition, which makes it feel very green even in densely populated areas.

Pittsburgh’s dense downtown as seen from the green slopes of Mount Washington. From

Pittsburgh enjoys a major sports entertainment industry, and is home to a number of growing industries, including banking, medical, and educational campuses. Many neighborhoods are walkable despite extreme elevation thanks to almost 45,000 steps which often run parallel to or in some instances replace sidewalks or even streets.

A Pittsburgh “paper street” (i.e. labeled as a street on paper, or on a map, but a stairwell in real life) connects two areas of extreme topography. From

Pittsburgh has an extensive bus system, and a light rail system currently serves the South Hills and is being expanded to the stadium area on the north of the Allegheny River. As can be seen from my last post, Pittsburgh is very much the center for commuters in the region.

A Large Suburban City: Los Angeles, California


Los Angeles is America’s second largest city, at almost 4 million people. However, it’s not even in the top 100 cities in America for population density. Although downtown Los Angeles is a high density, mixed use area, and there are others to be found in the city, it is not the general character of this city. While there is a transit system, it is less than comprehensive. Los Angeles, at one time, had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the world; but it was all torn out, and replaced by the transportation infrastructure that is most characteristic of Los Angeles: the freeway.

The Four Level (Bill Keene Memorial) Interchange. Los Angeles is the only place that I have noticed caring enough about their interchanges to name them. From

Los Angeles’ car dependency is well known, leading to its familiar smog and congestion, the worst in the country. 708,000 people commute into Los Angeles, but 695,000 commute out, making it almost commute-neutral. The city hosts many services, but first and foremost is the entertainment industry. Los Angeles has sports teams in most major sports, but much more important is the fact that most major film studios call LA home, especially in the Hollywood district.

A Large Urban City: New York City, New York


It is interesting to me that New York City has just over 60% of the land area of Los Angeles, yet has over twice the population, at just over 8 million. And considering the extremely low densities of Staten Island and eastern Queens, this means an even greater concentration in the rest of the city. I didn’t think it would say much for me to include pictures of New York, because pretty much everyone knows what it looks like. I can just say Empire State Building, Times Square, Wall Street, and you’ve already got the image in your mind. And that’s only Manhattan; most people outside of the city have no idea what sort of interesting stuff can be found in the other boroughs. New York is the most densely populated major city in America, and while there are a few single family areas, it is overwhelmingly attached housing, especially apartments. New York’s neighborhoods are overwhelmingly mixed use and the most walkable in the country. Its train and bus system is nearly comprehensive. It is the center for stage and television entertainment. It is the world financial capitol. In fact, as the home of the United Nations, it is the closest thing we have to a world capitol. In many ways, New York defines what it means to be a city.


Much like a town can be considered a collection of neighborhoods/villages and a city a collection of districts/towns, a metropolis is a collection of cities. It generally has one major city at the center (although there are of course exceptions such as Minneapolis/St. Paul), where most people commute to and where major cultural or social institutions are based, surrounded by suburbs or smaller urban areas. Many services, such as local news and radio, are organized on a metropolitan scale. Metropolitan transportation systems, whether they be transit or automobile oriented, allow for people throughout the region to enjoy the services of the central city. In many metropoli, however, these suburbanites do not pay an equal share for the services they enjoy; they flee central cities to escape crime or dense living conditions, and as such don’t pay the taxes that the city needs to survive, leading to a downward spiral of decay at the center. Portland is the only city in America that has established a metropolitan government so that this burden can be more equally shared. Metropolitan areas, like cities, generally are more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Metropolis: Salt Lake City, Utah


Salt Lake City, as mentioned above, is a medium city at best, with a population of about 190,000. However, it is the principal city of the Wasatch Front, a developed area leading from above the Idaho border to central Utah. Much of this area is unbuildable because of steep terrain or bad soils, but the developed area features few areas of concentrated density; even downtown Salt Lake is not terribly dense. Many of the surrounding municipalities are suburban towns where most of the residents work either in Salt Lake City or in the lesser cities of Provo and Ogden. This area is really the heartland of the Mormon religion, and the church administration, as well as the iconic Salt Lake Temple, are both based here.

From front to back: the Salt Lake Tabernacle; the Salt Lake Temple; and the Church Administration Building, the tallest building in Salt Lake City. From

Although the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is currently very car dependent, it has been taking strides in a good direction; a light rail system, TRAX, serves the Salt Lake Valley, and a heavy rail system FrontRunner, has been built north to Ogden and is currently being expanded south to Provo and beyond.

An Urban Metropolis: Boston, Massachusetts


Boston itself is a fairly large city, but it sits immediately across the Charles River from two smaller cities: Cambridge and Somerville. The cities of Quincy and Newton are on its other sides. This central amalgamation is encircled by a series of satellite cities and towns: Barnstable, New Bedford, Worcester, Lowell, Nashua, Manchester, Portland, and many others in between. Though some of these areas have developed in a more suburban pattern, many of them are old cities with good bones, and are denser and more mixed use than their counterparts in Salt Lake City. Despite the Mass Pike, Route 128 and other highways in the area, the Boston metro area is still quite transit-friendly, with an extensive heavy rail network connecting many of these satellite cities to the center.

Boston’s commuter rail network. From

Boston is widely considered the capitol of New England, and as such holds influence over all of that region except western Connecticut, which is largely made up of the suburbs of New York City.


Following the established pattern, a megalopolis is a group of metropoli. The idea of a megalopolis is a fairly new one and came about as the suburbs and spheres of influence of the metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States began to grow into each other and eventually overlap, leading to greater interdependence of these areas. A megalopolis often has a certain metropolis that is more dominant than the others, but it is theoretically possible to have a megalopolis without a single dominant city, and various metropoli may have equal power within the megalopolis. Referred to as “megaregions” by some authors, megalopoli are, as the last few types have been, more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Megalopolis: The American Southwest


When I say the Southwest, I particularly mean the area that America 2050 suggests is within the sphere of influence of Los Angeles: California south of Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo; the Las Vegas area in Nevada; Arizona south of Flagstaff; and the Mexican border region from Tijuana to Nogales. While Los Angeles is by far the principal metropolis, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix also fit within this category. Each of these areas has a dense core that is surrounded by suburbs that can sprawl hundreds of miles away from the metropolitan center, and are therefore very low density. Although each metropolis does have some form of public transit, they generally pay a subservient role to highway transportation. The central cities of these metropolitan areas are not terribly strong employment centers, and although there is plenty of central commuting, much of it is also suburb to suburb, bypassing the central city. There are rail connections between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the state of California has been wanting to create a statewide rail system for years, but at least in the near term, there are not many connections between the various metropoli of the Southwest Megalopolis.

An Urban Megalopolis: The American Northeast


 The original megalopolis covers all of New England, New Jersey and Delaware, and the portions east of the Appalachian Mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This string of metropoli includes Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. This corridor, like Boston above, is made up not only of large, dense cities, but of older cities and towns with good bones that are higher density than in the Southwest. This area has many business and government links between its cities, and as such, travel between metros is very important. Although I-95 does serve this area, commuters also have the option of using Amtrak, which runs its fastest train, the Acela, between Washington and Boston; or a number of private bus carriers that, although not as classy as the train, allow competitive rates for inter-metro travel. The Northeast was planned as the first area in the nation for new high-speed rail because its population density makes it the most feasible; however, unless the Democrats make a big comeback in 2012, it is unlikely that this project will happen any time soon.


We can’t view the world as just urban and rural. There is a gradient of settlement characters from rural to suburban to urban, and the lines between them are blurry. By the same token, a municipality of 20,000 people should not be referred to with the same word as a municipality of 8 million. They are very different animals, and our vocabulary should reflect that difference. As such, I have proposed this matrix of settlement types. If I missed something, if I’m somehow off base, or if you have anything that you think should be added to this discussion, please leave a comment below.

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