Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Sara Maurer: Social Justice on Two Wheels

This is the third paper in a series “The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities”, from the Automobile and The City course taught by Frederic Stout at Stanford University. Written by Sara Maurer ’16, and titled “Social Justice on Two Wheels: Why Bike-Share in the US Must Be Made Accessible to Low Income and Disadvantaged Communities”, this paper discusses the current mobility gap that exists in American society today, and how changes in current bike-sharing practices have the capability to close this gap in the future.

This is not an attack on cars in America. For sure, there is no shortage of criticisms of cars: that they are dangerous, polluting, oil-sucking, traffic-congesting incubators of social isolation. But this is not an attack on cars in America. While there is truth to those claims, it would be untrue (and unreasonable) to claim that cars, in all their popularity, offer no advantage to the people who use them. Cars are popular in large part because of the link between mobility and opportunity: the more easily you are able to get around, the greater your chances are to find a job, build social connections, and generally live life on your terms, and in a country set up for car travel, cars tend to allow the greatest access to opportunity. So this, instead, is an examination of an alternative mode of transportation, a mode that has the potential to mitigate the social and economic inequality that exists in large part because of unequal access to mobility. That mode is bicycles. The recent rise in U.S. cities of bike-share programs –systems of bike stations that allow people to check out, ride and re-dock bikes for short rides– is an opportunity to address the advantage gap that currently exists between those who have the greatest access to effective transportation and those who do not. But the mere introduction of bike-share programs will not bridge the gap, because the way in which bike-share programs are implemented and integrated into urban places has as much potential for widening socioeconomic gaps as it does for decreasing them. U.S. bike-share programs right now are not set up to be accessible for low-income groups: they are set up for the educated, the well-off, and the tech-savvy. If they continue like this, bike-share will be another mode of transit where, just like with cars, those with access to that means of transportation are at an advantage and those without, at a disadvantage.

That is why here I hope to discuss the advantage gap that exists in terms of mobility: why mobility is so important for equal opportunity, what the potential of bike-share programs is, what barriers to entry exist for low-income people currently, and what improvements people are discussing. But most of all I hope to drive home that because of the importance of mobility for socioeconomic opportunity, we must make bike-share systems accessible to more people than middle-aged yuppies and green living enthusiasts. Bike-share must be accessible to as many people as possible so that, far from worsening inequality, it can fulfill its potential to help low-income communities overcome the mobility gap that currently exists. 


To read the full paper visit: http://issuu.com/urbanter/docs/mauerpaper.docx


Michael Nehmad: The 21st Century Car, an Attempt to Redeem Itself

This is the second paper in a series “The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities”, from the Automobile and The City course taught by Frederic Stout at Stanford University. This paper, written by Michael Nehmad, discusses the three core problems caused by the current iteration of the automobile, and demonstrates how technologies already being developed for cars could solve those problems in a much more efficient and cost effective way than eliminating cars all together.


A more catchy title for this paper could easily have been “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: The story of the American auto industry over the past century”. The automobile entered the 20th century to great acclaim and promise. It was a truly revolutionary development. The car shaped the way cities, towns, and suburbs were developed. The car shaped the way goods could be transferred all across the world. The car helped to shape the way people lived, communicated, learned, worked, traveled, and relaxed. In a single explanation, the car made the world a much more accessible place for everyone who owned one. As such, its initial success was profound. While on a much larger scale, the automobile of the early 20th century can be compared to the smartphone of the 21st century. It created new feelings of independence, endowing the owner with the freedom to explore new things on a whim. It seemingly made everything in life more convenient. It was a status symbol. Everyone wanted one, and the only reason not to have one was if you couldn’t afford one. On the back of this automotive boom rode the success of American industry for the first half of the 20th century. In 1955, the five largest American companies were General Motors, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Chrysler, and Standard Oil, with Ford following closely behind; all of which are either car companies themselves (GM, Chrysler, Ford), or relied on the auto industry to drive up the sales of their respective products (U.S. Steel, GE, Standard Oil). America’s love affair with automobiles was undeniable but it soon became clear that the honeymoon would not last forever. As the second half of the 20th century rolled around, it seemed that too much of a good thing was turning out to be a very, very bad thing. As cars became more affordable over time, the number of cars on the road drastically increased, nearly doubling in the past forty years. This rising reliance on automobiles has become a leading factor in three of the biggest issues society currently faces today – global warming, traffic fatalities, and traffic congestion. Consequently, ever since concerns about these issues began to arise in the seventies, there has been a polarizing shift moving away from automobiles. The movement initially only consisted of a select few urban planners, green activists, and politicians, but as these three problems became ever more pervasive, and the automobile became ever more blatantly at fault, larger factions took notice and have begun executing alternatives. Cities across the US have been implementing rapid transit busses, light rail systems, and bike share programs, all in an effort to decrease the number of cars driving in their city. However, despite the fact that cars have clearly been the root of these societal problems, to jump to the conclusion that eliminating cars as quickly as possible is the best solution is premature, and impulsive. Replacing all automobiles with busses, light rail, rapid transit, bicycles, and more efficient urban planning would certainly decrease CO2 emissions, traffic fatalities, and traffic congestions, but at what cost? America, historically, has not backpedaled in order to solve problems, but rather looked for ways to improve upon what we have, for the betterment of all. Thus, the goal of this paper will be to focus on each of the three core problems caused by the current iteration of the automobile, and demonstrate how technologies already being developed for cars could solve those problems in a much more efficient and cost effective way than eliminating cars all together. However this debate turns out over the next half century will be transformative in one way or the other, but an industry that supported the country economically for decades, an industry that employs 3 million people, and an industry that was just bailed out by the government for $60 billion, is an industry worth fighting for.


To read the full paper, please visit http://issuu.com/urbanter/docs/nehmadpaper.docx

Frederic Stout: Introduction to The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities Series

This is the first paper in a series “The Automobile, The City, and the New Urban Mobilities”, from the Automobile and The City course taught by Frederic Stout at Stanford University. This is the introductory paper written by Frederic Stout, contextualizing and outlining the rest of the series.

Thinking about the “new urban mobilities,” – especially the interplay between the emerging technologies of transportation and communication within the larger contexts of globalism, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic dislocations – demands a new level of understanding, both practical and theoretical, of how urban communities change over time and how those changes in turn contribute to on-going personal, political, and cultural transformations. Keeping those simple human concerns primary in discussions of mobility infrastructure and policy is what Lewis Mumford meant when he insisted to an audience of urban planners in 1937 that the principal responsibility of their profession must always be to nurture, not frustrate, what he called the “urban drama” – the day-to-day life of individuals, families, and communities as they go about the diurnal tasks of living, working, raising families, and governing themselves in cities.

From the earliest times and increasingly, mobility has been an important urban value, no more so than in the 20th century when the affordable personal automobile became common. With astonishing rapidity, the automobile replaced horses with horseless carriages, competed with trolleys and horse-drawn omnibuses for the provision of mass transportation, and made residential suburbs so accessible to urban centers that a fundamentally new kind of city – the inter-connected metropolitan region – came into existence as the dominant paradigm of modern human settlement. It seems fitting, therefore, that an examination of the history of the automobile’s impact on cities in the 20th century would be a convenient entryway into an understanding of the new forms of urban mobility that will characterize the 21st.

Today, most urban planners favor walking, cycling, and an intensified commitment to mass transit solutions to the problems of urban mobility. This movement is not sui generis but imbedded within a changing historical and developmental context that provides both the motivation and the direction of an emerging new paradigm of human social existence. A new global economy and a global urban network are taking over from earlier urban-rural and nation-state models of hegemony. Digital communications and “information-age” values have come to dominate global flows of money, people, and ideas. Millions of rural migrants are flowing into the burgeoning mega-cities of Asia and Latin America, and a new generation of educated middle-class young people stands ready to inherit a new urban planet with all its problems and all its promises. Who will not agree that we are at an important transition point leading to a new urban paradigm?

The conversation about emergent urban mobilities will inevitably be dominated by specialists in transportation technology, by urban transportation planners, and by public policy experts. What an urban studies generalist can contribute is an inter-disciplinary perspective on the larger contexts that surround and encompass the machines, the plans, and the policies. And if looking at the past impact of the private automobile on cities of the 20th century is a useful way of approaching the issue of what the future impacts of new forms of urban mobility might be, we will need to conduct our inquiry along three dimensions of analysis:

  • first, the effects of mobility technologies on the essential functions of urban life itself – the citadel functions of law and governance, the market functions of economic production and commerce, and the community functions of individuals, families, neighborhoods, and local cultures;
  • second, the influence of urban globalization on the mobility aspirations of two key constituencies who will be the consumers of the policies and technologies of the future – the emerging urban middle class in the formerly under-developed regions of the world and the new “Millennial Generation” – those born in the 1980s and 90s – in the developed world;
  • and third, the ways in which both the new digital communications technologies and the urbanization process itself can – and likely will, over time – respond to many of the challenges of sustainability, population growth, and social equity posed by the current shift to a new urban-historical paradigm.

This last point is especially important because the distinction between transportation and communication may be in the process of disappearing. In The City in History (1961), Mumford identified “the dialogue” as “one of the ultimate expressions” of the urban drama – “the delicate flower of its long vegetative growth.” But for dialogue of any kind to take place, participants in the social drama of the city need to move into or about shared urban space. In the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, that meant ascending the Acropolis for public rituals, gathering at Pnyx for the frequent assemblies, walking in small groups along the city walls, or merely loitering about the Agora. Mobility and communication were intimately connected, and the density of walkable urban space was the enabler of both. Kurt W. Marek – famous for his popular histories of archaeology under the pseudonym C, W. Ceram – once observed that it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century that communication and transportation were “for the first time . . . understood to be two different things.” Today, however, we need to question that insight and think about the changing meaning of the ultimate mobility word, the verb “to go.” We still want to go to the party, and we probably need to go to the gym, but we no longer need to go to the store or go to the library. Much to the dismay of brick-and-mortar retailers and librarians everywhere, we now have the new mobility option of shopping for products and accessing information online through our computers and cellphones. These developments tend toward re-integrating the disconnect between communication and transportation that Marek identified as a conceptual phenomenon of the 19th century. Perhaps even the way young people use the phrase “I go” when they mean “I say” is a sign of the times!

The deeper conversation about urban mobilities today, however, is driven not just by exciting new developments in technologies, nor even by cultural changes in the way we think about urban space, but by the astonishing rapidity with which the demographics of global urbanization have transformed, and continue to transform, human history. For the past 200 years, the percentage of the human population categorized as urban has skyrocketed: the United Kingdom reached the milestone of 50% urbanization sometime in the mid-19th century, the United States reached that point by 1920, and according to the United Nations the planet as a whole became majority-urban sometime in 2009-10. And in anticipation of what some have called humankind’s “next great migration,” current projections suggest that the world may become 70% or even 80% urban by the end of present century. Absent these facts, speculations about new urban mobilities would be of limited interest or relevance. And surprisingly, there is some reason to believe that the current urbanization trends themselves – the collective arc of humanity’s long urban narrative – will help to solve many of our current economic, social, and environmental challenges. It is in this larger context that reassessing the historical relationship between the automobile and the city in the 20th century will hopefully enlarge our understanding of the importance of all forms of urban mobility today and help us formulate the necessary policies and designs that the urban future demands.

To read the full piece, follow this link: http://issuu.com/urbanter/docs/stouteditfinal.docx?e=11935262/7814468

Interview with Peter Calthorpe

​Peter Calthorpe, one of the most well-known innovators in urban design in the world, had a discussion with senior Ma’ayan Dembo on how he started in this field, his views on urbanism in the age of climate change, high speed rail, and the controversial Saltworks project.  In this interview, Mr. Calthorpe also discussed his Vision California project and what California can do to lead the world in designing for cities that have a lower carbon footprint and have better transportation and urban amenities.
Mr. Calthorpe has written extensively about urban design.  His most recent books include:
Mr. Calthorpe’s interview with KZSU’s Maayan Dembo was broadcast on KZSU on April, 24th 2014 on the Modern Tek News news show, and is available from this link.

Hon. Rodney Slater Talk at the Stanford “Transportation 2025 and Beyond” Event

On March 13, 2014 Honorable Rodney Slater, former US Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton Administration (in office 1997 – 2001), addressed the policies and innovations behind the present transformation of America’s transportation systems, and the leadership that will be required to finish the job. Secretary Slater offered historical perspective from his executive roles at the Federal Highway Administration and Department of Transportation (DOT), during which, among other significant developments, key public-private partnerships and cohesive visions of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) emerged. Now an advisor to current national transportation leaders, major corporations, state governments and international organizations, Secretary Slater shared his perspective on key developments over recent years and the opportunities and challenges ahead as new innovations continue to transform America’s transportation landscape towards 2025 and beyond.
“Transportation 2025 and Beyond” was co-hosted by the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The event was recorded by Labiba Boyd, and the audio was edited by Ma’ayan Dembo, both representing KZSU Stanford 90.1 FM.

Rally at Highway 1 to Stop the Widening Saturday March 29, 11:00 -12:00pm

Point person: Cynthia Kaufman— kaufman.cynthia13@riseup.net  650.557.9797
On March 29 at 11:00 at the corner of Highway 1 and Rockaway Beach Avenue, Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives (PH1A) will be rallying to inform the citizens of Pacifica about the Caltrans plan to double the width of Highway 1 between Reina del Mar and Fassler. 
The group has been engaging the public in front of shops and going door to door. They have found overwhelming opposition to the project.
The volunteers are asking for signatures on a petition that reads:
“To the Pacifica City Council: The Caltrans plan to widen Highway 1 is not good for Pacifica. It will cause more problems than it will solve. I support pursuing a combination of alternatives that can improve traffic congestion on Highway 1 and that will be less damaging to Pacifica.”
PH1A opposes the plan for a number of reasons:  The present plan from Caltrans is vague and does not address the needs for safe pedestrian crossing at these crucial sites; it does not have good bicycle lanes. The plan calls for huge retaining walls and does not rule out the possibility of sound walls blocking coastal views. In short, it will destroy some of Pacifica’s unique beauty and our quality of life.
Moreover, the plan seems destined not to reduce traffic in the long range but to increase it, since 4 lanes would go to 6 lanes and then back to 4 – permanent bottlenecks. The increased traffic during years of construction will generate more traffic congestion, as well as air and noise pollution. Most likely, it will never lead to shortened traffic after that multi-year process.
PH1A has been organizing for over a year to get the Pacifica City Council to hold public hearings on the proposed widening of Highway 1. So far the city has not acted, and the plan is moving forward, with Caltrans taking the lead. PH1A also wants City Council to hire a traffic consultant to investigate what alternatives would be best for Pacifica. The group has already suggested synchronization of the lights, more resources for carpooling by the schools, better public transportation, and other alternatives that are better for pedestrians and bicycles, more likely to reduce traffic, less massive, and less invasive to the lives of Pacificans.
If you’d like to volunteer or for more information, please contact PH1A email ph1a@gmail.com or visit http://ph1a-pacifica.weebly.com

Ma’ayan Dembo: Abstract for Senior Capstone Project

Even though Hip-Hop graffiti first surfaced 45 years ago, city governments still struggle to come up with policies to address it. While researchers have discussed the negative, unintended consequences of city policies regarding graffiti/street art, none have explored the implications of these laws on the content and processes of the artists.  To do so, an international study was chosen between San Francisco, California, and Berlin, Germany, due to graffiti’s ubiquitous nature today. By looking at different countries, unique cultural and historic factors can be highlighted that affect the consistent core characteristics of this global movement. Both Berlin and San Francisco have had a thriving graffiti culture for over thirty years, and each city has differences in their regulatory approach.

Interviews with artists (ranging from traditional muralists, taggers, wheatpasters, stickerers, and chalk artists) were the best research method. Artists seldom have an opportunity to be in dialogue with city policies, and have to maintain anonymity due to the illegal nature of their work. Artists gave descriptive answers to the open ended questions that allowed common themes to be drawn across, or within, each city. While in San Francisco, artists were recruited through snowball sampling, in Berlin, artists were selected through a different process. I contacted subjects by recording signed works throughout the city and finding the corresponding email addresses or social media accounts. Berlin required a different sampling methodology because there were fewer initial contacts there than in San Francisco. Eleven artists from Berlin and ten artists from San Francisco were interviewed, all focusing in a variety of media. To gain perspective from the city’s side, one representative of the San Francisco Arts Commission was interview, and the Berlin Anti-Graffiti task force referred me to a series of documents outlining Berlin’s stance towards vandalism and street art.

In both San Francisco and Berlin, cultural and historical factors largely explain where graffiti/street artists’ prefer to create their works. While Berlin’s policies and programs also contribute to these artists’ spatial preferences, San Francisco’s robust programs have little influence on artists. In San Francisco, the majority of artists interviewed created works in alleyways, while most Berlin artists mentioned painting in abandoned buildings. These differing spatial preferences in turn inform each city’s scale and content of artists’ pieces, as well as potential barriers to creating legal works for younger artists. San Francisco’s artists focused more on creating works that were relevant, or at least acknowledged, the community. Local artists worked on a smaller scale, preventing them from painting many of the city’s large-scale works. Moreover in San Francisco there are greater barriers to making legal pieces for younger artists due to the lack of free space available for experimentation. In Berlin, artists did not have the same connection to the community in San Francisco because their preferred spaces– abandoned buildings– are outside of the public eye. Berlin artists, though, have more access to larger surfaces and thus are experienced at painting large murals. In addition, by painting in abandoned buildings, Berlin artists can paint on the same scale as San Francisco artists, but have more opportunities to play with the architecture and niches of a specific space. Finally, in Berlin, making legal works is easier since there is an abundance of empty and secluded wall space, as well as many legal Halls of Fame.

In 2014, graffiti is 45 years old– having already started a family and now raising children, it’s viewing the world through a different lens. In a similar life stage, traditional muralism is witnessing younger generations using its techniques and modifying the content and purpose of their works. Graffiti/street art forms are being re-defined right now, and cities must critically evaluate the laws they put in place regarding these urban art forms to fully understand both the consequences and the implications of these policies.

Ma’ayan Dembo: Studies on Public Spaces

In 1969, William Whyte began a massive research project alongside the New York City Planning Commission. His goal– to observe and document how people interact with themselves, each other, and space in the setting of urban areas, plazas, and parks. Called ‘The Street Life Project’, Whyte and his team of researchers took to the streets with video cameras, still cameras, and notebooks for documentation. Whyte was one of the first researchers to research pedestrian behavioral phenomena in an objective and measurable way in part by using new modern technologies. 


In 2009, Keith Hampton saw current modern technologies as perhaps alienating today’s social interactions. Converting roughly 3,273 reels of Whyte’s original footage into a digital format, Hampton chose sites in three cities– New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston– that had the best footage and conditions allowed for replication (i.e. the sites still existed today). 

Between 2008 and 2010, Hampton’s team collected and analyzed roughly 38 hours of film– coding individuals and interactions based on sex, group size, “loitering”, and phone use. Overall, the study showed a lower amount of texting and phone use than expected. Moreover, phone users tended to be alone instead of in groups. To the researchers, phone use was prevalent if individuals were passing time while waiting for someone, or as a way to enjoy a solo lunch break. 

Moreover, the study showed that today there is a significantly higher proportion of females in public urban settings in relation to men. The only place where females decreased proportionally? Boston’s Downtown crossing– a major shopping hub in the city. As Hampton said in a recent New York Times article, “The decline in women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles… [men seem to be] taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine”.

While Hampton set out to see how modern technologies are shaping human interaction, he found a completely different narrative. Today’s cities are not shaped by loneliness or ubiquitous connectivity, rather we see more gender equity.



For more information on the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design, and educational organization expanding on the work of William Whyte, visit: http://www.pps.org

Ma’ayan Dembo: Reclaiming Public Spaces for the Public

Shortly after the American mass urbanization, city streets became infested with parking lots and spaces– great spans of pavement that have negative impacts on our environment (heat, run-off, etc). Recently, there has been a new initiative throughout many cities all over the world to convert some of these parking spaces into parklets in efforts to create a more livable urban environment. Spearheaded by the San Francisco Planning Department, in 2010 the first parklet was installed, with 38 more by the end of 2012. Parklets have been created along major thoroughfares, especially along the Valencia, Divisadero, and Columbus corridors.

Parklets repurpose street space to achieve greater utilitarian goals. These parklets also represent a wonderful public-private partnership– processes are expedited by city partnership, but funded mainly through residents, business owners, and community organizations. Moreover, achieving egalitarian goals, these parklets are open to the public and require no purchase necessary. Parklets accomplish four main goals: they reimagine the potential of city streets, encourage non-motorized transportation, encourage pedestrian activity, and support local businesses. These parklets are an ingenious and inexpensive way to turn ordinary streets into cozy and warmer public spaces.

If you have an under used space in mind by your house or in your community, check out the Pavement to Parks manual on the SFDP website for more information and ideas.

Philadelphia Planning Week 8 (Nick, Final Week!)