There are several themes in the book.
Cities and their networks operate on multiple timescales simultaneously. Traffic lights change by the second, rights-of-way last millennia. Cities see massive daily flows of people in and out. The core, timeless, enduring elements contrast with the faddish ephemera that too much effort is focused on. The future is emerging, but determining what we are looking forward to will be enduring or ephemeral should be the critical focus of anyone involved with transport and city design.
This book does not shy away from the normative and prescriptive. In this it differs from much academic work, including my own, which tends to the positive and descriptive. Principles are laid out, which I believe to be true and correct, many of which are not scientific in the way they are framed. They of course may lead to testable hypotheses, but they are also value-based.
The idea of the ‘spontaneous city,’ one that serves needs and wants in real-time, is a theme running through both the title and the text. What conditions encourage people to take advantage of their city (and therefore make it stronger)? What conditions worsen life for the users of the city?
The emergence of new transport technologies gives us a chance to restore and correct, to right what is wrong with the places we live. From the railroad and electric streetcar creating separation between places where people lived and where they worked, to the elevator enabling high rise construction, to the motorcar which put suburbanization into over- drive, all significant transport innovations reshape cities. The new autonomous vehicle, the new electric vehicle, the new shared vehicle, the vehicle form, shape, and size are a transformation of similar scale and scope. These changes will create opportunities over the coming decades, which we can seize or reject.
This book is about how cities do work, how cities can work, and how cities should work. In part it is about traditional fields of planning and engineering, but takes a much broader concept of design principles than those fields usually do. This is because it is also about evolution and it is about opportunism. The world is changing fast. We can make it a more humane place than it has ever been, or we can allow it to devolve into a more brutish environment, where we remain a victim of our collectively built environments, rather than their master.
When the book speaks of ‘cities’ it really means the entire metropolitan ‘urban system,’ not just the historic core city (or the central business district). Downtown is but a part of the city, and the central city in many metropolises is not even a plurality of residents.
Much of this book includes complaint, and it may feel like shouting into the wind. But every complaint is about a design failure, either with intention or by accident, that degrades experience for everyone, or degrades the experience of some for the benefit of others. Life is comprised of tradeoffs, but not all tradeoffs are made at the appropriate rate of exchange. Both cities and their transport networks are the product of thoughtful human actions and unconscious emergent processes, where systematic behavior drives the underlying logic of designs.
The optimal design of transport networks to serve the goal of spontaneous access cannot be determined in the absence of knowledge about the actual development pattern. The optimal development pattern cannot be known without regards to the plan of the network. Discovering the right combinations of networks, land use, and other urban features is what makes cities successful. The measure of their success is their population, their wealth, their happiness.
But even more importantly, the optimal transport network for the technology of one era is not necessarily the optimal network of the future, and the same is true for development.