A New Kind of Minicity

The following article includes all of Chapter 9 from the book entitled Tomorrow's Transportation: Changing Cities, Economies and Lives, by William L. Garrison and Jerry D. Ward. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the authors and the publisher. Some hyperlinks have been added to the text for people who might not be familiar with some of the terms used by the authors. The book was published in March, 2000 by Artech House of Boston and London. The full  Table of Contents is also available. A discussion of these ideas can be found on the MiniCity Discussion page.

Variety is the spice of life. Anonymous

We hypothesize that there may be a way to evolve a high-density minicity that many people might actually prefer to suburban living, an enclave in which the only role of the car is outside its confines. We shall call this new urban environment pedestrian-oriented minicity (POM). We also thought of high-density carless enclave for living and working, but we couldn't pronounce HDCELW.

Our story starts with the shopping mall.

People, at least most people, like the big, fully enclosed shopping malls with their large department stores and small specialty stores, with restaurants and cafes, usually movie theaters, and sometimes a supermarket and a drug store. They seem to like the excitement and the variety that the mall developers and managers do their best to provide. And they appreciate the security. Malls not only draw the shopper and sometimes the diner, but they also draw the folks who want an indoor place to walk or just to people-watch.

We are beginning to see upscale hotels integrated into some malls. These relatively new developments must reflect the judgment that the easy availability of the mall's features, services, and ambiance are a drawing card for the hotel. And surely the mall developers see the hotel as one more source of clientele for the mall. Symbiosis.

How many people would like to live in such a mall? More precisely, how many people would like to live in an apartment or condominium complex that opened into a large, modern shopping mall? It would seem to be a small step from having a built-in hotel to having a built-in apartment building. It would certainly offer convenient shopping for the residents, particularly if the mall included a supermarket and a drug store. A mall would also offer a year-round, climate-controlled environment that is pleasant, reasonably secure, interesting, varied, and even quietly exciting.

At least in the beginning, any such development of, say, a large apartment complex integrated into a mall is likely to be a reasonably upscale development. We suspect that the at least moderately affluent elderly are likely to make up a large proportion of the initial group of people who would be attracted. These are folks who might prefer not to be dependent on their cars for the ordinary chores of daily living and can afford this approach to solving that problem. It might also appeal to many people who no longer feel they need a backyard for their children, who are tired of having to get in the car every time they discover they forgot to pick up the frozen yogurt on their last shopping trip, and those who have learned to hate their lawn mower.

But most people who might like to lessen their dependence on their cars do not want to give them up completely, implying the need for convenient accommodations for these cars. There would also have to be entrances through which deliveries of a new refrigerator or dining room table could be provided. Given the car is still available for access to the outside world, having this inner world also easily accessible should broaden its attractiveness to many people of all ages.

We are beginning to see upscale hotels integrated into some malls. These relatively new developments must reflect the judgment that the easy availability of the mall's features, services, and ambiance are a drawing card for the hotel. And surely the mall developers see the hotel as one more source of clientele for the mall. Symbiosis.

What might be the larger significance to our evolving metropolitan areas of such a marriage of a residential living complex with a mall? Disappointingly, the answer is, "Not much."

The numbers of people involved is just too small. The suburbs would never notice they had left, and they would be greatly outnumbered by the mall's conventional customers. The mall developer might see some small advantage in being able to promise an on-site clientele in signing up shops for the new mall. But he has to trade this off against alternative uses for the space it might take and the investment it would require. An apartment complex developer might, on the other hand, view it as a real drawing card. We suspect that a collaboration is the most likely path to bringing such an arrangement to fruition.

Why this negative judgment? If mall living works for a few people, why not just add more apartments and expand the range of mall services to things like schools, day care centers, and tennis courts to appeal to a broader market?

The problem is space. It is also human behavior. Joel Garreau in Edge City gives what he calls the mall developer's first and second laws [1]:

1. An American will not walk more than 600 ft before getting into his or her car.

2. Assuming using a shared driveway, parking an automobile takes 400 square feet.

Two normal city blocks are approximately 600 ft. This number is not carved in stone, and lots of malls go a bit beyond the two-block limit, but without doubt how far people are willing to walk is a real constraint on the size of malls. And as the size of the mall grows, so does the need for parking. Adding apartments doesn't change these rules of thumb and, in fact, creates one more demand on footprint space, with dwelling space competing with space for more shops and perhaps with space for parking. Introducing multistory or underground layers of parking is an option, but it adds a complication and an expense.

So combining living with mall shopping may be a great success for a few, but dynamic growth in this option would appear to be foreclosed unless we can do something to tap into footprint space or existing apartment complexes outside the mall to outgrow the constraint imposed by people's reluctance to walk long distances. We need to permit this minicity that we are trying to create to reach out beyond the confines of the mall itself. Not everybody wants to live in a mall, and even a big mall is no substitute for the full-service minicity we hope to become.

The only possible way we can imagine doing that is to add some form of internal transportation to the mall that is capable of reaching beyond it, something that can form the transportation backbone of a diverse but integrated urban complex of living, working, schooling, worshipping, and playing.

Moving sidewalks, which are common in airports, immediately come to mind. And they may play a role. We visualize something different, however, something vaguely reminiscent of the so-called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems that were studied and tested fairly extensively in the 1970s and are still garnering interest.

These PRT systems were originally envisioned as a network of tracks carrying small, two-to four-passenger "cars" anywhere in the network without stopping. The tracks were typically planned to be elevated, running through the already existing city streets. Since they were outdoors, every car was enclosed and carried its own heating or air conditioning equipment, surveillance cameras to ensure security, and equipment to cope with emergencies. Not surprisingly, such systems turned out to be expensive. There were a few, fairly limited systems built, but none that really reflected the original conception of a citywide network [2, 3]. For the POM we would make a few changes. First, the "rapid" in PRT is inappropriate; there is no real reason to go any faster than four or five times walking speeds, perhaps under 15 mph. At 15 mph, a five-minute trip carries one over a mile. The need to worry about 600-ft walking distances disappears.

In addition to being slower, we will design our new system to be an indoor system so that there is no need to air condition and heat the individual cars. In fact, there is no need for enclosed "cars" at all. Designers don't have to worry about designing for snow storms or freezing rain or elaborate emergency exits. Out in full view, the security problems are minimized. They are moving at such a low speed that a moving platform with a fence around it for safety might be enough.

We will want capacity for perhaps four passengers plus their shopping bags. There may even be a mix of car types: some might consist of just a few seats, some larger, maybe even some with a few chairs and a picnic table-one's imagination can easily run away. System designers will have considerable flexibility in the choices made. But keeping the passenger load small would permit more frequent service and nearly express delivery for everyone. We envision fairly closely spaced loading and unloading points that are off-line so that a stopped "platform" doesn't impede other "platforms" passing that point.

The technology required for our new pedestrian transport system (PTS) is familiar and readily available (examples). The structure should be light-weight, the electric-powered "cars" would be energy efficient and emission-free, and the controls automatic. The big trick, as we see it, will be primarily the problem of devising a spatial layout that fits with its environment. It will take a certain amount of cleverness to design something that provides the service we envision without taking up an inordinate amount of space. But we have little doubt that it can be done.

The PTS removes the spatial constraints of walking-only, and this changes all the ground rules. First, it lets us expand from a MallWorld to an indoor minicity, our POM. The original mall becomes the seminal nucleus of a much larger living-working-shopping-schooling-worshipping-playing network; with even relatively slow transportation there is almost no real limit on size - we can think in terms of several miles instead of several hundred feet. It also permits malls themselves to be much larger (this may be enough to motivate some mall developers to contribute toward developing our new PTS).

With our minicity we create a large indoor urban enclave that is attractive and dynamic and can accommodate hotels, dwellings, schools, churches, businesses - the full gamut of urban necessities and amenities. The movement within the network is all indoors, but there could be access points to the outdoor world of parks, playgrounds, and living complexes that can now cater to a wide range of income levels. The automobile interface is through distributed indoor and outdoor parking, interfacing with the external road system and the rest of the urban area.

Over time, one can envision new hotels, dwelling complexes, and other kinds of activity centers being added to our growing minicity, designed around the PTS that integrates the whole. As the number of inhabitants grows so do the types of services that can be provided; and as services expand, so does attractiveness to both potential dwellers and outside patrons. The POM may facilitate improved security and living - aids such as the opportunity for more convenient child care for the working mother. The automobile becomes a requirement only for trips outside the reach of the PTS.

It seems to us that one would not have to be elderly to appreciate such a living environment.

These low-speed pedestrian transport platforms might even be fun to ride. Passengers are in the open in full view of all mall activity and other activity centers along the route. They may run directly through the lobbies of hotels and the center courts of office buildings and through parks and campuses in transparent tunnels. (As an aside, we note that such a PTS might have many uses other than as a backbone for a new kind of urban living. Our concentration here, though, is on a hypothesized urban environment that might successfully compete with the alternative that has been the dominant winner through all our lifetimes: the low-density suburb.)

Our indoor minicity would interface with urban transit. As we have said repeatedly, transit is best when large numbers of people are going from the same place to the same place; with lots of riders it's affordable to have a train or bus come along every few minutes and still have a reasonable ridership on each vehicle. But in our low-density metropolitan areas heavy streams of riders are not typical: mostly people start at different places and go to different places. Without the high-frequency service that comes with more concentrated patterns of movement, it's hard to attract any rider who is not forced to use the system. We have reshaped our cities so that the automobile is by far the most economical vehicle for serving its low-density flows. Our new high-density minicity moves against this trend by concentrating passengers.

Now all this may sound very marvelous, but how can it come about? Our crystal ball gets a tad hazy at this point. Will some entrepreneurial company decide there is a market for a PTS and invest in its development? Or will some mall developer decide that a supermall has such great potential that they will fund its development?

Or will our new PTS be funded by the developers of a major new apartment complex on the rationale that if the complex can be directly connected to an already existing mall or office complex or whatever that higher rents can be charged? Perhaps they would also use the new transport system to connect to the common amenities: the tennis courts, pool, and clubhouses, for example. In fact, they may decide they can gain not only from higher rents for providing such conveniences but by selling commercial space in the connecting passageways.

Or, almost as an aside, we mention an amenity that is within our imagination but probably beyond our current technology, at least beyond it at an affordable price. To keep our pedestrian clientele from having to carry their purchases, we speculate an internal "freight" system that can deliver groceries and small packages from "mailing points" scattered throughout the minicity, perhaps directly to dwelling units. The same service could be provided to all access points to the outside, like in the parking structure or the transit stations or adjacent living complexes. The security problem could be handled with codes.

What we are imagining here is much more a conjecture than a prediction. But almost every day brings a new reminder of the ingenuity exhibited within our free market economy in spotting and exploiting new market niches. If the notion we've presented here does, in fact, represent an exploitable market niche, then the odds are good that someone will find a way. And seminal niches - like mall mobility - often have a way of becoming full-fledged markets like a minicity mobility system. There is ample opportunity for many forms of entrepreneurship.


[1] Garreau, Joel, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1991, pp. 117-118.

[2] Fabian, L. J,, "The Exceptional Services of Driverless Metros," Journal of Advanced Transportation, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1999, pp. 5-9.

[3] Didrikson, P. V,, and K. Nickerson, "The Supply Side of the Automated People Mover Market," Journal of Advanced Transportation, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1999, pp. 17-33.

Want to discuss the ideas presented above? Send your comments to Jerry Schneider so they can be included on a MiniCity Discussion page.


Last modified: August 07, 2000