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Transportation Is Destiny — Except When It Isn’t

You can build all the subways you want, but they won’t produce city life without attention to what’s around them.

Westfield Chodov, the largest mall in the Czech Republic. Prague's subway has an exit from the Chodov metro station directly into the lower floors of the shopping mall, a reminder of how the Lexington Avenue subway line connects to Bloomingdale’s department store in Manhattan. (
Some may ask why Americans should care at all what’s happening in a small country in the middle of Europe. The answer is that we are still building similar installations in North America, both on virgin land and retooled land, in suburbs as well as in urban areas. It helps to understand what the possibilities are, what the pitfalls are and what the trade-offs are. Transportation itself doesn’t answer the important questions. It’s what you do with transportation that matters.

I used to think that if you put down a big highway and an off-ramp, shopping malls and subdivisions would magically spring from the ground nearby. Or that if you put down subways and streetcar lines, rows of walkable streets with stores, homes and restaurants would sprout.

In other words, transportation determines everything. That’s how I put it more than 20 years ago in my book, How Cities Work.

But while I still think transportation is the most important factor in placemaking, I now realize that things are more complicated. There are many different ways to grow buildings, streets and spaces around particular transportation systems.

I’m seeing this here in the suburbs of Prague, the city in which I am currently living, when I travel outside the historic center. Prague has suburbs that have grown up in the last half-century under two different systems, communism and European Union-style capitalism. They have each developed in their own ways, regardless of transportation decisions.

To understand this, it helps to remember that infrastructure is aspirational. It’s seldom just solving a practical problem. It embodies an ideal for the future. It’s people coming together in service of a dream.

One place worth looking at is Nové Butovice, a few miles west of the older city. This is the name of the subway stop which opened as part of a metro extension in 1990, the last of the extensions under the communists. While people here generally don’t like the communists, the metro system gets a thumbs up from almost everyone.

When you exit the Nové Butovice metro station, you are immediately among a set of tallish towers set on grass and plazas — Corbusier-style towers in the park. They are office buildings, and they are prosperous. What the area isn’t is any sort of classic urbanism, of the kind I like and enjoy. The designers made different choices.

A quarter mile or so from the station is an indoor shopping mall called Galerie Butovice. It opened in 2015. To reach it, I had to walk down a series of haphazardly placed staircases, then follow a meandering concrete path that took me through a dank, dark passageway under a road.

The journey, though only about five minutes, was neither pleasant nor easy. Why, I asked myself, didn’t the state or the private developer connect the indoor shopping mall better to the nearby metro station? Just from a business point of view, making it easier for thousands of potential customers to visit makes sense. Inside the mall, there are vacant storefronts. Maybe if it were better connected to the metro system, the shopping center would be doing better.

Whatever one’s feelings about malls, it’s bad urban design and bad business not to connect it to a nearby subway line. Transportation didn’t determine this outcome. Planners just failed to take advantage of what they had built.

Another mall, office complex and subway-stop area, southeast of old Prague, is called Chodov. It features gleaming rows of glass office buildings proudly proclaiming Samsung, Accenture, DHL, IBM and Honeywell — in effect advertising Prague’s status as a player in the global economy. Right next door to the office buildings is a mammoth shopping mall, the largest in the region, called the Westfield mall. It is named after the international mall company which bought and renovated it, and opened it anew in 2015.

I took the subway there, and given my experience at Nové Butovice, I had envisioned having to walk along a gravel road to reach the mall. But this time the pieces fit together. There was an exit from the Chodov metro station directly into the lower floors of the shopping mall, reminding me of how the Lexington Avenue subway line connects to Bloomingdale’s department store in Manhattan.

If you are going to build a mall, connecting it to a nearby subway line makes sense.

Why didn’t the Czech government spend more of its European Union money on transit-pedestrian connections? Then it could have encouraged compact development of towns and cities, a Czech-style urbanism. Instead, Czech governments have been expanding their limited-access highways, already known for their traffic jams.

The answer is that after 40 years of being the poor relation in Europe, the Czechs were hungry for all the problems of their richer western neighbors, including traffic, sprawl and generic shopping malls. Now that they have those, they are talking about reducing the funding of highways and parking, and creating more human-scale environments.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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