Recently, I spent some time in a small city in the US Southeast. Stationed in a hotel a few miles from the center of town and without a car, I spent a few days negotiating the area on foot.
The years have not been kind to our places. I don’t wish to romanticize the past, as I know that there were unique trials to living, say, a hundred years ago, but when you look at a post card from that era, you usually see something that looks inviting, homey even, if not exactly where you’d want to be.
This was the street corner my hotel was on.
The corner was an intersection of two roads that had a combined capacity of fifteen (!) lanes, when turning lanes were taken into account. And not a single crosswalk. On the other three sides of the intersection, a shopping center with a few restaurants, a hospital, and large chain convenience store.
How do you negotiate a street like this?
“In a car, Mike.”
So, I need a 2 ton vehicle, plus insurance and registration, to get across a street? And yet, my only alternative was to dart across, Frogger-like, over many lanes of traffic. What was this place designed for? Certainly not me.
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We may talk sardonically about the notion that “corporations are people“, but I think the bigger concern for us is that “cars are people.” We’re certainly not building our spaces for people when they’re not in cars.
Bill Bryson wrote an essay in the mid-1990’s titled “Why No One Walks”. In it, he lamented:
“[T]he United States spends less than 1 per cent of its $25 billion a year roads budget on facilities for pedestrians. Actually, I’m surprised it’s that much. Go to almost any suburb developed in the last 30 years – and there are thousands to choose from – and you will not find a sidewalk anywhere. Often you won’t find a single pedestrian crossing.”
More like 50 years now. That’s a long time develop areas that aren’t designed for people.
Show me the (lack of) money
Charles Marohn, who is rapidly becoming my new hero, has founded a project called Strong Towns, which is an advocacy group dedicated to revitalizing our places. I’d recommend that everyone read everything there, but at the very least, I’d recommend reading his treatise on the Growth Ponzi Scheme.
What I find most fascinating about Mr. Marohn himself, is that I have absolutely no idea what his political leanings are, based on his work. This is a very rare quality (think about it: if you’re advocating for labor rights, I can probably guess which side of the aisle you’re on). But it’s also salient, because his arguments are purely economic. Car-oriented development, the type we overwhelmingly favor, is financially unsustainable. Cities and towns are going broke, and the federal government (whose finances are tied to the ever-useless gas tax) can’t help.
There is something stupefying about hearing stories about towns widening highways while simultaneously being unable to pay for basic existing infrastructure. Making it easier for people to get in and out of town, while making it harder for those who stay in town: what problem are we trying to solve here?
The painful place
But the problem is more than economic. At some level, it is fundamentally painful to live in a place that isn’t designed for you. It is a kind of psychic pain, on a low-level such that you may not even notice it. But it is there, and it sneaks up in odd ways.
In the way we turn our homes into fortresses. As large a place as possible, because it’s where we must spend all of our time, at least when we’re not driving to work or Starbucks and back.
In the way we each need our own large outdoor space. Giant lawns surrounding homes feel like moats to me, and it fits with the fortified nature of our homes. What are we trying to keep out?
In the way we put our living spaces away from everything else. What is the purpose of living where you are miles away down a paved road from anything else you may need? There is no reason why one can’t live in the same area where there are places to work. (Beyond traditional “Main Streets” too; there’s nothing saying that side streets can’t be residential and arterials be commercial.)
We can see that this is a self-perpetuating cycle. As development becomes more car-centric, people are forced to drive places. As people drive more places, development will rise to meet them. This gives rise to the “windshield perspective” or the seeing of things only from the position of being in a car. Those crazy pedestrians! Don’t they know that this is a road? Ten points for each, haha.
Make no mistake, this type of development is harming us on a personal level. We hate traffic (even though we are traffic). We complain about the road conditions, and then we complain about the commutes, and then we complain about how expensive car repairs are, and then we complain about soulless places, and then we complain about how there’s nothing to do around here, and we complain about how expensive housing is. All of this hurts. You may love your home, but do you love where you live?
(And let’s not even talk about the environmental devastation here. I’m trying to keep this politically neutral, but I’m not as savvy as Mr. Marohn.)
This will change
In the end, what buoys my spirits after having traveled to so many places and seen the same development patterns over and over, is that this development pattern will change because it has to.
I feel like my generation is the first to have grown up in cul-de-sacs and suburban nowheres, having the experience of needing to get their drivers license as soon as possible so they could get the hell out of there. And then having discovered that denser, more pedestrian-friendly ways of living, with its downsizing and minimalism and increase in cultural exchange, is in many ways a vast improvement on living in a bubble.
Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the US has dropped per capita every year since since 2004, and the trend continues even as unemployment falls (so this can’t be linked to a recession). People are finding ways to drive less. When people drive less, places will change to adapt to them. Witness transit-oriented development, or TOD, the stop-gap measure that creates walkable districts by commuter stations. It does not a strong town make, but it’s better than Park and Rides.
As Mr. Marohn advocates (and with the research to back it up), towns are going broke, and car-oriented development is substantially to blame. But our patterns will change. The transition might be painful for some. But when the smoke clears, no matter how things look, people will eventually be happier where they actually are.