— Finding Freedom in the Walkable Neighborhood | This Big City, 7/7/2014
While reading an article about the way cheap parking encourages driving, “Low parking costs may encourage automobile use,” I saw this quote; I think it nails the relationship between sprawl development and limited transportation options:
During the past 25 years, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than the U.S. population. The predominant form of development, low-density sprawl, has encouraged automobile use and has worsened the challenges of providing convenient and low-cost public transportation.
Put this together with Rebecca Burns’ article this year that explores the way Metro Atlanta’s car-sprawl caused so many people to be stranded in a snow storm, and you’ve got a clear answer to the question of why the metro doesn’t have better transit options.
As long as we continue to build and maintain car-scaled developments and cheap parking — and surround that with car-focused infrastructure that hinders walkability and safe, convenient cycling — the metro as a whole will be stuck in a rut of car dependency. And it affects us all, even the ones who live in little bubbles of walkable, urban spaces, because it prevents those bubbles from being connected well. (Example: Downtown Woodstock, in the northern part of Metro Atlanta, is a decently-walkable pocket of human-scaled density. But try getting there without a car; and try operating a business there without cheap parking.)
This shouldn’t be a politicized issue of big-city urbanites versus suburbanites. This should be an issue of smart moves that allow people the freedom to connect to their needs in multiple ways without being forced into car ownership. And it should be about the freedom to build businesses that don’t require heavy expenditures for car storage via parking minimums — something that limits commercial construction to moneyed, big developers and big projects (think: sprawlburbs littered with big-box stores) instead of allowing for small-scale, incremental growth.
Can leaders region-wide accept the challenge of connecting roads now disconnected by cul-de-sacs, rezoning for mixed uses and increased density, and sacrificing some car lanes to make way for pedestrian & cycling infrastructure? I hope so. Because that’s part of what it will take to allow for a reversal of car dependency on a large scale — and not only in bubbles here and there.
Photo by Flickr user BoringPostcards
Writer Kaid Benfield has an excellent new post this week: Why urban demographers are right about the trend toward downtowns and walkable suburbs. It covers a lot of ground, primarily providing a data-based rebuttal to arguments, by some, that trends toward walkable urbanism are going to be short lived.
He references reliable data that supports the following promising trends:
- In the coming decades, walkable cities and retrofitted suburbs will continue to gain favor over car-dependent sprawl for housing
- After decades of fleeing downtowns for office parks and exurban campuses, corporations are moving back to walkable, transit-connected cities
- The US has hit a peak in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), on both a per capita and absolute basis, implying less car dependency in the lives of Americans
As Benfield importantly points out about these trends: “this is not urbanist wishful thinking. These are facts.” The numbers don’t lie. The trend for the future in the US is toward walkable, compact places. Local governments that continue to embrace car-centric sprawl are investing in a form that is falling out of favor with Americans, and they will likely pay a price for it over time.
Benfield also addresses claims that growth in urbanism is not a positive trend because it provides no benefit to lower-income populations in cities. He points out that, though it’s true that urbanism itself is providing no clear solution to the bad schools, chronic unemployment, higher crime rates and poor health of low-income residents, neither is anything else. Tragically, “very little that has been tried over the past several decades has had a pronounced, lasting impact to lift people out of poverty.”
I’ll add this: moving Downtown has afforded my family and I the first clear look at widespread poverty that we’ve had. Our recent trip to Wesview Cemetery took us through neighborhoods west of Downtown that are filled with abandoned houses and other hallmarks of economic hardship; see Rebecca Burns’ recent video for a taste of the landscape.
Even though economic (and other) monocultures exist in Atlanta on neighborhood levels, living in the compact urban core inevitably puts you face-to-face with a wide spectrum of people, which forces you to think about the city’s divides.
I have no data to support this, but I can’t help but believe that it’s helpful in the long term for us to be more aware and informed about each other via this face-to-face contact. Political leadership will be key in addressing poverty in Atlanta, but the trend toward walkable urbanism, putting us in closer contact with the city’s diversity, will also help facilitate positive change.
Photo of Atlanta’s Broad Street by me
— Housing shortage or urbanism shortage? For a number of very good reasons, there aren’t enough walkable urban places to meet demand | Dan Zack, Bettercities.net, 2/18/2014