Better connecting people to places in the face of car dependency

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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

The rise of walkable places & what it does (or doesn’t) mean for low-income neighborhoods

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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

"While 30-40% of market wants walkable urbanism, only 5-10% of the housing supply fits the bill. The gulf between the supply of urbanism and demand for urbanism is huge, and as a result healthy urban neighborhoods are generally insanely expensive…People are so hungry for urbanism, that Andres Duany says (only half joking) that “if you put together three good blocks, you have a tourist attraction in America these days.”"

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

Do yourself a favor and read this excellent post on pedestrian rights from a social-equity perspective, written by blogger Jason Segedy who’s Tumbr is thestile1972.

He writes about the struggles of pedestrians in Akron, OH (particularly on winter streets), but his thoughts easily transcend Akron, applying to the many car-centric places in our world.

Here’s a good quote:

There is a lot of buzz in the planning community right now about walkable streets. Planners are debating whether, or to what degree, walkable cities attract young people, “talent”, etc. 

But the whole debate is irrelevant. The bottom-line on walkability is that people should be able to walk easily and safely in cities. Period. 

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What good is an attractive, walkable neighborhood when it’s this painfully cold outside? Despite today’s warm-looking sunrise, it’s actually colder in Atlanta this morning than it is in Juneau, Alaska. So wrong.
But perhaps absence will make the heart grow fonder: when it warms up enough for a long walk through the city, I’ll enjoy it more than I normally would since it will follow my weather-induced, indoor seclusion.

What good is an attractive, walkable neighborhood when it’s this painfully cold outside? Despite today’s warm-looking sunrise, it’s actually colder in Atlanta this morning than it is in Juneau, Alaska. So wrong.

But perhaps absence will make the heart grow fonder: when it warms up enough for a long walk through the city, I’ll enjoy it more than I normally would since it will follow my weather-induced, indoor seclusion.

Nice quote from Jerry Seinfeld during a Reddit interview today:

If you can walk to work or take your bike on a daily basis, I think that’s just about the coolest thing that there is. Every morning I listen to the traffic on the radio, and they talk about how they are jammed and I just laugh. I love traffic. I love traffic reports because I’m not in any of them.

Nice quote from Jerry Seinfeld during a Reddit interview today:

If you can walk to work or take your bike on a daily basis, I think that’s just about the coolest thing that there is. Every morning I listen to the traffic on the radio, and they talk about how they are jammed and I just laugh. I love traffic. I love traffic reports because I’m not in any of them.

(Source: starsonbikes)

"If everyone in the 51 largest metro areas reduced driving by one mile per day on average, the U.S. as a whole could save $31 billion a year. And here’s the thing: that money would likely go to more productive use than it does today being tied up in the fossil fuel economy."

A Little Less Driving Means Big Dividends For Local Economies: People who drive less give less money to distant oil corporations, but give a lot more to the local economy | Fast Company, 12/18/2013