By Dom Nozzi
Admirably, “new urbanist” developments strive first and foremost to be walkable (and human-scaled). Indeed, the movement started a few decades ago as a reaction against the fact that nearly all development that has been built over the past century is utterly car-oriented and unwalkable.
But as a correspondent pointed out to me eight years ago, a number of new urbanist developments are not particularly walkable.
How can that be?
In my view, this should not be surprising. After all, America has been aggressively ANTI-pedestrian for several decades. Not necessarily intentionally, but certainly inevitably. Why?
Because for nearly 100 years, we have been compelled to be obsessed about making cars happy. The emergence of the car (and the existence of cheap oil) has led to the inevitable degradation of conditions for all other forms of travel. Economists call this the “barrier effect.”
Designing for car travel almost inevitably makes all other forms of travel more difficult. And that sets up a powerfully vicious cycle. Cars consume an enormous amount of space, because of their size and the speeds they attain when driven. Motorists therefore have a strong interest in seeing that the community be designed to accommodate their form of travel.
The result is that development must be dispersed, low-density, and served by wide roads and large parking lots. Houses must be separated from workplaces, shopping areas, parks, offices and schools.
Because this form of community design increases the difficulty of non-car travel, new motorists are continuously recruited (transit users, pedestrians and bicyclists increasingly find that car travel is safer and more convenient). Those new motorists join existing motorists to form an ever-growing army of cheerleaders demanding that conditions be improved for cars.
Which, of course, ends up recruiting even MORE new motorists…
New urbanist developers in America must build their projects within such a strongly pro-car environment. In nearly every community, therefore, almost all of the government regulators, political activists, lending institutions, insurance companies, elected officials, citizens, retail establishments, and buyers of new homes have been conditioned to believe that the only reasonable way for 99 percent of the population to travel is by car.
Consequently, even though new urbanists are essentially the only group of developers in America who are sincerely seeking to build traditional, walkable communities (and know how to do it), they are almost always faced with a tidal wave of opposition. Regulations, financing, citizens, and elected officials are implicitly shouting: “Walkability is unrealistic! It is illegal to build that way! Babies will die in burning buildings if you design in a compact manner! We will not lend money to you for your project! Quality of life is dependent on free-flowing traffic and lots of parking! What you propose will make our cars unhappy”!
As a result, building something truly compact, mixed use and walkable is nearly impossible for mere mortals in America today. When it is (rarely) done, it is usually because it was somehow able to overcome GARGANTUAN obstacles.
It should be no surprise, then, that even committed, sincere new urbanists often end up being compelled to build compromised developments that are not walkable.
And the problem grows worse each year, due to the vicious cycle I mention above. Even older, suburban developments can sometimes be more walkable than newer “new urbanist” developments, as my correspondent pointed out regarding the “Rio Vista West” development in Florida.
While the situation is grim today (even some of the new urbanist plans prepared by Peter Calthorpe are compromised and not very walkable), I am optimistic about the long term.
Our car-centric development patterns are not sustainable, and we are reaching the day in which we cannot afford to keep pampering car travel. Even state departments of transportation are starting to be forced to realize that they can no longer afford to try to build their way out of congestion. It is getting too costly to widen roads. A growing number of people (particularly younger generations) are starting to see the merits and lower costs associated with living in walkable places. The rising oil prices are certainly helpful.
In my humble opinion, there will be an enormous growth in jobs that are involved in healing our communities to make them more sustainable and walkable, because rising costs (particularly energy costs) will make such work essential if our unsustainable culture and cities are to avoid extinction and collapse. Roads will need to be put on a diet. Parking lots will need to be redeveloped and activated as buildings.
Residential-only neighborhoods will need to start accommodating corner stores and jobs.
Tragically, a large percentage of places will be too costly to retrofit in such a way. They will become the white elephants of the future that will be abandoned.
“Re-localizing” will be an overwhelmingly important task. I increasingly wonder if our society will be able to adjust to such a world.
The future will be more pleasant for those of us that can adapt, as our world will be more walkable and less car-centric. But I fear our transition to such a world will be slow, painful and not possible for a great many.