Traffic Congestion, Suburban Sprawl, Quality of Life

By Dom Nozzi

December 7, 2007

Cars are the enemy of cities.

Cars and people have clashing values. Cars seek high-speed, gigantic roads and parking lots to be happy. People, on the other hand, are repelled by such designs. As the world expands for cars, the world shrinks for people. Consequently, we must understand that in a community designed for people, the motorist should feel like an intruder. Driving a car should be an inconvenience. As Enrique Penalosa has said, a community can design for cars, or it can design for people. But it cannot do both at the same time.

Cars, as I noted in my December 5 presentation, consume an enormous amount of space (approximately 17 times more space is used by a person driving a car than a person sitting in a chair). Indeed, I believe it is essential to understand that our 40 people without blk textproblem is not too many people. It is too many people in cars.

Because cars consume so much space, traffic congestion occurs very quickly. Only a small handful of cars are necessary to crowd a road given how much space cars take up. Because so few cars can congest a road, it is nearly impossible for a healthy, attractive city to escape congestion. In fact, one can accurately argue that the lack of congestion is the sign of a declining, unhealthy community. Urging a reduction in congestion conjures up Yogi Berra, who once observed that “the place became so crowded that no one went there anymore.”

For this reason, I am convinced that it is a tactical mistake for community improvement advocates to strive to reduce traffic congestion. Because congestion is nearly impossible to avoid, strategies such as “better transit” or “improved bicycle and pedestrian” facilities or “enhanced carpooling” will inevitably fail to reduce congestion in any meaningful way. This plays directly into the hands of the sprawl/Big Roads lobby, as this faction can point to efforts to improve transit or bicycling and claim that such efforts were wasteful, as they failed to reduce congestion.

The lobby can then claim that we should use “real” solutions, instead of soft-headed, unrealistic strategies, to reduce congestion. And their default strategy: widen roads.

One sign of a healthy community is traffic congestion. It is a sign that people want to congregate in the town due to its attractiveness. Any community worth its salt, then, has a “traffic problem.”

In sum, it is in the interest of local residents and their neighborhoods to welcome congestion as an ally. It is only out-of-towners (and those who live in auto-dependent peripheral locations) who want to drive through the town at high speeds. It is only they who benefit from wide roads, and high-speed, free-flowing traffic.

Wide, high-speed highways and large parking lots are a community dispersant. Car-happy design spreads out a community and guarantees suburban sprawl. Quality transit, bicycling and pedestrian facilities, on the other hand, aggregate, concentrate and condense community elements in a compact, sustainable way. Healthy, affordable, economically vibrant communities depend on these “agglomeration economies.”

A strong community, therefore, does not seek to “reduce congestion.” “Reducing congestion,” too often, is sought after by widening roads, which is a damaging, bankrupting, counterproductive strategy for a community. The community-building, prosperous method, instead, is to ensure that the community provides alternatives to the congestion. In other words, people who are unwilling to tolerate the congestion are instead able to live closer to work, use transit, bicycle, walk, travel different routes, or live in more compact settings proximate to retail, offices, schools, civic institutions and jobs.

Richard Florida, in his ground-breaking book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class makes the essential point that economic development strategies have reversed in recent decades. Formerly, businesses were attracted to a community by promising them tax breaks, subsidies and lax development regulations. This sort of “doormat” method of wooing new business results, of course, in a worsened quality of life for existing residents.

However, in recent times, a new paradigm has emerged. Today, Florida describes what he calls the “creative class,” which consists of quality, well-educated knowledge- and idea workers. Businesses have come to covet such employees, due to the substantial business improvements such employees can deliver. The result is that economic development specialists are now focused on attracting and retaining quality employees, rather than businesses. The essential task is to create and protect a community that boasts the high quality of life that such employees demand. When quality of life is high, quality creative class employees are likely to want to remain in the community, or migrate into the community from elsewhere. Businesses now increasingly understand that the key for attracting and retaining quality employees is to ensure a quality of life in the community where the business is located.

Quality of life, rather than low taxes or lax regulations, is therefore attracting and retaining high-quality businesses which seek high-quality employees. Happily, this is a win-win recipe, as economic development founded on quality of life in the community benefits both economic development and the lives of existing residents of the community.

Quality of life is a powerful economic engine, in other words.

Thus, in today’s economic environment, a community must effectively create and protect its quality of life if it is to realize a healthy future. How does a community build political support for quality of life strategies?

By promoting widespread community pride on the part of local residents.

Pride that is sufficient to ensure that large numbers of local citizens will always be eager to defend the qualities of the community, and fight to improve qualities when they have been degraded.

There are two prongs that improve and protect a community quality of life:

(1) Effective, careful, well-researched promotion of environmental conservation. Protecting valuable, healthy ecosystems in the region is essential for quality of life, reduced costs, and a sustainable future. Public visibility of the success of a community struggling to protect its natural features is important, and is attained by assembling and publishing “trend indicators” that clearly show whether ecological health is being maintained. Over the past 10 years, has carbon dioxide emissions gone down? Has the population of songbirds gone up?

(2) Deployment of a transect-based, form-based land development code that ensures a comprehensive range of lifestyle and transportation choices are provided in a quality manner. Walkable, compact, high-quality urbanism, attractive suburban, and sustainable rural farming and preservation are ensured by context-sensitive development regulations. As Victor Dover suggests, “know where you are in your community, and design for that location.” In other words, designing a community in which we return to the timeless way in which communities were created before the destructive emergence of the car.

Another way of putting it is to say that the problem is not growth, per se. The problem is how the growth occurs.

It is with the establishment and maintenance of these two prongs that a community can ensure quality of life, which is the wellspring of sustainable, healthy economic development and citizen satisfaction.



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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

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