The Suburban, Car-Based, Low-Density Lifestyle Has No Future

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 18, 2019

It is tiresome and painfully predictable — as was expressed in a Facebook thread I was recently involved in — that when a city adopts a brilliant, highly successful urban design tactic and a suggestion is made that we adopt the same tactic in our community, the knee-jerk response is “Yes, but they are different than us, so it won’t work here!”

I call such people members of the “Squelcher Squad,” as they use that argument over and over again to squelch an idea before it is adopted.

When bicycling in downtown Denver a few days ago, I noticed that Denver has right-sized (road dieted) streets in downtown to create protected bike lanes (among many other benefits). It strikes me that we heard a great many anti-city/pro-car folks scream that Folsom Street cannot be road dieted because there are “too many cars on that street.”

Why, then, can Denver road diet downtown streets despite those streets carrying far more cars than Folsom? Surely, Denver has members of the Squelcher Squad who were saying that a road diet won’t work in Denver because while it might work all over the US, “it won’t work in Denver because Denver is different. Downtown streets have far too many cars!” Note, BTW, that the Boulder Squelcher Squad was conveniently silent about successful Denver road diets, despite their having far more cars than Boulder.

If the “Yes, but they are different” argument fails to squelch the idea, the Squelcher Squad frequently plays another card: The “Catch-22” card.

In the Denver example above, this squelcher tactic would say that “Denver can do road diets but Boulder cannot because Denver has far better transit than Boulder!” When it is pointed out that the reason Denver has better transit than Boulder is because Denver is far more compact (has far higher density) than Boulder, the Squelcher Squad then plays its Catch-22 card. “Boulder cannot do road diets because we don’t have good enough transit! But Boulder also cannot have transit because I will not allow Boulder to be more compact!”

What drives this Catch-22 attitude on the part of the Squelcher Squad? It is the fact that squelchers are trapped in a car-dependent, suburban lifestyle. Those trapped in this lifestyle are forced to use a car for nearly every trip they make. Using transit, a bicycle, or walking is impractical. Because a car consumes 17 to 100 times more space than a person not in a car, and because the car-based lifestyle requires easy, convenient, affordable travel by car, those in the car-based lifestyle MUST oppose compact development as a way to protect the viability of their lifestyle. They must, in other words, preserve their low-density, space-consuming neighborhood design in amber.

As it turns out, then, the car-dependent lifestyle is unsustainable, largely because it is not in any sense resilient to change. It is, instead, a fragile way to live.

Because change in a healthy, sustainable city is inevitable, members of the Squelcher Squad have a lifestyle with no future. All species and lifestyles that were not adaptable to change in world history are now extinct. This is the inevitable fate of the suburban, car-based, low-density lifestyle in a world of inevitable change.

Postscript:

Members of the Squelcher Squad often inform us that our city cannot afford to provide the quality transit service found in many larger cities. While it is correct that smaller cities such as Boulder could not quickly install a high-quality transit system found in a city such as, say, Copenhagen, I don’t see why Boulder would need to do that as a way to follow the admirable lead of a city like Copenhagen.

The important lessons many of us get from cities like Copenhagen: land uses that are much more compact/dense than Boulder deliver many enormous benefits: affordability, transportation choice, quality of life, lifestyle choice, societal health/fitness, overall happiness, lower levels of traffic deaths, lower levels of air pollution and fuel consumption, etc.

How was a city like Copenhagen able to find the money and political will to build their transit system? It was almost entirely due to not making the mistakes of Boulder and many other US cities. Mistakes such as dispersed, low-density land use patterns, and putting too much into accommodating easy and affordable car travel.

In sum, if Boulder starts incrementally allowing more compact development, and reverses its many decades of promoting easy car travel and parking, it will inevitably see the incremental ability to find the dollars and political will to establish a better transit system. A viable future for Boulder requires that these land use and transit reforms be established, so we should start sooner rather than later as a way to ease the difficulty.

 

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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “The Suburban, Car-Based, Low-Density Lifestyle Has No Future

  1. A variant of the “we’re different” that I see having more credibility, but still frustrating, is “we’re not as established.” To a “city” (suburban in form, growing) that is still a teenager, what message would you share as to make them pause and heed your message about building a communities with a future?

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