This Washington Business Journal column from its August 19 edition came to us after our blog last week on the direct line that runs between city design and the obesity crisis. It is no coincidence that Portland, Oregon, is home to model anti-sprawl ordinances and home to the fittest citizens. It is no coincidence that Memphis is home to developer-driven policies and home to some of the U.S.’s most unfit citizens.
By Lance Hosey
This spring the Washington Post, ABC News and Time magazine jointly conducted a study of commuter traffic in major U.S. cities. The results were surprising. And not.
Polls show that in major metropolitan areas, traffic has gotten significantly worse over the past five years; yet, as congestion on the freeways increases, commuters become more wedded to their cars. Sixty percent of people interviewed in the Washington area say they “dislike” commuting, but 83 percent drive to work, almost always alone.
Most see carpooling as an effective way to alleviate traffic, as long as they aren’t the ones doing it. Similarly, a large majority praises but ignores public transportation, claiming that while transit systems such as the Washington-area Metro are reliable, comfortable and practical, they “never” ride it.
That people cling to their cars might be expected, since 70 percent say driving makes them feel “independent.” But half also say traffic “frustrates” them, and many feel “nervous” and “angry” on the road. Most respondents complain about other commuters, who drive too fast and too aggressively. In Washington, many residents talk of leaving the area if things don’t get better.
Can things get better? The population continues to rise, people insist on driving, and the freeways probably will not — and maybe should not — expand significantly. The costs of installing and maintaining infrastructure and the money spent on gas and other services continue to grow.
Costs aside, in many areas, commuter routes are hemmed in by their surroundings, and even if communities were willing to displace other uses, there is a limit to this strategy. How fat can freeways get?
The environmental consequences of expanding highways include fossil-fuel depletion, carbon emissions (from both cars and concrete production, because cement is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases), heat island effects, storm-water management problems and the impact on habitat and ecosystems. Extending public transit service could help, but only if more people choose this option, which seems doubtful from the survey results.
The problem we face is not just with cars and traffic. The problem is with commuting — not the form of it, but the fact of it. Instead of addressing the difficulty of getting from point A to point B, we should reconsider the distance between them.
In the survey, one obvious form of transportation never came up: walking. Ninety-six percent of respondents drive or take public transportation, the remaining 4 percent use “other” means not named, and in the entire report there was no mention of walking (or biking) as possibilities. Apparently, using our feet for locomotion has become unthinkable.
Yet, as the historian Kenneth Jackson points out, prior to the last century or two, every major city in the world was what he calls a “walking city,” with three important traits: Density, mixture of functions and a short distance between places dedicated to living and working.
The benefits of the walking city are still clear. A recent study shows that suburban sprawl can be detrimental to health because it limits casual exercise — time not spent in the car can be spent in recreation. Potential social benefits of the walking city include a more tangible sense of community.
Forty years ago, Jane Jacobs’ landmark book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” stressed the importance of sidewalk life for establishing safety and encouraging neighborly interaction. Last year, in a widely publicized report on the most “livable” cities in America, the top-ranked communities were mostly smaller, diverse, pedestrian-friendly places such as Charlottesville, Va., and Sante Fe, N.M. (numbers 1 and 2).
A wide spectrum of possibilities exists between high-density urban core and low-density periphery, but most cities are limited to these two options only. Low-rise, medium density places are rare, even though they are perennially ranked as the most “livable.”
That rarity may explain why many people are flocking to them now. Long term, if we are to solve the problems of commuting, we need to rethink the entire character and fabric of cities to offer more diversity and more choice. In an effort to do this, the Environmental Protection Agency has joined with several nonprofit organizations and community groups to form the Smart Growth Network. The EPA offers guidelines that center on a variety of transportation types, mixed uses, demographics, affordability, compact building, green space and — most importantly — walkable neighborhoods.
These ideas are not new or radical. They stem from the close study of places that have thrived for centuries. But their implementation requires radical change to alter the habits of conventional developers and policymakers. Success will depend on broad community support and market demand. Without it, we will continue to battle gridlock and sprawl.
Lance Hosey is a principal at Envision, a Washington-based architecture and design firm whose core mission is environmental innovation. e-mail: LHosey@envisionsite.com