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THE NEW GREEN:Traffic and places that just aren’t worth saving

Campus Correspondent

Published: Friday, January 31, 2014

Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 01:01


Traffic. In modern-day America, it is a universal, and universally despised, experience. There are few things more loathsome to the human condition than sitting in an unmoving car, wasting away hours of life, immersed in an unrelenting barrage of sensory unpleasantness. Why do we accept this on a regular basis, and why is it that so few of us realize that we deserve better? That it is possible for us to live a life free of traffic and from the ugly sprawl that now characterizes so many of our hometowns? The American populace is suffering from an epidemic of low-self esteem, in which we placidly accept built environments that are criminally inadequate in meeting our needs. A richer lifestyle is possible! It is time that we take back our communities and utilize our civically endowed powers to create communities that are worth loving and lifestyles that nourish us. Examining traffic patterns and building a more desirable streetscape may be a good place to start.

As with most things, the first step towards progress is education. When it comes to building better streets, many of the facts are shockingly counter-intuitive. For example, although traffic studies are perhaps the most prescribed activity across the nation for any kind of street design project, urban planner Jeff Speck insists that they are utterly useless. In his book “Walkable City,” Speck explains that all traffic studies “are [expletive] for three main reasons.” The first two of these reasons are straightforward – they include the fact that the computer models used in the studies can be easily manipulated for a certain outcome, as well as the fact that traffic studies are conducted by the same engineering firms that perform road expansions and thus, the studies almost always conclude a need for road expansion. The third and most important reason, however, may be suburbia’s biggest secret hidden in plain sight – it is a phenomenon called induced demand, and it essentially means that expanding roadways does not ease congestion. Study after study has proven that although adding lanes or expanding roadways does ease traffic for a short time, it will actually attract more drivers to the road so and congestion will just as bad as ever.

This may not seem like exciting news if you’re not an urban planning or engineering geek, but the implications are immense! Across the country, neighborhoods have been scarred and divided by a senselessly aggressive highway construction agenda. Wide, dangerous straight-aways invite high-speed vehicles that have killed thousands of Americans and segregate communities, making it impossible to bike or walk to different points of interest. We continue to allow engineering firms and government agencies to rob us of a walkable lifestyle, all for the sake of traffic efficiency – and because of induced demand, we now know that these wide highway death-traps don’t even work. It is an appalling injustice to American communities everywhere. In “Walkable City,” Speck writes: “this powerful phenomenon, for which the most and best data can be found in the United States, has had virtually no impact on road-building in the United States. But there is good news: it has caused great advances in Europe! In Great Britain, where planners are no longer allowed to justify new highways on the basis of reduced congestion, road construction has dropped so drastically that Alarm UK, the main freeway protest organization, disbanded itself ‘on the grounds that it was no longer needed.’”

So how do we eliminate traffic in suburbia? The answer is we can’t. Traffic is an inevitable product of the low-density, dissociated land-use patterns that characterize suburban development. The authors of the popular guidebook “Suburban Nation” explain that all throughout human history, towns and cities evolved naturally to the human scale, so that all of the needs of daily life were located within walking distance of one another (think of historic cities such as Boston or Burlington, Vermont). In contrast, suburban sprawl is an artificial invention in which all of the needs of daily life – offices, public buildings like schools, shopping and residences – are separated and can only be reached efficiently by car. They explain: “Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next. Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate traffic of a much larger traditional town.”

This stunningly obvious revelation prompts one more question – how do we save the neighborhoods that were produced under the sprawl regime? How do we reclaim them and convert them into the more traditional-style neighborhoods that were the standard up until World War II? Although there is in fact a small sect of urban planners who are abuzz about in-fill development and “retrofitting suburbia” (there’s quite an interesting TED Talk on the subject), the answer may once again be just as simple – we don’t. When asked this question in an interview with The Atlantic, urban planner and author Jeff Speck responded: “So many of these places are unlovable and therefore not savable, nor worth saving. Why should a postwar sunbelt ‘city’ that consists of nothing but cookie cutter chain stores, cubicle farms, and ticky-tacky houses claim our attention, when we have hundreds of historic downtown cores with underused infrastructure, beautiful buildings with empty upper floors, and great social amenities like churches, restaurants, cafes, and pubs…” The most practical solution to sprawl, then, may be to abandon it – to “vote with our feet” and choose to live in places that are already set up to be walkable. From there, we can develop new zoning codes that will encourage new growth to occur in the traditional style.

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