No, really. If a car-dependent infrastructure has already developed, why try to radically disrupt it for the sake of something that’s foreign to the local way of thinking? Make what arguments you will about pollution, global climate change, the geopolitics of oil, the inefficiency of roads, the health benefits of walking and cycling (or anything but driving), the advantages of urban density, the opportunity to develop space wasted because of a need for parking, or just the fact that traffic sucks, those arguments aren’t going to get very far in a culture adapted to low urban density, dependent on oil and natural gas as an economic driver, resigned to crumbling roads and bridges, where there’s always more land to build on just beyond the current suburbs, and where traffic just isn’t usually that bad (all things considered). So long as you can get from an area that was emu farms 15 years ago to downtown in under half an hour (parking notwithstanding), it’s going to be hard to make an argument that the current paradigm isn’t working.
So what are the tangible advantages of bike and pedestrian infrastructure and development for a community that’s Just Fine with its cars? How do we reduce the number of parked vehicles from at least one per person of driving age to one per household? How can this be made to seem advantageous to individuals, rather than something that’s good for “someone” (you know, someone else) to do for the good of the community?
After all, the benefits to the community—diversified businesses, creating synergy between nearby enterprises and uses, effectively using formerly wasted space—are things that are a bit abstract, things you don’t see for years, things you hardly even notice until it’s pointed out or you’re somewhere they don’t exist; meanwhile, the need to get somewhere now is very immediate and very noticeable. Even things like health benefits or Communing With The World are a bit long term, nebulous, and sometimes fuzzy. I’m sure that biking everywhere has added years to my life expectancy or something, but I won’t get to enjoy those extra years for a while; running errands, that’s today.
When it comes down to it, there are lots of reasons to ride or walk for transit (or to ride and walk in general, with transit being your excuse), but if it’s going to take twice as long, feel unsafe, and get you sworn at, you’re not going to do it. Part of the reason I enjoy biking in DC is how freely I can move through the streets; while cars get stuck behind other cars, or somebody backing out, or a car randomly idling in the middle of a one-way road, I can (legally and safely!) slip past and keep going. Rush hour traffic doesn’t affect me, nor do I have to worry about being stuck behind everyone else at a short light for five cycles. Out in the Vast Undifferentiated Suburban Sprawl, however, things are just too diffuse. Without density, you don’t get congestion and traffic; without congestion, there’s no incentive to try anything besides driving. So we’re stuck with a chicken/egg problem: we can’t create density without a diversified transit infrastructure to support it, but the infrastructure isn’t going to magically come into being without density enough to justify its existence. Really, at the end of the day, driving’s the only thing that makes sense in the VUSS.
Of course, the suburbs aren’t really undifferentiated, now are they?
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: where I’m sitting right now, writing this. I live in an old streetcar suburb, created thanks to the City and Suburban Electric Railway. The two-lane road with bike paths I ride on when I go grocery shopping used to be its old railbed, as is the bike path I take going into DC. The route I take to get coffee passes by the old Maryland State Agricultural College, the oldest continuously operating airfield in the world—founded by the Wright Brothers themselves—a glassblowing studio, and the route taken by Confederate cavalry when they raided Fort Lincoln. Go to a friend’s house, and I pass a prehistoric settlement, DC’s most notorious boxing ring, and a goldfish farm.
Bland? Characterless? Rootless? Don’t think so. Oh, and you can bike there.
This is the thing: not all suburbs are VUSSes. Not all low-density areas are characterless. Not all currently carbound, overparked places are single-use dead zones.
Treating anywhere that’s not a Hip Urban Center as if it’s simply a bland wasteland, a place even New Urbanists advocate parking over streetscaping in the name of “urban triage”, is a mistake. There are neighborhoods—vibrant, diverse, and growing ones—that do not follow the model of Manhattan as Mecca. These are places that may be walkable or bikeable, where parking may be a nightmare, where the carving and dividing forces of highways would mutilate unique neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods grew up before the postwar subdivision boom, and may have old transit infrastructure—like streetcar lines or river paths—that pass through places people want to go and can be repurposed. Many of them have short, pedestrian-friendly blocks, relatively narrow streets that encourage calmer driving and allow pedestrians to safely cross, and interesting, diversified architecture and local color, things easily noticed and appreciated by a pedestrian or curious cyclist. Some of them might even be named “The Stroll,” which seems to suggest an avenue for development, no?
And, being from an earlier age, some of these neighborhoods might be better suited to cyclist and pedestrian development than we might think, with their narrower streets, mature shade trees for Okie summers, short blocks, and smaller, denser lots with taller buildings that block the sun and wind. Many of these neighborhoods were spared the right proper Robert Mosesing of postwar white flight development; abandoned and forgotten in favor of the new subdivisions, these older neighborhoods still retain their unfashionable human-scaled features. In these places, a well thought out wayfinding system—a series of signs that point to one another along good, easy routes and note points of interest people might want to go—is sometimes not just enough, but shockingly effective. Why reinvent the wheel? If you already have streets based around a human scale and human needs, letting people know how to navigate them—and that there are places worth navigating to—can be the most efficient improvement of all. Of course, if you’re feeling really ambitious, you could repurpose the old streetcar lines that fell out of use with the automobile age into paths that direct foot and bike traffic right into the hearts of old neighborhood main streets that were bypassed by the highways and car commuters trying to get out of Dodge…
Yet, these places get written off as “lacking the conditions for proper street life,” whatever that means. I suspect it means they don’t look enough like Greenwich Village, but what do I know? I suppose we could instead think of ways to connect neighborhoods, to counteract the tendency—yes, even in bike and pedestrian infrastructure—to make it easier to move away from places than within them, to encourage the flow between districts that comes so very easily on a bike, where one neighborhood transitions into another, as street and scenery merge and flux, of discovering back ways and moving through neighborhoods rather than passing by them, but that would require admitting that this particular urban Zen isn’t unique to a few sorts of urban areas, but to many.
It would require thinking of cities as more than “hub and spokes,” a central district where people went to and left every day, and outlying areas where they slept. It’s the radical notion that the People’s Republics of Greenbelt, Mount Rainer, and Takoma Park have something to offer in their own rights, rather than simply as satellites of The Real City.™ It’d require completing the evolution of Classen, NW 23rd, and Western from places to put sometimes moving cars to places to look for the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. It’d mean we would have to interact with places that were always human scaled, and meant for humans, in ways that best fit their original character, before they were sacrificed to the needs of an automobile they were ill-suited for. It’d mean we’d have to think like humans rather than cars once more, finding and marking routes through neighborhood back roads and around obstacles, finding once more the freedom of the human scale and human needs, of being reunited with your environment, your neighbors, and yourself. It would require getting over our ingrained classism and snobbery, putting aside our yuppie pretensions, and seeing not just the potential but the work already being done in places we wrote off as boring, soulless sprawl.
And it would mean we’d have to look for these places in locations we weren’t used to looking for them, and might wind up seeing things that some of the prevailing orthodoxy says we just shouldn’t see.
Note: at the same time I was publishing this, Kirk Boydston was publishing this. Maybe looking beyond the centers is becoming A Thing.