by Eric Miller, September 2012
If you're like most people, you may not think that much about why places are the way they are. As individuals and families, we look for places to live, and for the qualities inherent in those places. We want places that are convenient, safe and affordable.
Some prefer to have more space, whle for others, that's not important. Space, whether it's inside or out, comes at a premium where there is less of it. The farther out in the suburbs you go, the more bang you get for the buck. But this is because when space becomes more affordable, transportation becomes less available,, and travel times increase.
If you look at a city developed before the automobile, many of the buildings will be close together. This isn't because people didn't like space, or because land wasn't available; it's because travel was done primarily on foot, and the more space there was between buildings, the farther you had to walk to get to your destination.
In cities that were built when the majority of people had cars, you find large spaces between buildings. In theory, travel time is reduced by the car, and there's no need to be that close to your neighbor.
But people take up a lot less room on foot than they do in cars, and in cars they can't maneuver around each other as well. And in a big metropolitan area, the crossings where those cars intersect become like Times Square on New Year's Eve—without the joyfulness. The bigger a car-oriented city gets, the slower it moves. We've tried to change that over the last half century by adding more and more highways, but the city just spreads farther, and traffic crawls at the crossroads and usually in between as well. MOre roads to accommodate more driving push things farther apart, requiring more driving, which requires more roads.
Today these effects are more clearly recognized, and there's a move away from spacious but bleak automobile monocultures back to places where you can walk. Around me here in Dallas, dozens of apartment buildings are rising. A few feet from my balcony is an eight-story senior-living complex. Within a block or two there are several apartment high-rises going up, some as tall as twenty stories. (Note: Many urbanists dislike tall buildings. In my view the height isn't the issue so much as the parking requirements).
This kind of place is more walkable than far-away suburbs. Yet under the ground floor there is ample space for cars. Today Americans are moving back into town, but we're bringing our car with us.
While urban roads in a grid pattern are not as prone as highways and suburban areas to having traffic grind to a complete halt, the amount of vehicle traffic the urban roads are capable of carrying will be tested again and again. And in our frustration, we will seek solutions.
Three dozen years ago, those solutions would have been wider roads and more parking—which is what got us to the jess we're in now. The real solutions are more light-rail, streetcars, bicycle paths, and wider sidewalks—and more jobs and amenities right around us, near where we live.
This last part is important, and requires changes in zoning. We're moving back into town, but too often we're bringing suburban zoning with us, and finding what was fine for suburbs just doesn't work downtown.
If we want to live in places where it's convenient to walk, there have to be places to walk to. Here in Dallas where the apartment buildings are rising, there may be plenty of restaurants, but hardly the availability of shopping necessary for a walkable lifestyle—at least not yet.
Many of the roads that do serve stores are also not pedestrian-friendly. Although they may be close, businesses are still designed to sit behind large parking lots, with no accommodation of people walking in.
City life is not just being in a city, it's living in a city way—being urbane, in fact. A good urban environment has lots of residents, but it also facilitates their travel without the car. Unless people can stroll their streets together while getting things done, it doesn't work.
Text and photos by Eric Miller