Skip to main content

I'm the editor for the PCN Transit & Urban Development feed. This is the third in a weekly series on America's cities and the roads and rails that connect them.

Watching us from orbit, an alien surveyor might think American cities and suburbs were a trap designed to make humans buy cars and drive them. The last generation saw accelerated suburban sprawl as the amount of developed land in the United States increased 50% between 1982 and 2007. Due to inflating home prices and stagnant wages, the hourlong commute became a new, unsustainable American phenomenon. The new American city will offer residents more choices in getting around because more and more Americans prefer not to drive.

The main reason for the shift in American transportation demand is the rising price of gasoline. With transportation costs already exceeding health care as their largest household expense, American drivers are already cutting  back on gas and trips. Nationwide, transit riders saved more than $825 on fuel costs at last month's price levels; little wonder that the American Public Transit Association predicts record ridership when gas hits $5 a gallon.

Having grown up watching their parents deal with long commutes, today's young adults want  walkable communities, which is why they are returning to urban  centers -- even  Detroit. Transit makes this possible, but so does the return of the bicycle. So-called "inner ring" suburbs are expected to run  short of housing first, long  before the exurbs. Recognizing this, "big box" chains and grocers are already downsizing store designs to serve these communities.

With housing starts at their lowest level since 1984, the air has fully escaped the suburban housing bubble -- which shows no sign of reinflating. Cities and states with good transit systems and well-designed streets will be  prepared and experience growth; everywhere else will be like Maryland, where a Circuit Court civil jury recently awarded  $3.3 million to relatives of a woman  struck and killed by a motorist while walking  on a so-called "incomplete street" that lacked a sidewalk or  guard rails.

Alternative modes of transportation are incredibly cheap by comparison. Portland not only built an entire citywide bike infrastructure for the cost of a single mile of highway, the bike lanes were eleven times cheaper per commuter -- and the city has saved money by dealing with fewer car accidents. (Better auto safety is also the experience in Milwaukee.) For many urban delivery businesses, bicycles are increasingly cheaper and faster than trucks.

One somewhat surprising trend is the return of the streetcar. Once a common part of the American urban scene, streetcars fell out of use with the automobile; now they are an important part of community-based development planning, with dozens of US cities ordering them.

Some cities and states actively resist these changes. John Horsley, executive director of the Association of State Highway and  Transportation Officials, recently decried federal regulations for "present(ing) an  undue burden on states to justify exceptional circumstances  when not  including provisions for bicyclists and pedestrians" in transportation  projects. Ohio's DOT Director is a former asphalt industry lobbyist now killing transit projects. Indiana's long-term  planning assumes nothing will ever change. Houston, Texas  has seen an $80 million chunk of funding meant for bike  and pedestrian  projects, transit, and livable communities get swiped for road-building. With various ordinances retarding street life, Dallas refuses to become walkable. God forbid that an American be able to live and work without having to own a car!

And in the most telling example, South Carolina may see a new bypass built around the suburbs that choke the bypass Charlotte just finished. As one blogger reported with tongue-in-cheek,

Why have only one outerbelt if you can have two? Haven't we all  seen how well Charlotte's first outerbelt has relieved congestion, led  to smoothly flowing traffic, trimmed the region's carbon footprint,  helped create walkable neighborhoods and made transit easier to  implement? Imagine the wonders if we could spread our Pineville- and  Ballantyne-style development all over the region's farmland?

Indeed, America's rural landscape has suffered from sprawl as much as our city centers. Furthermore, the caricature of transit-based and alternative mode planning -- that it amounts to centralized, big government socialism -- is actually true of the current, unsustainable model of road-based sprawl that the new, transportation choice-based urban planning seeks to replace. Every free parking space is a socialist subsidy to drivers. Every new bypass is a bonanza for developers. Every new lane merely adds to the congestion. If you hated American cities and wanted them to grind to a halt, you could not do better than to maintain the status quo.

Americans aren't getting rid of the car; they just want more choices, and will choose to live where there are more choices. Last time I checked, that was the American Way.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site