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.