A New Look at Transportation
"If you ever plan to motor west; Travel my way, take the highway that is best; Get your kicks on Route sixty six.."
Using a twelve-bar blues arrangement, this famous song by Bobby Troup epitomizes our love with the automobile. The war had just ended and suburbia became utopia. Growth and prosperity were the buzzwords of the day.
With so much progress and the advance of urban sprawl, the automobile became one of the most important factors in modern life. As cities and towns spread out more, shopping centers replaced downtown districts. This continued even up through the 1990s. As more shopping centers and mega-malls were constructed, massive parking lots began dotting the countryside.
Today, many towns are scrambling to deal with the effects of this automobile boom. Drivers fight with narrow and congested roads while city planners continue to build more roads to keep up with demand.
But, is building new roads really the answer?
The folks over at State Smart Transportation Initiative don't think so. A new wave of city developers tends to agree.
“When we add capacity, we induce more driving,” says Eric Sundquist, director of SSTI. “there’s sort of a vicious cycle: We widen roads, people drive more; we widen roads, people drive more.”
The problem isn't that people want to drive, the problem is that, in many towns, that is the only option. When we widen streets, we take away space that could be used for other healthy and sustainable options, such as walking or bike riding.
The focus should be more on how to move people around in an effective, sustainable way. The goal is to reduce traffic and pollution while at the same time fostering healthy communities and healthy lifestyles.
The first thing we should look at is how to increase walkability. On the surface, this means creating more sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly zones, but taking a much deeper look, this encompasses a wide variety of methods. For instance, how far away is the nearest grocery store? If it's not within walking distance, that decreases an areas walkability.
Traditionally, communities were developed around a downtown district. In that district, you could find everything from drug stores to department stores. By following this same model on a larger basis, towns can have a dramatic impact on their walkability.
This was tried in the early 20th century with Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois. Market Square was one of the earliest forms of planned shopping centers to come into existence. The concept was that it would provide a central point for the nearby community. It was built with the automobile in mind, however, it was still within walking distance for most of the residents of the area.
This contrasts sharply with the more modern strip malls. Strip malls generally house a few shops, are spread out and take up an enormous amount of parking. These characteristics discourage walkability. By zoning areas for shopping centers that are centrally located to residential districts, this ensures that they are within walking distance and have the nearby employee force that's needed.
Public Transportation Options
The second thing we should look at is public transportation options. While it may be cost-prohibitive for the city to supply public transportation, programs that encourage carpooling, public bike sharing, and other such programs should be pushed.
Modern technology makes these processes easier. Imagine having an app that helps one locate others interested in a ride-share program, or to map out the locations of bike-share programs. Many towns, both large and small have already embraced programs such as this to great effect.
The final thing we should look at is the already-existing infrastructure.
Primary roads are geared for heavy traffic use. These are typically the most congested, and show the largest number of accidents. As with any system, they should be managed effectively. Are street lights timed in conjunction to ease traffic flow? Are there plenty of pedestrian crossing areas? Are the lanes well-lit and marked? Is there a data-gathering service in place to help identify and fix problem areas?
Arterial roads help direct traffic from neighborhoods on to the primary roads. They should also be clearly marked, and include options for both bike and pedestrian traffic. These roads should be regulated by the maximum number of people that they can handle safely. This can be done by adopting Smart Growth Strategies, such as limiting the maximum population per neighborhood through better zoning practices.
Today, people are more aware of how important healthy lifestyle choices are. They look for opportunities to walk and ride. This is something that we must embrace. Instead of making our roads wider and creating more asphalt jungles, it's time to rethink our transportation strategies and incorporate a wider variety of options for everyone.