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Moving beyond the highway era

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/09/13 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices

How did we make such a mess of our cities and the pristine land around it? The history of Northeast Ohio, its outward migration and loss of tight-knit communities as we become what James Howard Kunstler calls a “Geography of Nowhere,” follows the story of America’s love affair with the car. We invested more in automotive ease of travel than in places that inspire affection.

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GreenCityBlueLake Director David Beach writes cogently about how we planned an unsustainable transportation system and then systematically carried out the dismantling of a way of life with it. Before the car, transportation was used to support the building of places. Since the 1950s, the way we’ve built cities has mirrored a transportation system used less to build memorable places than speed people from place to place.

In this special section, Beach explains how we got here and how we can use transportation to shape the places we want again. Here's how to think about the process:

Although the section was written in 2008, it is still relevant in light of a 2013 report on the nation's "Driving Boom," which lasted six decades, but is considered over, largely because Millenials are driving less. "Between 2001 and 2009, the average yearly number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds dropped a staggering 23 percent," wrote Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

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4 years ago

Meanwhile ODOT thumbs its nose (or, at least, demonstrates a serious understanding gap regarding sustainability) by publishing a poster hi-liting its commitment to sustainability by presenting an overhead shot of the increased innerbelt bridge capacity --- and, here's the best part, Sustainable Cleveland 2019 goes along for the ride.

David Beach
4 years ago

I don't think anyone knows exactly what will happen to the economy if people drive less, buy fewer cars, and reject suburban subdivisions, but one can offer some guesses. The transition will hurt the car companies and large production home builders (and they are already worried: see theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/the-cheapest-generation/309060/). But, as people save money on transportation and housing, they will probably spend the money on other things. If they spend on things like education and local food, maybe it will make society more sustainable. If they spend more on air travel, it could be damaging. In any case, we are in for big changes in the coming decades.

What is urban living? I define it by the qualities of a place -- the most important being density, a mix of land uses (housing, shopping, work, recreation, and civic uses), and walkability. Such places provide convenient access to many destinations and have streets that are full of activity. If you want a specific measure, you might think of places with a mix of uses and a minimum residential density of around 8 units per acre, for that's the density that typically makes regular transit service practical. This allows for a range of housing types, including single-family houses on small lots. There are many places in Northeast Ohio that can offer types of urban living, not just the City of Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs. But they tend to be older places that grew up during the street-car era or before.

4 years ago

Thanks for the follow-up. A couple of additional questions:

1. What replaces the highway-automobile-petroleum-suburbanization nexus? I thought that one the reasons that our county is so properous is home construction and the automobile. What happends if folks start driving less, buying fewer cars and deciding that they would rather live in a condo or high-rise apartment in the city instead of the mcmansion in sprawville?

2. What is urban living? Is it within the Cleveland corporate boundaries? Within the inner ring? Living in a condo or an apartment? Can an area still have single family homes and still be considered urban?

David Beach
4 years ago

Some quick responses to the good comments below:

As Exurbanist suggests, I have mixed views about The Great Highway Transformation. On the one hand, highways have opened up opportunities and enabled many people to live the spacious lifestyles they desired (including making it easier for me to visit family on the other side of town). And the highway-automobile-petroleum-suburbanization nexus has been a major part of the American economy for decades. On the other hand, the highway transformation has come with great costs and is not sustainable for many reasons (see a list here: gcbl.org/transform/sustainability-agenda/transportation-choices/changing-fundamentals-of-transportation). The future will require the development of walkable places where more people can live good lives while driving less. Fortunately, market preferences seem to be moving in this direction as Baby Boomers and Millennials rediscover the benefits of urban living.

As David Greene implies, the highway transformation contributed to the speeding up of society. It's interesting to see how people are now questioning this cult of speed with movements for slow streets, slow food, slow money, etc.

Regarding NOACA's federal recertification process (which we raised here: gcbl.org/blog/2013/02/heres-your-chance-to-critique-noacas-transportation-planning), the agency's transportation planning process was recertified recently by the Federal Highway and Transit administrations. However, the Feds recommended a number of ways to strengthen NOACA's process -- including ways to plan for a more sustainable transportation system that gives people more transportation options and reduces costs in the long run. See the federal certification report at gcbl.org/files/resources/finalnoacacertreviewltrreport-2013.pdf.

5 years ago

A nice collection of thoughts on the issue, but in "The Great Highway Transformation," the author seems to suggest that highways have made our lives better --- e.g., they reduced congestion and honking on Lake Avenue at the Bay Village and Rocky River border, broadened his geography and increased his mobility. Are those bad things? Could those things have been achieved without the highways?

David Greene
5 years ago

The freeway era was truly a product of the 20th century war mentality that believed highway were intended to delived material to armies. We are now delivering goods to cities and leaving a torn landscape. The thought of a livable city has been pushed to the background to favor speed of delivery.

Whatever happened to...
5 years ago

...NOACA's relicensing.

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