sprawl

A sprawled, dendritic suburb. Photo by futureatlas.com.

Last week, the Washington, D.C. region was awash in hype over an impending “thunder snow” storm.  While  the storm under-delivered on the snow, it certainly caused chaos. Storms like these highlight the benefits of compact urban development while underscoring the weaknesses of sprawling suburbia.

Residents of Washington’s outer suburbs struggled Wednesday night with horrendous traffic on the city’s commuter routes. At the same time, many D.C. residents were enjoying happy hours, snowball fights and otherwise carrying on with their lives. By the time people in the central city were fast asleep, many suburbanites were still fighting to get home.

People often say they prefer driving over transit because their car allows them to go where they want, when they want. Events like D.C.’s storm last week or its weeklong blizzard last February highlight problems with this thinking.

Even under normal circumstances, though, how many of us drive to work at 6:00 a.m. to avoid traffic or forgo a shopping trip because the parking lot is too crowded or take a detour on a trip because the football game is letting out? As Carla Saulter, the Seattle Bus Chick, has said, driving a car doesn’t necessarily mean being in control.

I grew up and went to college in Lexington, Ky., a city of 270,000. Despite having the country’s oldest urban growth boundary, it is a sprawling, auto-centric town except for a few central neighborhoods. Before I moved to D.C., I lived a relatively car dependent life. I often found myself rearranging my schedule based on the best time to drive.

My second year of graduate school, I moved to an older house in an early twentieth century streetcar suburb. Centrally located, today that neighborhood is often referred to as “downtown.” It’s a wonderful neighborhood with beautiful housing stock (all with sizable yards!), a small, connected street grid, and several great retail streets with nice local stores, restaurants and bars.

I still had to drive to school several times a week or to visit friends who lived farther out of the city, but I could walk to my job, the grocery, the neighborhood bar, even the hardware store and the bank. I could ride my bike to many other places in and around downtown.

When the state was shut down by a debilitating ice storm that winter, I was able to get to work as soon as the office reopened, while many colleagues were still snowed in. My roommates and I enjoyed drinks at our favorite neighborhood watering hole, and we had no trouble availing ourselves of what food remained at the local grocery store.

CHOICES OF DOWNTOWN LIVING

Upon taking a job in D.C., I made an early decision to give up my car. Having lived an increasingly car-light life, I knew I would much rather invest extra money to find housing in a close-in neighborhood that would spare me the traffic, maintenance, time waste and other headaches of dealing with a car.

The result has been much more than just time and money savings. I’ve found myself far more free and mobile than when I relied on my car to get places. Even without a car, driving is an option: I use ZipCar or a normal rental car when I have to go somewhere that’s not transit accessible.

More importantly, in choosing to live in the city by giving up driving as a my primary means of mobility, I gained three other legitimate mobility options, and significantly better access to services and amenities than I ever had before. I can walk, bike or take transit nearly anywhere I want to go.

During last year’s blizzard, I enjoyed a few days of vacation trying new restaurants in my neighborhood (most were open after the first day.) The Metro was running underground, so if my office had actually been open, I would have had relatively little trouble getting to work. Dupont Circle, a popular, mixed-use neighborhood in Northwest D.C., was as vibrant on weekdays at noon as it typically is on a summer weekend.

These examples underscore the fallacy of our car dependency. Cars give people mobility. But what’s more important is accessibility. Sometimes these are the same: if I live 10 miles from a grocery store, and I own a car, I have access to the grocery.

But if my car breaks down, it snows a foot and a half, or I’m suddenly unable to drive for another reason, I no longer have access to that grocery. Because I’ve relied on a single means of mobility, when it is no longer available, both my mobility and accessibility are severely diminished.

Many people often argue that smart growth proponents (like me) are trying to force people of their cars in favor of biking, walking and transit. But, to me, growing smarter really is just providing more legitimate options. I don’t necessarily want to live in a place where you can’t have a car. Nor do I want to force other people to do so.

II do, though, want to live in a place where you don’t need a car, a place where, when driving is no longer an option, we are not imprisoned by our built environment. I don’t really mind that some people in my apartment building drive their cars across town to work everyday; that’s their choice. The important thing is that when traffic brings the region to a grinding halt, I know that my neighbors will still be able to get groceries or go to a restaurant, or visit their parents across town.

This is why disasters like last week’s commute can help the smart growth “uninitiated” understand. Where a normal day of traffic often leaves people crying for more lanes on more highways, no level of extra auto capacity would have alleviated the problems that left people stranded in their cars for hours on end.

THE NEED TO ADAPT

As we come to terms with climate change, we also have to focus on adapting to these changes and mitigating their effects.  We may be willing to write off one disastrous commute that resulted from a freakish coincidence of weather and circumstances, but climate scientists predict that severe weather patterns will continue to grow more frequent in the coming decades. Sure, we can call on cities and states to devote more scarce resources to plows and salt trucks, de-icing equipment and tire chains, but in the long term, we have to revisit the ways in which we build our cities.

In my time in Germany as a child I often had difficulty explaining the concept of a “snow day” to my friends because the vast majority of them walked or rode a bike to school. If it snowed, they just bundled up and left extra time to get to and from school knowing they would have to walk through snow.

Walkable, compact development is certainly beneficial because it supports high quality transit service, but at its heart it’s beneficial precisely because of it’s compactness. Transit may be greener than driving alone, but the most sustainable way for us to get around is on our own two feet.

The unsustainability of our development patterns is apparent at every level of analysis. At the micro level, we see the failings of dendritic neighborhoods when a fallen tree blocks the only entrance and exit for the 5,000 families who live in a subdivision. At the macro level, the impossibility of moving 700,000 people out of the city at one time on a dozen major routes highlights the folly of limiting our mobility options.

Bad D.C. traffic. Image by thecourtyard.

Bad D.C. traffic. Image by thecourtyard.

Improving new development and retrofitting existing areas to improve our options can be expensive. Many argue that we shouldn’t spend money to alleviate problems that only arise under the most stressful system conditions. Yet we spend billions of dollars a year preparing for or mitigating against the most unlikely of situations, especially when it comes to security.

Changing our development patterns has major implications on public health, financial health, environmental health and even national security. As many sports fans will tell you, a team rarely is successful when it relies solely on the skills of one or two star players. Why, then, do we insist on development habits that make us dependent on one expensive, polluting, unhealthy, and stressful way to get around?