Suburbs Don’t Have To Suck

“Widening roads to cure traffic congestion is like buying a bigger belt to cure obesity.” One of my favorite transportation-activist maxims. And it’s been around for a while! Yet the powers-that-be in so many places where I’ve lived don’t seem to get it, and they keep widening the roads to try and cure traffic congestion.

In my home region (and maybe yours too), we are getting a lot of new housing development outside the urban core. People expect to live in these car-dependent housing developments, and drive to everything, without ever having to sit in traffic. That’s not going to happen unless we change our approach to development.

In the land of Jenny, no sprawl developments would get built, ever. There’d be small town or walkable city, then straight to farmland, wetland, or forest. Plenty of space for wildlife; low-footprint outdoor recreation such as hiking or kayaking. Fish camps; hunting areas. But, the land of Jenny exists only in my head. And besides, I want to be sensitive to the needs and wants of others, even if some of those “others” want to live differently than I do.

To the world we inhabit today, I propose the following two basic retrofits to make sprawl development less bad. Or maybe even good in some cases!

• Widening roads is fine, as long as we do it only by adding bicycle paths, sidewalks, and trees.

• All new residential developments need to include their own supermarket, pharmacy, and other basic services within two miles of any house. Existing developments should try to attract this as a retrofit. (I’m happy to see that at least some of the new residential developments in my region are starting to include food markets and other everyday retail.)

Imagine if we had sidewalks and bike paths everywhere, and there were all the basic necessities located close enough to residences so that non-automotive transport was a reasonable option. Imagine if people started getting out more on foot and bicycle, to get their exercise and avoid being stuck in traffic. That’s been my approach for years and it works great.

From this standpoint, traffic congestion can be seen as a blessing because it invites people to consider walking and cycling. But in order for them to do so, the bike paths and sidewalks need to be there.

By the way, the actual quote about traffic congestion comes from architectural critic and urban planner Lewis Mumford, and it goes: “Curing congestion by adding more lanes is like curing obesity by buying bigger pants.”

Further Exploration:

Village Homes (Davis, California) is a suburban-type housing development crisscrossed with cycling/walking paths and lush with fruit trees and veggie gardens. Residents feel safe letting their kids roam, and parents get to have plenty of time to themselves. This development was built back in the 70s. I think you’ll enjoy this 11-minute YouTube video. It’s part of the “Global Gardener” series narrated by Bill Mollison, the “Father of Permaculture.” We could have more of these kinds of housing developments!

“What Happened To Our Neighbor-Stores?” by Mike Paulus on . “Little shops and markets just don’t exist in the middle (or even on the edges) of neighborhoods anymore. So what’s up with these neighbor-stores, and why don’t we see more of them?”

“Neighborhood Vibrancy: Older and Smaller Can Sometimes Be Better” (by Edward T. McMahon on ). “Why is it that neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings often seem more vibrant than those with larger, newer ones? Historic preservationists have long argued that older structures play a crucial role in contributing to the livability of cities and the health of local economies. Most preservationists are familiar with Jane Jacobs’s book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argues that large-scale demolition and replacement of older, smaller buildings with large new structures drains the life and vitality from urban neighborhoods. But the world has changed a lot since Jacobs penned her thesis. What role do older neighborhoods and smaller buildings play in 21st century cities?”

“2 Reasons Why the American Approach To Congestion Is Totally Wrong” (by Rachel Quednau on ). “[N]ext time you start getting frustrated in a traffic jam at 8am, remember: We’ve created this situation by the way we’ve designed our roads and our communities. Expanding highways won’t solve the problem, but building complete communities and strong towns will.”

“Dealing with Congestion” (by Charles Marohn on “When we want to decrease flooding in a watershed, we go to the source. We try to retain that water, to absorb it as near to where it originates as possible. We understand this is way cheaper and vastly more effective than building massive infrastructure systems to handle the runoff once it is sent downstream. For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.”