I like to think of myself as a reasonable person. My Midwestern roots generally steer me toward pragmatic results and solutions, even when I aim to do something more transformative. Like most of us, I look for whatever are the most reasonable, logical solutions to today’s problems, with an eye toward the future.
The problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t always serve us well in times of sweeping change. Small increments of change generally are the rule, but change can also happen very quickly. How can we define quickly? A few examples come to mind:
In 2000, we spent about $15 billion on music CD’s. 9 years later, we spent 1/3 of that, as we switched to digital downloads primarily.
Similarly, sales of camera film hit their peak in 1999, at around $800 million. A decade later, they were about 4% of that because of the rise of digital cameras
Gay Marriage was only favored by about 27% of adults in 1996. 15 years later, it was over 50%.
Home ownership rates in the US were consistently between 43 and 48% historically, until Fannie Mae & FHA were created, along with the end of WWII. By 1960, the rate was over 60%, where it has remained since.
In 1960, Atlanta didn’t rank in the top 20 metro areas in population in the US. It’s now 9th. Many factors are involved, but one cannot deny the impact that air conditioning had on rapid development in the South.
While suburbanization was already occurring in the 1940’s, the dawn of the interstate system in 1956 changed the face of our cities. Within a generation, entire new Edge Cities had sprung up, transforming how we live and work.
Whether I want to mention the impact of phone technology, Craigslist or the Internet in general, I could obviously go on much longer. We often find ourselves making small changes in our lives that have a cumulatively radical effect on society at large. As a teenager and college student, serious research involved a great deal of effort and reading. Today, all I need is a smartphone with an internet connection, and I have access to nearly unlimited information. Relatively small change for me, radical change for how we go about our lives.
What does all this have to do with the built environment?
Change happens quickly, and the dominant paradigm can shift before we realize it. For decades, the dominant paradigm in transportation has been continued funding of ever-more infrastructure for the car culture. We widen roads, build new highways, subsidize big parking lots, and generally just try to make it easy to drive around really fast.
The thing is, we know that what people want is changing. We know that younger people in particular are walking, biking and taking transit dramatically more than in previous decades. We know that services like car sharing and bike sharing are exploding in growth. We know there’s tremendous pent-up demand for rental housing, especially in walkable places.
But we are still stuck in the old paradigm with the vast majority of our transportation funding.
Caution and reasonableness suggest we should take a measured approach to funding other ways of getting around. Let’s try a little more bike, a little more transit, and see how the market responds. Because, we assume that people are still mostly going to drive everywhere, just like they have for years.
But the reality is, we truly have no idea what the future holds. We assume that the future is like today, only more so. Even when change is happening, we tend to dismiss it as temporary or actively fight it. What happens when we wake up in 10 years and realize this measured approach was short-sighted? Is individual car ownership and the car culture today’s 35 mm film?
Of course we weren’t always this way. The Interstate Highway Act was not a cautious program to gradually expand auto mobility. It was a huge investment, strategic in nature, which was designed to force a change in the market. The authors read the tea leaves for where society was headed, and set out a radical and illogical course of action. After that level of over-investment in roadways, do we really think that dipping a toe in the water with other modes will have any meaningful impact?
In truth, the logical and reasonable thing to do is to be illogical. The world is changing, and changing more quickly than we realize. 70 million Gen Y’ers may drive the change due to the sheer size of their market, but the change is permeating every age group.
The intelligent approach would be to completely shift our transportation funding priorities so that biking, walking and transit are the modes receiving 90% of what’s available, and roadways the remaining 10%. Do that for 20 years. Then, sit back and see where the market is and what it wants. Only by bringing all modes more into balance can we really begin to determine how people truly want to live.
My reasonable Midwestern brain wants to think this is an unreasonable approach. But in truth, it’s far more reasonable than continuing to throw good money after bad, funding a lifestyle that will be increasingly out of favor as time passes.