In the past few years the amount of time commuters spend in their cars has maintained an upward climb. On the same token obesity in America has also climbed steadily upward until today it has been labeled of "epidemic proportions." Not until recently has the media began to connect these two dots together. (source) Recently studies have been released linking commuting times to myriad ailments including obesity. Another problem we are faced with today are our old, decaying bridges and Highways that require ever increasing amounts of tax payer money to maintain and rebuild.
In light of the problems our massive infrastructure creates in allowing (or forcing) everyone to drive every day to work, are we actually the "envy and marvel of the world?" Prosperity allows our government to obtain enough tax revenue to build freeways on a massive scale. Freeways allow more people to live in suburbs. Freeways may appear to be a great status symbol of America but they are no different then the guy next door who financed the massive remodel to his home, creating a monstrosity he can't afford.
Freeways and our driving habits are a burden and a very expensive requirement. Besides ever increasing gasoline costs, more cars on the road every day means more pollution in our Salt Lake City air. The Wasatch Front is already susceptible to bad air due to our bowl shape, the gridlock on I-15 has made the number of red days (don't breath the air days) stifling to good health. For the lower-classes, or people just getting started, a car is an extremely expensive burden that ultimately decreases our living standards along the Wasatch Front.
Another dot that can also be connected to this issue is how and why are so many in our population are sick. America's health care crisis is not caused by a lack of quality health care, as the media and the left, like to claim. Health costs in America are very expensive because more people are going to the doctor because of sickness. The question boils down to why are we more sick than any other developed country?
One reason we are sick is because for the past 50 years our cities have lost their smart design, their nuclear efficient design of compactness, walkability, vibrancy and attractiveness. People who are healthy spend at least thirty-minutes exercising or walking every day. This was built into cities since the dawn of civilization. Fifty-years-ago smart designs were thrown out in the interest of affordability when suburban sprawl began. As we continue to sprawl, our overall societal system has become less effective, less efficient and we commuters, who are the lifeblood of society suffer as a result.
Its great to see that some are catching on. Utah Transit Authority is bringing back rail lines and will soon be offering commuter rail. Suburban malls are closing down all over the country as shoppers want their Main Street back. People crave local communities that have the public town square feeling, without chain stores and homogenous development. Even without visiting Europe or seeing well-planned communities, people instinctively know, we can do better.
In the Summer of 2007 my wife and I visited Munich, Germany. My wife has always complained about Utah 's poor transit network in comparison to Germany. Besides just transit I've had to listen to hours of stories about the beauty of the Bavarian countryside and wonderful beer. So we finally saved up enough money and went there.
This being my third visit to Europe and maintaining a curiosity for urban design, I thought it might be a good opportunity to make a film highlighting the advantages of a city, that is more mass-transit/bike oriented then vehicular dependent.
Many who begin reading this might have a knee-jerk reaction and think "liberal-waco" on his soap-box preaching Socialism.
However, my agenda in this piece isn't to offer Socialistic solutions for the United States. I firmly believe the United States can maintain a free-market economy, lower taxes and increase living standards, by implementing many ideas found in sprawl-free cities like Munich. Its clear in looking at many Western Cities, where substantial growth has occurred in the past fifty-years, compared to Eastern Cities, where substantial growth occurred prior to WWII-- that the Western United States is growing with very little regard for land conservation or smart growth policy.
As a result of European land conservation, many of their cities both large and small are centralized, dense, vibrant and full of slender people walking around town doing their errands. I first witnessed European land-use on a bicycle touring trip from Paris to Amsterdam. This trip made me wonder why our cities are not working to preserve our open-spaces, views and mountains, especially in such a naturally beautiful place as Utah? Why instead are we so car convienience oriented? Where the top priorities are freeway infrastructure resulting complete car dependence.
I found out from like-minded conservatives that the sentiment goes something like this:"We have huge freeways infrastructure due to our incredible prosperity! We are the marvel and envy of the world. Everyone in Europe wishes they could have our freeway networks so they could own and drive cars every day like we do. Freeways are a blessing. We all benefit economically from such a massive Interstate Highway system. Europe is stagnant, their economy is stagnant because they don't have freeways and instead rely on transit."
For quite a while I bought into this idea. However, my recent visit to Munich has altered my perceptions. Munich is indeed an anomaly. Along with a few other European cities they are bucking the trend of stagnation perceived to be due to socialism and transit. Munich has managed to transform their economy from textiles to services, much like the most successful economies in the United States have done. Munich offers a very high standard of living. Indeed it is a very expensive city, but most people who live there attribute their high standard of living due in part to their excellent transit system. Several people I spoke to said Deutsche Bahn prevents the common Western requirement of car ownership. Many Germans living in large cities do not see owning a car as a status symbol but a burden. Money spent on licensing, gas, repairs, maintenance, tolls, parking etc. is money that could go towards other things, like owning a nicer apartment or cabin in the country.
In America today there are battles in congress over Federal funding of transit operations. Instead of providing grants only for road projects, more dollars are being handed out to cities that are willing to design transit and light rail operations. This is much to the chagrin of many Conservative Republicans, who equate transit to socialism. However, we were certainly less socialistic then we are today when 60-70 years ago most major cities offered rail as a viable alternative to cars.
Smart Growth Part II:
Observation from Europe by bicycle >>
book recommendations on cultural problems stemming from poor planning:
recommended sprawl and smart growth links