Are We Seeing the End of the Exurbs?

But the big battles over high speed rail and Metro obscure a more-winnable war for safer local streets. Big infrastructure is important, but so is the nearby intersection, the crosswalk, and the bike lane. After all, dollar for dollar, bike lanes move move people just like freeways but at fraction of one penny on the federal investment dollar.

One mobility solution for an urban era is to encourage alternative modes of transportation. Like cycling for example. But to get folks on bikes we need to make our streets hospitable and accessible to road users. Yet transportation professionals continue to design streets seemingly designed to fail walkers and cyclists. Getting Complete Streets improvements on City of Beverly Hills streets is a challenge when officials refuse to employ the basic principles (despite the state law requiring it). While attitudes toward urban living can evolve gracefully, making streets that accommodate the increased density is a challenge. Once constructed, they are difficult to change.

Better Bike is waging a campaign right now to include Complete Streets principles as part of our city’s reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard. We might have scored a recent victory. But the battle will be long. The battle will also be marked by lives lost – as they are today. Ghost bikes memorialize collisions (never say “accidents”) that take lives, but too often justice is not served. The motorist flees; the police fail to investigate; and collision reports attribute fault to cyclists without sufficient evidence. (Recently a City of LA police official wondered if the injured cyclist had been drinking without anything to back up that spurious claim.) Even when motoring offenders are nabbed, they may get a pass from the prosecutor who declines to charge vehicular manslaughter if warranted.

These attitudes can change, but the streets we construct can’t easily change. We have to construct them properly in the first place!

Where Did We Go Wrong?

The seeds of our dangerous streets long ago gestated with planning theorists and professionals who sought to impose rational order on what was perceived to be intolerable organic disorder. The approach has a history in planning thought going back to 19th century urban reformers. They saw disorder as a disease to be cured; routinely they described conditions like a disease to be eradicated. Often these problems were misdiagnosed as social conditions with a fix in a reformulated urban environment.

Planner Mel Scott in mid-century also misdiagnosed the problem when he lamented the sorry state of road safety for pedestrians. In Cities are for People (1942), Scott prescribed a radical change in public space simply to better accommodate human habitation to the  motor car.  Of the hazards of walking in a car-dominated city, he wrote:

Death-on-wheels lurks at the intersections in the average neighborhood. Today this crossroads, tomorrow that one may be the scene of a smash-up involving two vehicles, or of a serious accident to a pedestrian…Because streets in the average neighborhood run parallel clear through the neighborhood, there is always the possibility that any one of them may suddenly become a favorite route for traffic. When this happens, the danger to all residents is great, but especially to children and elderly persons.

Instead of addressing the social origins of reckless driving, he viewed the “neighborhood designed for safety” as cleansed of right-angle intersections and “streets that invite motorists to speed.” His re-engineered neighborhoods simply took children off the streets and safely put them in cul-de-sacs where they wouldn’t get in the way of traffic. Here’s the comparison:

Neighborhood organic vs planned maps from Mel ScottFor the neighborhoods like that on the left that “just grew,” he lamented the

convenient street arrangement for giving directions – dangerous for automobiles and pedestrians. Every intersection can be the scene of a smash-up.

But neighborhoods like that on the right that were ‘planned,’ he said, were neighborhoods “in which all of us would enjoy living.” He continues:

When small children wander from home in this community, parents don’t have visions of hit-and-run accidents. They know that children are safe- probably off on a tricycle excursion to the playground, where there is always something going on.

Mel Scott was optimistic that his concept could reach enough people to make a material change in the safety of the neighborhood:

Contrary to what we might think, it is not an expensive neighborhood. The homes are all moderate in cost, and the people who live in them earn no more than people who live in less inviting neighborhoods….

That’s somehow despite the ‘redlining’ that implicitly barred unwelcome would-be residents by denying them bank loans. Or regardless of racial convenants that explicitly barred specific groups from owning homes in certain subdivisions – a tool also widely used here in the Southland.

Dangerous by Design report coverThose practices are largely a thing of the past. But then so too is the rose-colored lens through which we viewed these new-style neighborhoods. Yesterday’s suburban tracts are today’s problem urban neighborhoods. Yesterday’s people-free arterials are today’s roads designed to kill.

And in Scott’s book we can see precisely how we got it wrong with regard to mobility. Superblock neighborhoods created quarter mile long freeway arterials that are frustrating to navigate, problematic to cross, and dangerous to cycle. We’re just beginning to value them properly – which is to say discount their material and social value relative to the recent past. Even the banks don’t see the value there. Demographer William Frey remarked that such growth “has really come to a standstill and is maybe being given up for dead at this point.”

The Turn to the ‘Urban’

People instead seek the quality of life characteristic of cities and early suburbs: human-scaled commercial strips instead of malls; small restaurants instead of chains; and tightly-clustered housing where you can know your neighbors. And following their interest comes investment and cachet. Economists note that depressed real estate values and year-over-year value drops are not evenly distributed; these revitalized areas are seeing healthy gains in a down market (as they say).

This turn is a positive shift that came not through subsidy reform (counter-intuitively, subsidies tend to lag), nor through policy change like transit-oriented-development incentives that some like to blame. Instead the turn came though a change in the zeitgeist: we think differently and we want to live differently. Census figures reflect that.

With the best of intentions, perhaps, we ameliorated the hazards of city living by walling off our domestic environments from the city. They were safe to cycle within, but quite unsafe to cycle between. We perversely undermined the wonderful transportation connectivity that the bike offers in exchange for a very limited recreational footprint. And of course we created communities that were practically unreachable by means other than the automobile. To keep them accessible, we keep on paying – for $1 billion highway expansions, for under-used bus lines, and of course with our personal safety and environmental concessions. In that light, the new turn toward the urban is good news indeed.