I was surprised to hear my friend Jerry wax eloquent about the traffic in front of his Third Street Coffee shop, located in the center of our downtown area in Corvallis, Ore.
“Third Street is the continuation of the old highway though town,” he said, “so 14,000 cars a day go right by my shop. It’s great for business.”
“Go right by your shop, all right,” I thought. “Without stopping.”
As a steady customer who often arrived by bike and sat in Jerry’s shop for many an hour of writing and Internet research, I observed that most of his customers arrived on foot. They walked in from somewhere in the downtown area – with an especially large crowd of local office workers arriving at lunchtime – because it was almost impossible to park in front of Third Street Coffee with all the traffic going by. In fact, I’d often passed up getting a coffee-to-go from Jerry because parking on Third Street was too much trouble.
I was thinking about all this as I spoke with an Italian mathematics professor I met on a train from Florence to Turin, Italy, last summer. He confirmed my casual observation from my travels that European cities, unlike their American counterparts, are better developed and more “livable” in their centers, and have less desirable suburbs.
“People with more money live in the city centers because that’s where the action is,” he said. “That’s where the good shops, the entertainment, the beautiful old buildings and the pedestrian zones are. Those who can’t afford to live in the cities live on the outskirts, in the suburbs.
“This is partly an historical accident,” he said. “Our cities are old – they predate motorized transportation. So the wealthier people have always lived near the administrative and cultural centers, where they didn’t have to walk so far to conduct business or shop. The outskirts were farmed.
“America, I think, has made a mistake by abandoning its cities in favor of suburbs. You’re too spread out for efficiency; too spread out for ‘cultural’ gathering.” He seemed to struggle for the right word.
“For community?” I ventured.
“Yes. You can’t have community with everyone living and driving in a separate box.”
I explained that America once had vibrant urban centers too, but that they were largely neglected during the massive suburbanization that happened right after World War II. The causes were many: cheap (subsidized) gas and cheap cars fostered commuting; cheap agricultural land near cities accommodated sprawl development (while food was imported cheaply from great distances); flight to the suburbs deprived cities of income.
“But those conditions are largely being reversed, and now we have deterioration of the cities and the suburbs,” I said.
After a pause, the professor said, “Perhaps you can return to better times.”
I wondered how as our train approached Turin. To revitalize our cities, we will have to stop directing our energies toward suburban expansion and redirect them toward downtown. But we can’t just bring all those suburban cars into the city – they would have to sit on top of each other. We have to remake our downtowns for pedestrians and bikes.
However, American city governments are generally reluctant to give people priority over cars. Cultural and political inertia dictates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Automobile infrastructure expansion proceeds apace, but it’s hard to find the money for a new bike path, usually considered a frill.
But cities maintain their stance at a cost. Automobile infrastructure is far more expensive to build and maintain than bike and pedestrian facilities. As cities look to a resource-constrained future and to the health and welfare of their residents, they should consider making walking and cycling a priority in their development plans.
Like many – or possibly most – European cities, central Turin has a large pedestrian district (completely car-free). It is packed with families and friends, socialites and shoppers, literally rubbing shoulders and chattering happily. Its many businesses of every description thrive. To walk there is to rediscover urban life as it should be.
Recently, a handful of cities – Boston, Portland and Boulder – have created thriving pedestrian zones as well. The answers are afoot at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.