I thought of this while hauling up I-95, the northeast corridor, between Washington and Baltimore. We build too much because we build for the worst case scenario.
Overbuilding is just good sense. I want to be able to offer a football player a seat should he come calling. I want my roof to hold five feet of snow without leaking. I’d like to rely on my heart, adrenaline, and legs to get me out of even the tightest jams.
My concern is not the concept of overbuilding. My problem is with the scale of overbuilding for traffic. Something like the area of West Virginia is paved for America’s roads. Something like the area of Indiana is paved for roads and parking. Cars can’t drive without places to park at the beginning and ends of their trips.
Parking lots are even more overbuilt than roads. While roads are built for the 1/24th r of every weekday, parking lots are often sized to hold enough cars for 1/365th of the year. This will change with the diffusion and virtualization of the Christmas shopping season, but the assumption of Black Friday and Christmas eve could stay baked into zoning codes and building practice for years if no one sees a need to change it.
For example, much of our zoning scale and separation is meant to reduce overcrowding, a huge problem for America from 1860 to 1940. No one’s bothered to revisit if overcrowding is the same problem it was when Jacob Riis documented how the other half lived.
So what to do?
Transportation is lifeblood, and depaving lanes for the sake of elegance and efficiency is going to force businesses and even residents out of your neighborhood. Cities need to be willing to locate housing close enough to jobs so commuters could reasonably bike or walk to work. That means attracting the kinds of businesses that local people would want to work in. If you have a retail corridor, then have affordable housing immediately behind the commercial strip for workers. If you have office parks, then mix in luxury condo blocks. If you have data processing and back office businesses, then have affordable apartment blocks and starter homes within no more than three miles.
Compare that with the way we do land use now. Zoning is single use, large lot, and chosen for the regional market. The amount of travel people will need between their hosing and their jobs is not considered. The expense and time of getting from their homes to their jobs is not the land use planner’s jobs. Traffic is assumed. If you need to widen the roads into to town, then you have done a good job, as people want to get to you. Or through you; maybe your neighboring town has even greater attraction and would appreciate the extra lanes through you.
The problem with overbuilding for traffic is not just national (West Virginia, Indiana) it is local. When I mentioned office parks above, I immediately thought of the dreary walk across the acres of parking that surround every office park I could think of. To make an office park professionals and executive would be willing to walk to , make one worth walking in. That doesn’t mean endless nature and sinuous jogging trails, that means street life, windowshopping, and places to loiter, enjoy and be. You need pubs, cafes, and third places.
Walkers get the message pretty directly when 15 cars are passing at killing speeds every minute. They should not cross the street, and they don’t. Especially when the crosswalk, the only legal place for them to be in the street, is a quarter mile away. I was privileged to know my across-the-street neighbors growing up. Any more traffic on Clifton Road, and they might as well have lived in Des Moines.
If we reintroduce choice to America’s transportation, particularly the cheap, easy modes like biking and walking, then we could get enough cars off roads to consider getting rid of lanes. Of the cars on any given road, some are passing through, some are making local trips, and a very rare few are on truly long distance trips. On urban streets, many cars, up to 40%, are just looking for parking. If you could get those local trips out of traffic and on foot, then you’d have a chance of making more elegant roads.
And your property values wouldn’t suffer either.