Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Could American Cities and Suburbs be Car-Free?

The NYT Room For Debate Blog has a very interesting post as a follow-up to the NYT story on the car free Suburbs in Germany.

It basically asks the question to a bunch of transportation policy experts, could American cities and suburbs be car free in the same way that Vauban, Germany is? What would it take in terms of transportation, land use, and policy in order to create connected, walkable, car-free (or at least not car-oriented) cities and neighborhoods? It is well worth a read!

One of my favorite responses comes form Brookings Institution fellow and author of "The Next Slum" (which is a great read) Christopher B. Leinberger:
There are a number of steps that need to occur to give the market what it wants, including:

• More rail transit and bike and walking infrastructure
• Legal permission to build higher-density, multiuse projects (generally, walkable urban development is illegal in the U.S.)
• Management of these places to insure cleanliness and safety, and promote festivals and infrastructure
• Affordable housing programs to insure inclusiveness since these places tend to be the most expensive places to live and work on a price-per-square-foot basis.

There are many reasons to encourage this market trend: social cohesion, environmental sustainability, public health, lower public sector costs for infrastructure per square foot.

But the bottom line is household economics. American families who are car-dependent spend 25 percent of their household income on their fleet of cars, compared with just 9 percent for transportation for those who live in walkable urban places. That potential 16 percent savings could go into improved housing (building household wealth), educating children or that most un-American of all activities, saving.

The Transit Oriented Communities bill we pushed in the legislature, interestingly did many of the things that Leinberger mentions. The goal of HB 1490, the TOC bill, also was in line with the goals of environmental sustainability, healthier communities, and affordable housing. That is why the environmental community, the anti-children's obesity alliance, and the low income housing alliance were all supportive of the effort.

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