Saturday, April 10, 2010

Repost: Carfree or Country?

This post ran back on New Year's Day 2009. Some recent commenters - not to mention Joel Kotkin and Kevin Drum - clearly missed it. Bottom line: it's possible for lots of people to sustainably live carfree in small towns. But I would add that it's not possible for lots of people to sustainably live carfree on two-acre lots in "the country." You do need density, even if it's local density.

Discussion of urbanism often runs into false dichotomies, many of which seem to be driven by the narrow viewpoints of their authors than anything else. We've got a whole generation of commentators and bloggers who've grown up with car-dependent suburbs, car-dependent houses in the country, and dirty, high-crime cities, and seem to have great difficulty imagining anything else.

If you think about it, though, the dramatic growth of car ownership over the last sixty years implies that lots of families didn't have cars sixty years ago. Most of them didn't have horses either. Quite a few of them lived in suburbs or even in the country, but they managed to survive quite well. How?

The infrastructure was different, that's how. Many places that are car-dependent now didn't use to be. As Matthew Yglesias put it yesterday:
traditionally a great deal of walkable urbanism took place in small towns rather than in cities, and also in small cities [...] and “streetcar suburbs” rather than big cities.

For example, Westchester County had two more train lines that were torn up a long time ago: the New York, Westchester and Boston and the Putnam Line. You can tell where they ran just by looking for places that "feel like" the old suburbs. Visit Ardsley, or Heathcote Road in Scarsdale, and you'll know what I mean. Binghamton used to have regular train service, and Saratoga had much more frequent service than it has now, to a station right downtown instead of the current one.

"Joe from Lowell" commented on Yglesias's blog, "I like to use the example of the towns in old westerns. People walking up and down the street, saloons and banks and churches, apartments up above, houses on side streets, usually a train station nearby - but as small town/rural as anyone could ask for."

This has changed somewhat. The NYW&B went out of business in 1937 and the Old Put in 1958. The 2001 bankruptcy of the Grand Union supermarket chain hit a lot of towns hard across the greater New York area. Grand Union's distributor C&S sold off a lot of stores to drugstore chains and other buyers who had no intention of keeping the supermarkets open, and many towns found themselves with no supermarkets.

Even so, there are still many "streetcar suburbs" and cities that even today are walkable and transit-friendly. As far as suburbs go: in Westchester there are several places where you can live within a fifteen-minute walk of both a train station and a full-service supermarket, as well as a range of shops and restaurants. Examples include Bronxville, Harrison and Tarrytown. There are similar towns in New Jersey (e.g. Montclair) and Long Island (Rockville Centre). Parts of New York City itself have a pretty suburban feel, but are still close to shopping.

Similar situations exist in medium-sized cities like Binghamton, large towns like Saratoga Springs, and small towns like Red Hook. Even in relatively car-dominated areas, there's often a significant percentage of the population that manages to live car-free. In many of those cases, unfortunately, even if you can find a house that's within walking distance of a supermarket there aren't many jobs that are within walking distance of such a house, and many desirable shops or restaurants are in unwalkable locations.

Overall, it's a lot easier to live without a car than some might suggest, and it's a lot easier to serve the populations of medium-sized and small towns than some might claim. All you need to see it is a little imagination.

3 comments:

Silli said...

Early suburbs were based on the premise that only one adult in the family worked and could commute via foot or trolley. Milk deliveries and door to door salesmen were common. Now we are seeing a resurgence of housing near jobs, growing grocery delivery services, and internet shopping which makes trips to the big box stores less necessary. Yay! But it's still hard to have transit available to both adults' workplaces unless you live near a big city with lots of transit.

Matt Miller said...

"You do need density, even if it's local density."

This may be the most important lesson for reshaping cities. There is no need to make everything denser, or even to make most of the urbanized area denser. What is necessary is to create 'nodes' that are denser then the surrounding area, and the provide the correct infrastructure for that density. And hint, that ss not wider roads.

There are fundamental limitations on how dense automobile development can be. The rule of thumb I've heard for converting raw land into residential subdivisions is that 20% of the land will go for roads. When plotting a commercial center, every thousand square feet of retail requires about the same square footage. Creating anything denser then that requires a less space intensive mode of transportation.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Saratoga Springs looks like it does because it grew up around the station. Most of what you see in Saratoga Springs, downtown anyway, was there 100 years ago. They used zoning to exclude all that icky late 20th century stuff. It's out on the highway on the other side of the Northway/I87, in Wilton.