Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why we need walkable, transit-oriented suburbs

You regularly hear transit and livable streets advocates talking in terms of an opposition between "urbanists" who want transit and walkability, and "suburbanites" who want car-oriented sprawl. I've said before that that division is way oversimplified: it is certainly true that cities tend to be more walkable and have better transit, while suburbs and rural areas tend to be more car oriented, but this division is not set in stone. There are walkability and transit advocates in the suburbs, in small cities and towns, and in the country, just as there are advocates for car-oriented development in the heart of the city.

There is absolutely no sense in setting up the cities as walkable fortresses surrounded by sprawl. Even if we could persuade every city-dweller to go car-free and keep everyone else's cars out, we would still sometimes want to go out and get some fresh air in the mountains or by the beach. We should be able to do that by transit, on foot or by bike. If walkable, safe streets with convenient transit are good enough for us, they should be available to everyone else too. We also need all the allies we can get when we're fighting for walkability and transit; why write off the suburbanites and people who live in the country and small cities?

I would like you to imagine taking a trip by foot, or maybe by local bus, from New York City to Albany. This trip by foot would take you several days, so let's assume that there's a hotel to stay at wherever you need one. I've chosen Albany because it's completely in the State of New York, but you would see similar (but less rural) phenomena if you went to Philadelphia or New Haven.

You would find Manhattan and the Bronx to be very walkable, with convenient transit. In Westchester County it would vary depending on where you went, but you could find a comfortable route at least as far as White Plains or Ossining. North of there you would find walkable downtowns like Poughkeepsie and Rhinebeck, some of them even served by halfway decent buses, separated by increasingly long stretches of inhospitable sprawl and country, until you reached Albany.

Those walkable downtowns are where our natural allies live. Some of them don't own cars. Some keep the car in the driveway all the time. Some curse their cars every time they get behind the wheel. The people who live in between are the ones who tend to vote for sprawl boosters like Nan Hayworth.

Speaking of Westchester sprawl boosters, remember Richard Brodsky, the Assemblymember who managed to convince half the liberals in New York that congestion pricing was a tax on the poor? He was elected from Elmsford, a Westchester suburb that lost its train station in 1958. His district does include walkable villages like Dobbs Ferry and Pleasantville, but it would be significantly more transit-oriented if there were still regular train service to places like Elmsford and Ardsley.

Of course there's no guarantee that transit-riding voters will elect pro-transit representatives, as we see from people like Ruben Diaz and Hakeem Jeffries. But I think that if the Putnam Line had never been shut down - and if at least one of the Thruway, Saw Mill River or Sprain Brook highways hadn't been built - Brodsky would have been a bit less likely to oppose congestion pricing. There's no certainty there, just statistical likelihood, but that's why we have to keep working to build transit riding constituencies in the suburbs and all over the state.


David E. said...

Hear hear! I write about my home county of Marin, a relatively walkable suburb of San Francisco while living in DC. Why? Because nobody in the Bay Area writes about anywhere but San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose! A voice, even one as far removed as mine, is better than no voice at all.

The challenges faced by suburbs are far more complex than those faced by cities. Sure, the city has poverty and high capital costs and all that, but in the 'burbs we don't have all the benefits high densities bring. Car sharing doesn't work; frequent rail doesn't make sense; and people are frightened to lose their cars.

If New York is like the Bay Area, we need advocates in the small towns just as much as we do in the big cities, and it's a harder slog. Thanks for the call-to-arms.

Cap'n Transit said...

I'm glad you think we can write about suburbs while living in cities, David. But the "benefits high densities bring" are actually just benefits of car travel being relatively low quality. If Marin didn't have the 101, for example, I'm guessing we'd find that car sharing and frequent rail would work after all.