Where Our Roads Have Taken Us

By Morton Gulak, PhD

Bold ideas have always shaped cities. These usually emerge when problems seem at their worst and current methods of solving them don’t appear to be working. Transportation, one of the most important elements of urban form, has always been a problem to be solved and a topic that has elicited a variety of innovative proposals.

The first issue of Inform for 2012 focuses on four city-changing projects. Each is related to a specific time in history and each has or will have a strong impact on development patterns. Interestingly, each project was a response to larger problems and influences of their time but, in each, the approach taken focused on a singular solution—move more cars and people faster and efficiently. History has taught us that urban problems need comprehensive solutions involving residential, economic, social, and transportation components. Positive change takes place when these are synchronized. When the components need time to catch-up to one another, the results may be disastrous. A few of the broad societal influences that have shaped transportation and urban development are discussed below.

The car was the king of travel in the 1950s and ’60s. Its impact on cities and lifestyle was immense. For the first time, people had a choice over crowded transit systems with limited schedules. People could travel long distances comfortably and inexpensively within urban areas and among cities. The automobile allowed personal freedom to travel where and whenever one wanted to go. New highways, freeways, and arterials provided easy access through local areas and across the country. This new freedom was possible, in large part, due to the Federal Aid Highway Act signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. The bill allocated $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways over a 20-year period. Local governments linked roads to the federal system to bring business to existing downtowns and allow development to take place in formerly inaccessible locations outside central areas.

The centrally focused form of cities changed with the new freedom of movement, an increasing population, and new development needs. Space for new housing was hard to find in crowded cities, leading developers to assemble large tracts on green land outside. These developments were not of much consequence in the ’50s, ’60s, and even the early ’70s. Governments, eager to have development, planned roads to each of these new communities with connections to the major road systems and to each other. The resulting “organic” road layout, in general, provided access to the majority of jobs in the downtown and to smaller commercial and retail locations in the suburbs. Missing in most cities was mass transit to relieve the increasing number of cars for the relatively short commute to downtown or for the potential of the suburbs to grow in an orderly manner.

In the suburbs, developers also ignored the fact that most families had only one car. If dad took the car to work every day, mom and the kids were trapped in their house without a means of travel. This isolation soon led to sociological studies showing a loss of community and sense of place in the suburbs as compared to the lively lifestyle and access to most goods, services, and recreation in the city.

Things began to change. A number of events in the ’60s and ’70s increased the number and use of automobiles. More women entered the workplace and needed transportation, a wealthier middle class emerged who could afford more than one car, and development had begun its spread outside the city, requiring longer times for travel to work, shopping, entertainment, and services. Population had increased over this time, as well, and according to the 1970 U.S. Census, more people were living in suburbs and rural locations than in cities. Development patterns changed from a central city focus to providing goods and services closer to where people lived—in the suburbs. These changes placed tremendous pressure on transportation planners to move cars efficiently among the downtown, new suburban workplaces, and other needed services within the rapidly changing environment.

Until about the 1990s, the way to deal with increasing traffic was to build more and larger roads. Highways, beltways, and freeways were thought to be the answer to reducing congestion for the increasing number of cars. These led to directing traffic around congested areas like the downtown and dense urban neighborhoods. The new roads briefly solved this problem but also provided easy access to land for development even further away from the city center.

During the ’90s, as congestion increased and older methods of planning didn’t seem to be working, ideas began to emerge that took a more comprehensive view than simply building more roads to solve traffic problems. Traffic, land use, and development needed to be looked at together. The idea of Smart Growth directed new growth to areas of existing infrastructure. New development was planned to share existing roads, schools, and fire and police services, thereby reducing the cost of development to local government and, importantly, reducing the length and number of daily automobile trips needed.

Sustainable Communities was another idea. It proposed mixed uses within a community and a design that reduced the impact of development on the environment. Sustainable Communities contained space for work, play, and living in close proximity, which resulted in decreasing the need for automobile use.

New Urbanism is probably the most well-known contemporary approach. New urban communities were planned on principles that recall older urban building patterns. Design principles included walkability, connectivity, mixed-use and diversity, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighborhood structure, increased density (over usually lower suburban density requirements), green transportation, sustainability, and quality of life.

New Urbanism, Sustainable Communities, and Smart Growth all share a common thread. Each of these ideas or approaches was intent on reducing the number of automobile trips needed for each daily activity and establishing a greater sense of community through their designs. A problem exists with these self-contained communities. When people each day leave for work or for services that are spread throughout the region, a large number of cars exit to the main thoroughfares, and congestion is not reduced on a regional basis.

Commuter Transit has emerged as another way of reducing automobile traffic and moving large numbers of people to work and essential services. The new transit approach connects significant centers, i.e., employment, shopping, and other significant centers in the region, to residential population clusters. Commuter transit has worked well in dense urban areas like San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Atlanta; D.C.; and Chicago but will require land use changes in most suburbs to form residential and commercial clusters that have the density to make these systems work.

The above approaches are evident in today’s planning and development proposals in Virginia and across the country. They are beginning to make a difference in balancing the need for transportation and development. Some “extreme” proposals have been promoted throughout history. Examples are very tall buildings with bridge connections in the air, personal transit vehicles on light rails within dense urban areas, cars that both drive and fly, and helicopters proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his Broadacre City in 1930. Although some may seem far out or bold, they may become useful. We need these bold ideas that take advantage of what we’ve learned, what technology can provide, and a comprehensive approach to problem solving for our cities and communities for the future. Resulting solutions should differ very much from the car-is-king type of response of yesteryear.

Morton Gulak, PhD, is professor emeritus in urban and regional planning with Virginia Commonwealth University.

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