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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card April 15, 2007

Walking Neighborhoods

Last week I wrote about how little sense it makes for us to build our lives around cars, because:

1. Oil dependence funds our enemies.

2. We waste huge amounts of time driving.

3. Cars kill 40,000 Americans a year; drive less, save lives.

4. Car ownership is a crushing tax on the poor.

5. Our oil supply will run out someday.

6. Parking lots have paved our landscapes.

7. It's not like we need the air pollution.

8. The exercise of walking or biking makes us healthier.

And in case my eloquent explanation did not persuade you completely, I urged you to read Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, byAndrews Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. This book makes the case for cutting back on driving much better than I could.

What Government Must Do

I'm not urging that the government mandate any more absurd mileage requirements for cars, or ration gasoline, or any other absurd proposals. Hybrids are great, for the things they're great for. But even hybrids still burn gas, and if we could drive less, then hybrids would save even more gasoline.

In fact, all that I want government to do, locally and at higher levels, is to stop with the regulations that force us to use cars for everything, and replace them with regulations that permit us to walk or bike.

Right now, in most locations zoning laws force developers to create neighborhoods with houses of about the same size and cost, on roughly the same size lot, while forbidding any retail within walking distance.

Meanwhile, those same laws generally forbid the construction of new neighborhoods that mix income levels, house sizes, and densities.

(In Greensboro, we do have mixed-use zones that permit some aspects of a walking neighborhood, but it is only used in specific new developments, not for regions of the city large enough to make a difference. Most of the city is still zoned in the old way.)

It's as if government looked at the beloved old neighborhoods that people drive through with yearning and nostalgia, and banned them.

The result is that the poor are shunted off into isolated islands, where crime thrives, employment is remote, and the poor have to own cars just to get a job. Meanwhile, most people can't walk or bike to any useful destination, because the law has forbidden retail or office buildings anywhere near where people live.

I have no problem with allowing people to continue to live in pedestrian-hostile neighborhoods, if they want to. I just want the law to allow the construction and adaptation of low-car-use neighborhoods.

That means allowing low-parking retail to be built close to new and existing residential neighborhoods, like the old-fashioned "Main Street" town, where a commercial strip leads immediately to residential side streets.

In a town the size of Greensboro, this doesn't mean one downtown that gets all the money and attention. It means dozens of little "downtowns" so that all the residential neighborhoods can be within easy walking distance of vital retail.

Sidewalks

It also means sidewalks everywhere, on both sides of the street, wide enough for pedestrians, strollers, and bicycles to share the space.

It also means a mandate for what should have been required all along: The sharing of parking and easy pedestrian access between all retail centers.

The shopping center at North Elm and Pisgah Church is a perfect example of the hostility to pedestrians that must be reversed. There is no safe pedestrian access from the parking area to the sidewalks along the street. That means that they almost forbid you to walk into or out of their property. Government must forbid that kind of "islanding."

But because the same builder created the new (and mixed-use!) development growing next door, the parking lots connect thoroughly, with sidewalks. This is the model that should be, not just encouraged, but required, to break down the walls between retail centers.

Meanwhile, our city should be ashamed of intersections like North Elm and Pisgah Church, where sidewalks are only intermittent, and two directions across the street have no crosswalks, and there are no crossing signals.

And yet this intersection has been worked on twice at great expense to "improve" the way it handles cars. Nothing for the pedestrian, everything for the automobile. This mindset in government has got to go.

And it will disappear, as soon as voters make it clear we're fed up with pedestrian-hating streets.

Subsidized Public Transit

I don't know why this idea makes some people go so crazy. Many insist that public transportation has to pay its own way, right from the start. They do studies showing how many riders we have and take that as an indicator of how many potential riders there are.

They raise prices or cut routes when there's no profit, even though anyone with half a brain could figure out that if you cut routes and raise prices you'll have fewer riders. Because the reason people don't ride buses is: The buses don't go where they need to get; the buses don't come often enough; and the fare is too high to afford.

In Greensboro, public transit runs at a loss, but it does run, and with federal subsidies. Because students at participating colleges ride for free, ridership is up substantially. These are good things.

Recently, the city council faced the choice: Improve to 30-minute service from every-hour service and raise rates, or keep rates where they are and maintain the one-hour rate. Nobody says: If we spend the money to improve the service, eventually more people will ride because the service will be more convenient; instead, it is treated as a zero-sum game. This is how transit systems fail.

(Don't include the SCAT rate rise in this, please; SCAT is a noble idea, but it is not gasoline-saving public transit.)

How many years did Amazon.com run at a loss, living off of its investors, until it finally began to break even? Amazon had to take the time to raise awareness of what they offered, develop a clientele that gradually learned to turn to Amazon first, and, in the meantime, constantly figure out ways to upgrade the service so that people felt it was worth the cost.

Why can't we recognize that until we invest enough in public transit for it to be a credible alternative to automobiles, and convince people of this, it will always be the transportation medium of people who have no choice.

When I'm in New York, I ride the subway all the time. In Paris, I'm on the Metro; in London, I ride the Underground. When I was in São Paulo and Ribeirão Preto, I lived on buses. I also walked constantly. I wouldn't have a car in those cities because there's no reason to.

But the opponents of public transit answer with the nonsequitur: "Of course they have a great subway or bus system -- look at all the riders they have!"

No! No! It works the other way! They have all those riders because their public transit is so good (and the parking and traffic so bad) that you'd be crazy to drive yourself anywhere.

Now, our Greensboro traffic planners do understand about making traffic worse to discourage people from driving. They also understand that if you build roads into undeveloped areas at public expense, the tax revenues can increase from the increased commerce -- that's what the Wendover area development was all about.

They can spend the money to build huge new roads into vast box-store complexes with zero residential space -- a traffic nightmare and, I might add, a hideous place to drive, park, and shop. But they cannot see that to double the frequency of the buses might also have a beneficial effect on commerce and quality of life.

Make walking, biking, and public transportation convenient and easy and safe and cheap, and people will do more of it, to the benefit of us all.

I saw it in Utah. When I lived in Orem, I was commuting every day to Salt Lake City -- 45 miles each way. I carpooled, but what I wanted to do was take the bus or train. In those days, though, the enemies of public transit ruled, so there were only a couple of buses each day, operating at ridiculous times -- not commuter buses, but destination buses. They wouldn't take you there and back again in the same day, with time for a day job in between.

But a few years after I left, someone with a working brain redesigned the whole Utah Transit Authority to make it a viable choice for workers and shoppers, and to link together all the cities in the great metropolitan area. Buses and light rail go almost everywhere. Perfect? Not yet -- but better. Usable.

I hear rumors about the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation. I understand they're looking at light rail. They are financed by a tax on rental cars. This puts a ceiling on their funding that will make it hard for them to install a system that will be extensive enough to make a difference.

I know that government scrambles to find money to fund desirable goals. But let's admit something: Highways and streets are financed routinely, because everyone knows that they "pay for themselves" in the long run. Nobody seems to recognize that public transportation (with protection for walkers and bikers) does so too.

So you can always find money to build "needed" roads, but anyone trying to fund the infinitely more desirable and sustainable public transit is always treated as a beggar.

Instead of choosing between higher fares and more-frequent buses, we should be aiming for a higher goal: We need to run in-city buses often enough that you know that on key routes you can show up any time and never wait more than fifteen minutes.

Expensive? Of course. But how many rider-miles would it take before we start saving the lives of teenage drivers or family breadwinners who aren't driving cars? How long before the money saved by leaving cars at home turns into an increase in retail sales?

And you who scream about increasing subsidies, think of this: A bus system that lets more of the working poor get to better paying jobs is a lot more worthwhile than subsidies for rich corporations.

Besides, we're already heavily subsidizing the car traffic that's literally killing us, stealing our time, polluting our air, making us fat, and funding our enemies. Tax money goes to building and widening roads and installing traffic lights and patrolling them.

Eventually, subsidies for public transit to bring it up to a competitive level of quality will save us the huge amounts of money we currently pay to support needless cars. And our lives will be better, once we reach these goals:

Local transit inside the city. Buses will be frequent, regular, clean, comfortable, safe, and quick. They go everywhere, from everywhere, and if a hub system is used, there are many hubs, not just one, so that each trip doesn't take half the day.

The goal should be that you can get to anywhere from anywhere in the city within fifteen minutes of how long it used to take you to go by car.

We need buses or streetcars that have room for shopping bags under visual supervision or checked. Cellphone use on buses should be encouraged -- they aren't libraries or restaurants, they're part of the working day.

Commuter transit. Analyze the workplaces and make sure that major destinations are well served, so that workers can get to and from work by bus, never needing to park, even if they stay a little late sometimes. The bus system can work with major employers to set up collector points, and even offer minibus service, by contract, for certain locations.

Intercity transit. We can't fly from Greensboro to Winston. What we need is a solid, regular, dependable train line with commuter, mid-day, and late-night runs among the major cities. They must have safe, convenient luggage placement, electric outlets everywhere, small tables for laptops, and reliable internet access so they can be an extension of the office.

Telecommuting. Businesses should get substantial tax breaks for every day that fulltime employees stay at home, working by computer. Control-freak managers hate telecommuting, but in professions where working on a home computer is possible, the best employees thrive best when they are not constantly supervised (especially since they are often supervised by people who know less than they do about their jobs).

The system I'm describing works splendidly everywhere that it is actually tried. It's expensive, of course -- but New York only has its great subway system today because somebody spent the money to build it and then maintain it.

Neighborhood Stores

Mixed-use neighborhoods need grocery stores or they will not work.

The trouble is, with cars ruling our lives, the giant supergroceries make us drive farther and farther because they offer a better selection at a competitive price. Nobody wants to return to the tiny corner grocery.

We don't have to. We already have all the pieces in place for a new retail model that will affect, not just grocery stores, but most retail outlets.

Computers make it possible.

At the moment, grocery stores are doing almost nothing with the data they collect using their frequent shopper cards. They know which stores we shop at and what we buy. But they still don't use that information to tailor their grocery stores to fit the neighborhood and the shoppers.

Idiotically, they still make decisions about what to stock based on the big numbers, as if they were still doing their figures on paper with quill pens. They could develop just-enough stocking practices that would allow small neighborhood stores to stock only what they actually sell to regular customers, plus a little more of the most popular items for walk-in trade.

They could make special-ordering quick and easy, using the internet, so that customers can get extra quantities for special occasions. The profitable corner grocery is easily within our reach.

In fact, we could have grocery stores every few blocks -- competing on quality of tailored service as well as price and selection. Those regular-customer cards could become memberships or subscriptions that bring the privilege of having the things you buy regularly always in stock for you.

Regular customers could easily be rewarded for letting the store know when they'll be out of town so they won't be making their regular purchases. They would come to think of it as their grocery store, with far higher loyalty.

Grocery stores are the foundation of neighborhood retail. Once they're in place, you have a neighborhood; until then, you don't. But the corner grocery model, with just-enough stock management, would quickly be adopted by other stores.

What we have to remember is that the superstores that kill neighborhood retail are actually subsidized to a shocking degree because we build roads for them. They don't have to build into the prices of their goods the tax money we spend building and maintaining the roads that lead to those stores. Just one more way government action encourages counterproductive retail.

If we figured into the price of what we buy from them the cost of gas and the value of the time we spend driving there, they could not compete with chains that maintain small, walkable local stores with just-enough stock.

With sidewalks, it would be easy to design carts that we could take home; with membership in the local grocery store, we could have the right to take a mini-cart home and bring it back.

I know, you're thinking, "No way can I fit all my groceries into a cart to take home." But remember, that's because you hate driving to the grocery so much that you buy vast quantities of everything all at once so you can avoid taking more trips (though you still go right back for the stuff you forgot, don't you?)

Neighborhood groceries would be so easy to get to that we would make more visits and buy less each time.

Besides, neighborhood stores make delivery practical again. It would be a great job for some of those teenagers who aren't getting killed in cars anymore; their wages would be paid for out of the money saved by not having to overstock all the most popular items, and out of the lower cost of operating a smaller store compared to the amount of stock flowing through it.

Even stores like Home Depot and WalMart can adopt a neighborhood model. Well-designed online catalogues that allow you to place orders that are delivered to your local store are a step in the right direction. Large items would be delivered directly to your home, but not from some faraway location. Because as the neighborhood shops take away traffic from the big box stores, they will evolve into the shipping points for local deliveries.

Meanwhile, with small stores taking up little street frontage (and banks completely banned from taking up street space), the groceries and mini-WalMarts and mini-Macy's, with their just-enough computerized stock management, will still serve as "anchors" to draw people out onto the retail streets where tiny shops will have a chance to thrive without paying the ridiculous, unfair premiums that they currently pay to get space at the mall.

You did know about that, right? The little shops in the mall pay far higher rent, per square foot, than the big anchors. That's because, presumably, the big anchor stores draw the customers that also feed the small shops.

So right now the little guy is paying the big guy's bills. In our mini-downtowns, though, the big stores won't need subsidies to attract them. They'll locate their small stores in every neighborhood retail center because that's where the customers are.

It will actually reverse the flow of business -- people will love to shop because of all the small stores, the way small unique shops drew people to Georgetown and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. But government will have to strictly limit street frontage for any one store -- it's a disaster when a small neighborhood gets popular (because of the quirky little guys) and then The Gap and The Limited come in and replace six interesting stores with one big stupid store that looks like all the others.

The more big stores (and banks) taking up huge street frontage, the farther people have to walk to get from store to store, and the less they have to look at while they're walking.

That's why those zoning laws will be used to help us instead of kill us: Banks will be forced to maintain tiny street frontage and keep their operations in the back of the building, renting out the front spaces to small shops that keep the street lively and interesting.

In addition, all those little shops will have commercial space one flight up -- offices and so on -- and residential on the two floors above that. People will live downtown in housing that ranges from inexpensive to luxurious. It's the retail that makes it desirable and affordable; and it's the residents right there who make the shops, especially the small-footprint grocery stores, viable.

Government will nurture these walkable downtowns and retail-centered neighborhoods exactly the way it currently nurtures the pave-everything big box stores that suck so many hours out of our lives driving to them.

Public Pride

Here's what drives the whole changeover: We have to want it. We have to know what's possible, believe in it, and insist on it.

Companies can have odometer competitions -- bonuses for people whose cars show the least use each week.

We pedestrians must develop camaraderie among ourselves the way bicycle riders have had to. Lobby for the sidewalks, crosswalks, crossing lights, and access points we need to be able to live on foot instead of in the car!

We should refuse to show excitement about other people's new cars, unless they're hybrids. We should honor instead the family that decides to get by with fewer vehicles.

Instead of cursing bike riders and pedestrians who dare to slow down our cars, we should be ashamed that we're in the car while they're using muscle power that doesn't kill anybody or subsidize our enemies or use up the world's limited oil supply.

A drastic change in public values is essential. Politicians do not lead -- we know that. So we have to lead.

This begins with a change in the mindsets of people who bought into the old lies. They now own houses in "exclusive" neighborhoods, or believe that letting retail be built near their neighborhood will hurt the resale value of their homes. The opposite is true -- retail values rise as the neighborhood becomes a more convenient place to live -- but it's hard to get bad ideas drummed back out of people's heads.

So I doubt anyone will succeed in getting retail moved close to Irving Park.

Yet where I live, on Willoughby, there is a huge office park within a half-mile walk of my front door, and within a block of many other people's houses. Its construction did not bring my neighborhood's value crashing down.

I only wish that it had included lots of small retail and homes above shops. I'm glad that it did include a pedestrian path that many people in the neighborhood use often.

We are not talking about putting retail next door to you. We are talking about putting it along main roads that few houses face anyway (if they can help it).

My cousin in Los Angeles, in whose house I often stay for days or weeks at a time, lives a couple of very short blocks from Pico, an intense commercial street, and a bit farther from grocery stores on Olympic. I walk on many of my errands, leaving my rental car parked in front of his house.

I even run to the gym I use in LA, just as I run or bike to the gym I belong to in Greensboro. I'm close to everything, and I use my car only to get to business meetings and fine restaurants.

Yet his street, and all the streets in the neighborhood, which run straight and cross mostly at right angles, are quiet havens for pedestrians, bicyclists, and playing children. It's a wonderful way to lay out a neighborhood; it's a lovely way to live.

I know there are people whose minds you can never change; but there are many who, like me, would love to have retail located conveniently near, and who understand that this would make the value of our current homes go up.

We must demand changes in the laws so that existing buildings are required to create pedestrian access and safe bicycle parking.

We must reward box stores with huge empty parking lots for placing small-shop buildings on their street fronts, with residential spaces upstairs. Right now our laws forbid any such thing. Why do we citizens tolerate those laws?

And we should loudly protest the building of any more standalone box stores with no vertical development -- you can't put in another box store unless they have multiple storefronts rented out along the curb and office and residential spaces upstairs.

Even though some small movements have been made by our local government to permit a tiny bit of repatterning, what is needed is a much larger scale change so that existing neighborhoods can be retrofitted with through (but slow) streets and close-by retail.

Our existing laws and development patterns have forced us to risk and/or waste our lives in cars; let's get together, as citizens of a democracy, and demand that the laws change to allow us to get out of our cars except for the rare occasions when it really would be a pleasure to drive.

And the public goal, the one that we are all striving for and willing, for a while at least, to sacrifice for, should be this: By 2027, let us cut the number of miles driven by automobiles in half.

We start by refusing to vote for any candidate who isn't committed to changing local laws until they support that goal. There isn't a segment of society that would not benefit from these changes -- including even the people who absolutely refuse to give up their suburban car-centered life.

Because when the rest of us are walking around in convenient pedestrian neighborhoods, they'll have the roads to themselves. They just won't have anywhere to go, or a place to park when they get there, when the subsidies for gas-burners are gone.

Meanwhile, our enemies will sit around wondering why they don't have all that extra money to build bombs with, and why the world no longer trembles whenever they fiddle with oil prices.

And we'll all breathe a lot easier -- for all kinds of reasons.


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