Food for thought:
When you Google "Neighborhood Livability Ranking", you get thousands of links talking about traffic calming, traffic speeds, hit-and-run accidents, and traffic noise.
Apparently, in our collective conscience traffic concerns outweigh schools, crime, walkability, or nearby amenities. And that's more than a little scary.
When I was a growth management planner in Portland, Oregon, my major job was to reconcile people's mobility needs with their livability needs. You see, if we did our jobs right, the neighborhoods would become denser, the amenities would become more numerous, costs of goods and services would be cheaper. People would want to walk around, eat at a nearby restaurant, grab groceries on the way home.
Well ... it worked. Neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon, are likely the nicest collection of neighborhoods you'll find in North America.
But what also happened is people want to go everywhere in town and see everything. So we made the city bicycle oriented, pedestrian friendly and transit supportive. We actually started to use congestion as a means to slow and regulate traffic.
In other words, rather than trying to build roads in order to arrive at zero congestion (an impossibility) - we used it as a tool in an overall network.
It was a network of living that supported a healthy and sustainable future. In gross terms, this is how I see all this falling together in my three-C's:
- Walkable neighborhoods
- Transit coverage (distance and frequency)
- Designated bikeways
- Coherent Arterial Network
- Few Freeways
- Wayfinding Tools
- Carsharing Services
- Grocery Stores
- Retail Space
- Commercial Space
- Banks and Other Financial
- Government Services
- Delivery Services
- Healthcare (Private)
- Healthcare (Public)
- Police / Fire
So, assuming that this is a comprehensive list of network elements, why does traffic get so much of our attention? I think it's because we never see ourselves as "traffic", we see ourselves "caught in traffic". Traffic is the other cars in our way and not us in other people's way.
A Digression / Illustration
In Seattle, we have sections of freeways that have actually seen a decrease in traffic per day, but an increase in hours of congestion.
It's my personal belief that this is due to the increase in aggressive driving and decrease in what is known as "gap tolerance". Gap tolerance is the distance you leave between your car and the car in front of you. As gap tolerance decreases, congestion increases.
If all cars go exactly the same speed things are fine. Cars obviously do not go the same speed. So if you have five cars all very close to each other and the lead car decreases its speed by only 1 mile an hour, the second car will need to decrease 2 miles per hour in order to avoid hitting it (unless it decreases speed magically at exactly the same time). The third car now has to decrease its speed and so forth through the chain.
If we started at 50 we have this 2 mph backward progression:
- Car 1 - 49
- Car 2 - 47
- Car 3 - 45
- Car 4 - 43
- Car 5 - 42
Now car 5 is going nearly 10 Miles an hour slower than the first car. Behind car 5, maybe there are two other clusters of five cars.
Soon, you get everyone on the freeway going 20 mph, simply due to a normal fluctuation of the lead car.
What happens if you are car 11 in this progression? You say "Why the hell are we slowing down?!"
But the fact is, you are slowing down because YOU are traffic. It's hard to accept blame for being in the middle of a series you can see neither the end or beginning of. But you are actually the body, the heart, of this monster.
This continues when you get off the freeway and are now late and race through someone's neighborhood to make your appointment.
That guy you see flying down the street in front of your house and think, "God! Slow down buddy!" is actually just another incarnation of you (or me), typical American.
Return to Topic
The popularity of the discussion and over-emphasis on traffic in our overall livability leads inevitably to the misinterpretation of transportation amenities. The suburbs look better because the streets are wider, the stop signs fewer, and apparent traffic - less. The thought being that the ability to drive 40 mph through suburban neighborhoods to get home (quickly?) will make life more livable.
The fact that we can no longer walk anywhere whatsoever is sublimated by the orgasmic internal view of driving unhindered for blocks on end.
We weren't able to solve this dilemma in Portland. I think in the end, only the total depletion of fossil fuels will finally solve it. One nice thing though, there's been a noticeable shift toward living in places where there is walkability and amenities.
The shift seems to be happening on its own!