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Green Paradise? Welcome back to the Third World!

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2012

Over the last few months I've had the opportunity to make several trips to Salt Lake City's central business district (CBD), centering on Main Street and 2nd South. This is an area that has undergone a lot of changes over the last twenty years, and many of them have been directed towards making the area neighborly and environmentally friendly. Light rail (TRAX) has been constructed running up and down Main Street, parking has become more restricted, the streets are now a lot more bicycle-friendly and auto restrictive.

All-in-all, it's becoming a green paradise... and a teeth-grinding experience for me!

The problems I face when I have to foray into the CBD center around two elements: first, I'm old and I'm no longer a good walker. Second, I drive a car, so I have to find a parking place, and it should be close to my destination.

Because of my health, coming down on TRAX is not a viable option. I can't hoof three blocks or more from a TRAX station to a destination, so I drive. But, if I don't know exactly where I'm going, navigating the CBD in search of handicapped parking can easily become a twenty minute adventure involving traveling back and forth across four blocks and involving dozens of turns.

So, the CBD has become much more eco-friendly over the last decade years, which is admirable. But that friendliness is "transparent to the user" only if:

o the user can easily walk five blocks
o likes using a bicycle
o knows where he or she is going before they start out
o only goes one or two places on their journey
o goes during the hours when buses and TRAX are running

If you're a CBD user who doesn't meet all of the above criterion, this eco-friendliness comes at the cost of very real distress and discomfort.

The unintended consequence is the CBD has become friendly to those who are active, healthy, and in their teens through thirties. It also favors those who tolerate high-density living conditions. Curiously, this combination reminds me a whole lot of the "new town" suburb I lived in while I taught in Korea ten years ago.

It's spooky, but in this way Salt Lake City CBD is becoming much like an East Asian urban neighborhood of twenty years ago. Green may be admirable, but if the result is streets filled with lots of young people, most of them walking, the rest on bicycles, all living in high rise apartments. ...Hmm... Is this the best habitation dream America can come up with?

Car = Freedom

The urban planners who try to make neighborhoods eco-friendly by making them car-restrictive need to keep in mind that people like cars for very practical reasons as well as emotional ones. The practical reasons are that a car owner has a lot of flexibility in:
o where they can travel
o when they can travel
o what they can take with them as they travel

Cars are expensive, but people buy them none-the-less because of this boost to freedom that they give a person's lifestyle. If an urban planner wants to displace cars without causing personal grief, he or she needs to structure public transport alternatives that offer similar freedoms. A simple example of doing that would be running buses 24/7, and accepting that they will run near-empty much of the time. As an analogy, consider that a parked car isn't doing anything, but the owner is quite willing to pay for the time it is parked as well as the time he or she is actively using it.

Update: It seems I'm not alone in my concerns. This is 8 Nov 13 WSJ editorial, F.H. Buckley: We Have Not Yet Begun to Fight the Bike Lanes The bike wars in my little neighborhood are coming soon to a city near you., is about this same issue.

Update Nov 2013: I had another encounter with "Hobbiton", which makes me real glad I'm in an area that isn't. Hobbiton is a residential area designed to be... "Awww! So cute, so comfortable, so green!" The dark side is that the irrationally winding roads, big and small cul de sacs, and poor signage make these areas stranger unfriendly and disaster sensitive -- "Where did you say the fire is? We can't find it!" and dig a trench across one road and hundreds of people are cut off. And on regular days the cul de sac entrances are traffic bottlenecks. The deeply spooky part is the residents are oblivious to these problems. These designs owe their attractiveness to instinctive "Us versus Them" thinking, which is not well suited for modern living. Hobbiton is not a good part of the American dream.

--The End--

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