Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Myth of Cars = Independence

Fortworthology has a new series called 10 questions with FW mayoral candidates, where...uh, you get the point (which is a pretty good idea and I might try the same -- with very low expectations). I decided to respond to a statement of one who suggested, "the reality is Texans love their independence and their cars." Feel free to add the deepest ignorant redneck accent to that quote to the inner monologue as you read.

Cars =/= Independence. They did in the 50s and 60s, when James Dean drag racing symbolized independence for an entire generation.

Today, everyone is shackled into automobile ownership or risk being disenfranchised and quarantined from the local economy.

This is why to our generation, the next generation, sees anything but cars as independence. We were a generation dependent upon mom or dad to drive us anywhere, or a school bus. This is hardly independence.

Instead, we found independence on two wheels powered by our feet. Only then we could go explore as much of the world around our adolescent selves as far as our little legs could pedal.

It’s no wonder there is a rise in interest in bicycling locally and around the country.

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Adding on to my previous post, I was doing an interview with a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the other day. The topic of the article she was working on was about boomer retirees and where they are headed to, specifically to college towns. One of the reasons I cited, was the walkability of many college towns (in specific State College, PA where as a student you don’t need to see your car for four months at a time).

As boomers begin to retire, many are looking to downsize their empty nest homes, get rid of superfluities like second/third cars, and as they begin to age, their ability to drive diminishes, thus becoming dependent upon others for transportation if NOT in walkable neighborhoods. There is a reason that places like Upper East Side, Key West, etc. are the most desirable places to retire and college towns like State College, Tempe, Austin, Gainesville, Athens, etc. are emerging as popular destinations as well.

Each of these is infinitely better than most of those awful retirement villages which more closely resemble geriatric warehouses than something resembling life. Do they desire independence? Of course, they do! Isn’t that the point of retirement? So they give up the assembly line trudgery (sic) of their daily commute in order to find some semblance of long lost independence that cars provided in their youths, and only in their youths.

The conversation eventually veered to where I live, Dallas, and that I live here (happily) without a car. Of course, the reporter was dumbfounded. “How on earth do you do that?”

That very perception is reality to most. You have to live in a sprawling metroplex with a car. That reality is dependence.

I feel compelled to repost this graphic contrasting the organic, fractally emergent city that is vibrant, that provides inclusion via mobility for all of its citizens. Then our city and those like it.

This isn't because it is the way "I wish for things to be." Although I do.

It is the way for Sun Belt cities to survive. Yes, that sounds melodramatic, but I promise you it is 100% true. Detroit and the Rust Belt are on life support because post-industrialization was unkind to cities of economic homogeneity.

What is the driving cities today, is quality of life and the quality of places that said life occurs within. The Sun Belt, due to the transportation and zoning policies that control it, are uniform. They all look the same, because they pretty much are the same. A homogeneity of PLACE exists. Homogeny leads to fragility.

Cities that exist for centuries are resilient. We must build our cities for resilience, beyond your, mine, or anybody else's daily specific needs. We will adapt those to whatever form a city takes, for better or worse, for as long as said city exists.

Unique character is dependent upon walkability (loosely = density+proximity), which allows for the emergence of local individuals, buildings, businesses, and character to display itself. These things can't exist within the framework of sprawling cities where generica reigns. This is why the spectrum of color exists within the lively city graphic. It represents the broad spectrum of individuals within a city that allows for that character to be expressed.

There is actually a deeper theoretical foundation to this based on study of neural networks. And if you've read this blog for any amount of time, you should recall that the city, like the internet, are modeled after the human brain. They are all about connections, everywhere to everywhere, but the most important connections are those that are closest, where the most activity occurs. If synapses are firing all over your brain, say, like having to run from Plano, to Mesquite, to Carrollton during your daily or weekly errand runs, that pretty much makes for an insane person. Both former and latter.


When I read through the responses of the Fort Worth mayoral candidates, I see people unwilling or unable to see the magnitude of what Sun Belt cities are facing over the next few decades and stand up to the task at hand. Far easier to whistle while it burns and pander to the audience, I suppose.

At least the previous mayor was occasionally able to articulate the issue.