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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

So, Millennials Aren't That Urban. So What?

The Five-Thirty-Eight blog posted an interesting article showing that contrary to popular belief"Millennials", or people born between 1980-2000, are not showing a measurable preference for cities compared with past generations. The article points out that young people in past generations have been more urban than older people, and that in some respects the preference has actually ticked downward, even though many young people are indeed choosing urban life. The trend to live in cities among young people is strongest among those with college degrees, while those without college educations are not particularly city-oriented. So while many of us who graduated college have this anecdotal experience of being surrounded by our peers in urban areas, a lot of the people our age who don't have college degrees aren't doing likewise.

My first reaction to this was disappointment with maybe a touch of fear, because I fall into the camp that thinks that reviving city life is a major underpinning of whether we get through a whole range of social crises (I mean, I have nightmares about climate change. . .). But then the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the narrative about whether or not there's a mass re-entry into city cores is kind of beside the point. Maybe it's a good thing that we're being disabused of this illusion, since it can get us to talk some tough talk about what it really means to make progress.

Not All Suburbs Are the Same
Much prettier block than I grew up on, but you get the idea.
Living in dense cities like New York or Chicago may be the ultimate way to go car-free, but a lot of suburban towns are ripe to for car-free (or at least very car-lite) lifestyles. 

I grew up in Upper Darby, PA. The place I grew up in was a lot more car-oriented than Philadelphia next door. But it still was very walkable, (somewhat) bikeable, had (relatively) good transit, and frankly, was denser than Providence is. Parts of my town were very mixed-use. Parts of it not so much. But making my town into a Little Netherlands wouldn't be all that hard, it would just require some ambition.

The Whitin Mill, Whitinsville, Mass.
Not even all rural places are the same. Rachel grew up in Whitinsville, population around 4,000. The density there is very low, but it's because there are a lot of farms and open fields. The town center, though, where most of the people live, is (pretty) walkable.

When we talk about urbanism as if it only entails people who live in chic apartments across from Kennedy Plaza, we're missing a huge potential for a lot of other places (frankly, in a sense moving across from Kennedy Plaza is yet another example of someone not choosing the densest location to live, anyway). Neither my town or Rachel's have met their potential to give people more options than driving. But it's not like they couldn't meet that potential easily.

I mean, if you don't believe it, look at Assen, in the Netherlands. 

The population density there is around 2,000 per square mile, which is quite a bit lower than East Providence. But 40% of trips are taken by bike. And Assen isn't a chic college town where everyone's a recent college grad. It's a place with a lot of older people and children (the chic college towns have 60% modeshares, because age matters, just less than we would have thought). But even more amazing is that while density certainly helps, it's not the central prerequisite for transportation success either. The places with 60% modeshares are still less dense than Providence.

A lot of the biking change in Providence in recent years has been mere statistical noise. We went from 1% to 2% modeshare, but we can't even be sure that's more than a hiccup of counting. If rural places with driveways and spaced apart housing can get the kind of modeshare that Assen has, then we sure can (but we're not yet). You can't really be proud of 1% or 2% modeshare, because it represents the true converts to biking--the people who would do it almost no-matter-what, and some people can afford nothing else. Biking will never fall to zero, just like city population will never fall to zero, so you have to track your successes using a different scale entirely.

I do think we should be majorly concerned if we see a huge uptick in the number of people choosing to live in green-field housing subdivisions on the edge of nothing--looking at you Cranston and Warwick!--but a huge road and a strip-mall. And there is some of that. But we shouldn't be worried about this cosmic battle between city life and non-city life. It's a distraction. Let's build the right infrastructure and move on.


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