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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

September 26, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Do city growth strategies subtly discourage car ownership?

MercerMess

Drivers and traffic enforcement officials struggled to deal with vehicular congestion on Mercer Street in this August 2012 photo. (Jordan Stead / The Seattle Times)

After a long evening of revelry while attending a soccer tournament in Portugal a few years ago, I was more than ready to grab a taxi home.
But that very American inclination to pay someone to do for me what I could do for myself was quickly rubbished by my new friend-in-football Jürgen Meier from Munich.

“No Robert,” I remember Jürgen protesting in a slightly lubricated Bavarian accent. “We can walk it!”

Not wanting to appear narrow-minded, I relented and I unhappily scaled a few miles of Lisbon’s undulating topography.

Sure, Jürgen insisted we walk home because it saved money, but his core motivation — like most Europeans — was that he came from a walking culture.

Americans, conversely, have an emphatic driving culture. We’ll drive three blocks to a convenience store. I know this because I’ve done it … many times.

And we’ve always liked our cars proportionate to our hedonistic appetites. American motorists proudly sported battleship steel monstrosities in the 1970s, and bogarted cramped roads with Hummers 20 years later. But in rapidly growing cities, the cult of the car is under siege.

Metro areas nationwide are pursuing policies to steer residents away from the automobile and toward ambulation. In some population magnets like Denver, that attempted behavioral engineering has been overt. Here in Seattle — where, as a newcomer, I’ve done more walking in the past six weeks than in the past six months — it’s been less expository, but just as effective.

The driving culture shift is rooted in the decades-long population exodus from major cities after World War II. By the 1970s, most U.S. cities had degenerated into grimy, litter-strewn, expressionist distortions of their former selves. A generation of big city mayors started to reverse this trend in the 1980s, utilizing federal incentives, public-private partnerships and a defibrillator mentality to resuscitate downtown America. Among them was former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, who also presided over the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a group where big-city mayors shared best practices.

I-5 CONGESTION - SEATTLE - 1/29/2013

Traffic congestion complicated the morning I-5 commute in this January 2012 photo. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times.)

The effective reboot of city downtowns involved a massive investment in tourism attractions such as sports stadiums, convention centers and hotels. But it also involved a re-imagination of urban living that’s turned downtowns into sought-after residential spaces by putting them back at the center of American culture.

Few cities have been affected as dramatically by this stratagem as Seattle. Now the fastest-growing major city in the country, Seattle has arrived at what city Planning Commission co-chair David Cutler described to me last week as a “tipping point.”

As the new resident onslaught prompts reactionary housing construction, the street, highway and transit capacity have not grown proportionately. At the same time, Seattle and cities under similar stresses have undertaken policies that effectively — but not explicitly — discourage car ownership.

Seven years ago, Seattle eliminated minimum parking requirements for new housing developments in urban center commercial zones, and has since steadily expanded this policy. The city has also earmarked many city streets for bus-only traffic lanes, while seeking to expand public-transit options.
Even as a new TransitCenter study finds people value travel time, proximity, cost and reliability of public transit most, the increased congestion and finite car capacity has made “walkability” a massive new consideration for where people of all ages choose to live.

“Millennials would rather be close to lots to do than be stuck in a commute to a house full of things to make payments on,” said Matt Lerner, co-founder of Walkscore, the Seattle-based company that rates cities and their neighborhoods by amenities within walking distance. “Walking neighborhoods are also great for older people because they can stay in them even if they don’t drive anymore.”

Rice, the former mayor, is one of those people. At age 71, he’s selling the single-family Mount Baker home he and his wife have lived in since 1975 to move into a downtown condo. “Behaviors are changing, but they don’t change as quickly as the citizens’ demand,” Rice said.

The difficulty in promoting a behavioral shift on car usage — overt or otherwise — is combating Americans’ entrenched love affair with the automobile. From the Great Depression when economically devastated families were kept together, sheltered and transported by their cars, to the post-interstate highway system where people regularly traversed the breadth of the nation for fun, the car has been central to American identity.

Beyond its utility, a car remains a formidable American symbol of freedom and status. It will take a mammoth cultural reprogramming for cities such as Seattle to wean residents off compact cars, sedans and SUVs and into walking, biking, and public transit.

But with traffic congestion growing faster than city residents can agree upon ways to accommodate it, my good friend Jürgen’s suggestion looks increasingly like the only viable option for a growing number of big-city America residents.

Comments | Topics: congestion, Seattle, traffic

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