Much Ado About Autos

Freeway CF
Freeway CF
An recent op-ed the Sacramento Bee had an interesting angle on some of the traffic and transportation issues facing many parts of the U.S., including Northfield.

We’re stuck with the landscape we’ve built over the past 60 years, much of which is literally uninhabitable without a car. Trying to make our communities less car-dependent simply by adding more buses, streetcars and light rail is like trying to make a bowl of chicken soup vegan simply by picking the chicken out.

The author goes on to explain how our built environment has stacked the deck in favor of the individual automobile, at the expense of community, human health, and the environment. He points out, “Cities and suburbs throughout Western Europe have proven for decades that people will choose walking, bicycling and public transit over personal cars if the price is right and the trip is pleasant.”

But unlike more militant voices, he doesn’t take a hard line against cars per se, instead focusing what we can regain by re-thinking the design of our cities and towns.

… how we use cars, how we plan our economies and communities around cars, and even how we build cars, all have to change. . . Millions upon millions of Europeans are living rich, modern lives without requiring a private car to meet their most basic needs. They’re in communities that function perfectly well with gasoline three times the price as at our pumps, and with the resilience to continue thriving if prices doubled tomorrow. How many places in America can say the same?

He concludes with the point that the way things were built prior to the mid-20th century may also make good sense in how we handle the increasing cost of oil and the fact that it’s a finite resource which is running out.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Northfield is the fact that most of it was built to what has come to be called “human scale”, without the speed and enclosure of automobiles to skew our sense of distance. This community is geographically compact, which gives us several advantages IF we make wise decisions about transportation and land use going forward.

What do you think of this whole idea? How is Northfield better or less prepared than other parts of the country to embrace changes like this?

Read the full article here, and come back to comment.

8 thoughts on “Much Ado About Autos”

  1. Northfield is poised to make significant strides toward a more compact center with good multimodal and integrated transportation networks. At a neighborhood meeting last night to discuss the 1st Street Infrastructure project I saw people with good ideas (e.g., let’s close Way Park off now as part of the renovation) talking with engineering and city staff who, for the most part, provided both open minds and good responses. The planning commissions of the cities of Dundas and Northfield have held informal discussions in the past about thinking into the future far enough to not pave ourselves into a corner. I’m hoping to revive some of those discussions and see them used to guide transportation decisions well in advance of the orange cones and bulldozers.

  2. I think that downtown is our greatest asset in fostering a non-car-dependent community, while Highway 3 is the greatest threat/challenge to the same.

    Unfortunately, I think John George’s recent definition of politics is in play with this appeal:

    I thought politics was “back scratching”. The opposite would be called governance.

  3. Gah! Merged posts to two different threads! (The mistake was mine, not LGN’s.) Trying again:

    I think that downtown is our greatest asset in fostering a non-car-dependent community.

    Highway 3 is our greatest threat/challenge to the same. Figuring out a way to bring together downtown and the near west side of the river is the key.

  4. Ross, I’d love to, but as usual this event is targeted at the unemployed and the self-employed, and ignores those wage slaves amongst us. Perhaps you and Tracy would like to be the featured guests at a PoliticsAndAPint, where the rest of us gather to think together on these topics. I’ll moderate if you need it.

  5. Where are we at on actually implementing the Way Park vision? I’m not a west sider, but that would be a beautiful asset to the town.

    http://www.ci.northfield.mn.us/assets/w/Way-Park-Scheme.pdf

    Implement that, as well as making the railroad-to-Q block-to-the-river transition pedestrian-friendly, and Felicity and I would be happy to consider buying a house on the Olaf side of the river.

    We don’t ask for much, I know.

  6. Bruce wrote,

    this event is targeted at the unemployed and the self-employed, and ignores those wage slaves amongst us. Perhaps you and Tracy would like to be the featured guests at a PoliticsAndAPint

    I’d like to second Bruce’s suggestion.

  7. Compared to many places in Europe that are well-served by transportation options and situated in the context of nations that are supportive of those options, Northfield is still a very young town, not all that dense in its population concentrations. We’re spread out because we’re still too close in time to our farming roots. Europe didn’t have as much of a fling with suburbia and the illusion of rural life with a big back yeard as the US did. So around the center of old Northfield, with its former farm-houses, we have a ring of houses on larger lots than you’d often find in Europe. In Europe, a town Northfield’s size might accomodate a much larger population, and might then have the economic base to support more public transportation. Even if we converted every park to lots with homes or apartments, this would not expand the tax base or increase the density to match many places in Europe.

    But part of the trick to affording public transportation involves freeing up some of the money we now spend on car insurance, cars and fuel. Maybe we have the money to support a greener transportation system, but converting (plucking the chicken from the soup) is the hard part. If we had the public transportation in place, many folks could afford to give up their cars.

    But no one wants to give up their cars because there’s no public transportation in place.

    What came first, the chicken or the vegan soup? Obviously, there were once systems of transport in Northfield before the car, but we’re so deep in the chicken soup, our brake pads don’t work very well.

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