I hesitate to post one more article about how great Portland is, as doing so just makes me feel that much worse about this state in which I’m currently trapped, but I just happened across a short interview between Richard “I speak for the creative class” Florida and Jeff Speck, the author of the new book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, and I feel compelled to share a bit of it, as I think it’s an important thing for those of us enmeshed in the car-centric ecosystem of the Motor City to be aware of. Here’s a clip.
FLORIDA: Let’s start with the basics: Why are cities becoming more walkable? What forces are pushing them toward greater walkability? Can you please explain, in a nutshell, your General Theory of Walkability? Why is this important?
SPECK: Some — and only some — cities are becoming more walkable because they understand that their sustainability (economic, health, and environmental) depends on it; or because they want to attract and retain young, educated adults; or because they are simply listening to the young or young-thinking adults in their administration; or some combination of the above. You yourself have written powerfully about huge declines in car worship among the millennials [see my Atlantic article here]. Another force is the empty nesters, who want to eventually “retire in place,” in a place where the car is not a mandatory prosthetic device. The NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) is an urban environment where doddering gets you to the store just fine.
The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to attract pedestrians, a place has to provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. This is extraordinarily difficult in most of our (driving) cities, and can only be accomplished when resources are concentrated where they can do the most good, rather than dispersed more evenhandedly across the city, which is the tendency. Many cities, to the degree that they spend money on walkability, do so in a way that accomplishes little, because nobody has identified those few places where a useful, comfortable, and interesting private realm can give life to an improved (less speedy) public realm. A “complete street” means nothing alongside a surface parking lot.
FLORIDA: Tell us about the group you dun the Walking Generation? Who are they? What exactly do they want?
SPECK: Like I need to tell you what millennials want? They are the recent college graduates who moved to Portland during the nineties at a rate five times the national average. 64 percent of them decide first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Fully 77 percent of them say they want to live in America’s urban cores. The economist Chris Leinberger reminds us that, unlike my generation (raised on the suburban idyll of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family), they grew up watching Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City. They care less about cars and mortgages, and don’t yet have need for a big yard or a good school. Instead, they want urban amenities with ready access to nature, bike lanes, good transit, and street life.
FLORIDA: You discuss the “Walkability Dividend.” I’m sure our readers would like to know how that applies to them and their cities.
SPECK: The Walkability Dividend is a concept advanced by the economist Joe Cortright and the non-profit CEOs for Cities, a group that has brought me into a small handful of downtowns with the understanding that all the events and amenities in the world won’t make a difference in the absence of pedestrian culture. In his 2007 white paper “Portland’s Green Dividend” [PDF], Cortright showed how that city’s urban growth boundary, coupled with its investments in bike lanes and transit, resulted in a remarkable phenomenon: Portland’s per-capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in 1996. Now Portlanders drive 20 percent less than the national average. This 20 percent results in financial savings and time savings that total almost four percent of GDP, ignoring all the wonderful externalities such as cleaner air and slimmer waistlines. Unlike driving dollars, 85 percent of which are sent out of town, much of those savings are spent locally, on housing and recreation. Portlanders are said to have the most roof racks, independent bookstores, and strip clubs per capita — all exaggerations, but only slight ones.
That’s the fun version of the story. Unfortunately, there is a sadder version, much more common. The typical American “working” family now pays more for transportation than for housing, thanks to the phenomenon of “drive ’til you qualify.” The working-class distant-fringe subdivisions were the ones hit hardest by the burst housing bubble, where so many families found themselves not only underwater on their mortgages but also unable to afford the thirteen car trips per day generated by the average exurban homestead. Our urban downtowns, where housing costs more per square foot, but transportation costs so much less, will figure heavily in our recovery from that debacle…
I should probably add that, despite my bitching about Michigan, I know that some progress is being made along these lines locally, and I appreciate the heroic work that many of you are doing, either through the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition, as part of the task force that drafted Ypsilanti’s most recent Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, or relating to the build-out of the Border-to-Border Trail. I just don’t get the sense that we’re moving fast enough, or taking it as seriously as other communities, that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, really seem to understand that the future belongs to urban centers that invest in mass transit and plan for walkability, and not those that fight against it… And, yes, I’m still pissed that the Ypsi-Ann Interurban was decommissioned in 1929.