Can you sell urbanism to people who already enjoy proximity to everything?
We have made the shift to living car-free in the downtown of a mid-size city and I don't feel like any self-denial is involved at all. This type of living feels far more free (not to mention affordable!). What could be worth exploring though is why folks like me find car-free 'urban' living the epitome of freedom and others see it as a prison. I'll note too that we were a 2 car suburban household once upon a time. It took us 15 or so years to slowly make this transition.
I appreciate your inclusion of small rural towns in the mix here. I live in one of those, Middlebury IN (farming and manufacturing community). On our county road alone, about half to two-thirds of our neighbors are Amish folks. We're about 6-7 minutes out of our downtown by car, and our main street is an combination of pricey boutique stores, a hardware store, a bank, post office, coffee shops, and Amish-run stores that sell plain clothes and other necessities. Grocery store a few minutes south of town. It's currently kind of walkable, but because main street is a thoroughfare for the RV plants that surround it, it's very tight and does not feel safe. They've been discussing an expansion of the main street as well, which may or may not include amenities for pedestrians or bike lanes...
Living outside of town, though, I take for granted that I can get to town in well under 15 minutes, especially when for most of my neighbors it takes twice that by buggy or bike. For most Amish folks, though, the time it takes to get places is just a way of life. It's assumed that you account for more time, as well as all manner of weather conditions. There's resilience in that, which I admire, even as I appreciate the convenience of my vehicle. However, most drivers take the county roads at speeds that do not take into account the fact that there could be a bike or a buggy on the other side of the next hill, and walking anywhere on the roads is alarming unless it's the quietest of days. I've been considering starting a neighborhood collective of sorts to fund a walking/biking path down our road that we could all use to get places more safely, and to get to know our neighbors better. I'd be interested to know of any resources you've encountered in that regard (as a complete novice at this).
Anyhow, thanks for the always interesting and helpful content. My wife and I lived for a decade in downtown Chicago (car-free) and then the western suburbs (public transit downtown for work), and have a deep love for cities even now.
Like most things the answer is "all of the above". First a disclosure, I'm a "bike guy" and just like the act of pedaling a bike and enjoy everything from riding around town in street clothes to being a spandex racer to off roading so consider that context. There are three main reasons I ride my bike around town to do my daily business: 1. Often it's just faster and much easier to park a bike and it's has allowed us to save a lot of money only having one car; 2. I just like being active, it makes me feel good physically and it a great way to add movement into my day without having to make time to "exercise", so accomplishes two things simultaneously; 3. When the weather is bad, yeah you just get wet, but one effect is when I do drive, I consider it a luxury not an entitlement and as a result, I am a very gentle driver (I think that entitlement is a big cause of abhorrent behavior behind the wheel, a topic for a different day). The interesting thing is there is element of virtuousness in all of these, but that is not the main driver (sorry for the bad pun), it's really a byproduct. There's a little bit of something for everyone there, but are any of these enough to sell it? Maybe, to someone who is leaning that way anyway. But we are already so far down this road (sorry again) that not much is going to wholesale change the status quo outside of some dislocating economic forcing function. And certainly virtuousness is not that. If anything, it's probably poo pooed by a majority of the country these days as an elitist attitude.
But how long do "15 minute" suburbs actually stay that way? My experience of living for over a decade and a half in a fairly typical US suburb was:
1. Initially, there wasn't much there. There were a couple of grocery stores, a few gas station, and some mediocre restaurants, but for anything else I needed to drive 20-30 minutes.
2. Then came a big wave of new development, with a bunch of new subdivisions and a bunch of new big box stores and commercial space. I had a few years where pretty much anything I needed was within a 15 minute drive.
3. As the new subdivisions continued to be built out and fill up with people, traffic got worse. At times, it could take me over 20 minutes to get to the shopping center that used to be 10 minutes away.
4. I moved away just before the pandemic, but during the few times that I have been back since that, traffic seems to be worse than ever.
"I think a lot of people not only don’t want to do this themselves, they don’t want anyone to do it. They don’t want anyone to live in small houses or multifamily housing. They fear that once these things exist, they will proliferate and erode the comfort to which they feel entitled."
I think about this a lot, and my theory is fairly similar: I think a bunch of 2-plus-cars-in-the-suburbs folks (correctly) intuit the negative-sum nature of that model of existence. I'm not sure that their innate opposition to pedestrian or cycling policy is necessarily moral in nature (though I'm sure there's some bristling at what they at least perceive as virtue-signalling and attempts to shame). But I think the bulk of it likely ends up being more simply that they project that negative-sum nature on all other options: they can't imagine that there can be alternatives that benefit others *without* inflicting greater harm on those currently satisfied with the status quo. This in turn forces things like parking minimums and street designs that embed the negative sum decision into even the urbanist alternatives, so you get a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I don't know what to do about this. I deeply appreciate your ability to charitably take these concerns into account when writing, is a grace that I generally lack. But at the end of the day, I do think there's a mismatch particularly on the right end of the spectrum between the general values people espouse and how they approach land use and infrastructure, and I don't know how to counter that in a way that won't have at least some temporary "eat your vegetables" approach *for the people who currently can internalize most of the benefits while externalizing most of the costs* of the current paradigm.
"It can be seen as implying that a motorist is doing something vaguely wrong simply by getting into their car. I know a couple of Twitter urbanists who indeed believe this."
You say this as if it's an unusual assertion, but it seems completely obvious to me. Getting in a car makes the driver's life better, but it imposes costs on everyone around them: traffic congestion, pollution, risk of injury to bicyclists and pedestrians. At a macro-level, if 90% of the population gets around by car, the 10% who don't for whatever reason (inability to drive thanks to disability or age, for instance) are pretty screwed, because an environment that has enough parking for 90% car mode share is going to be inaccessible by walking.
Ultimately I'm reminded of this classic article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/i-dont-know-how-to-explain-to-you-that-you-should_b_59519811e4b0f078efd98440
I dunno, when it's raining and I drive to Costco I'm still gonna get wet, it's not like the rain isn't hitting the pavement in the parking lot there. Rain is rain.
How do we sell this? You don't. People who love their cars can only change their own minds. And if you're explaining you're losing. So don't bother. Just use social media and "fuck cars" and wait.
I think the answer is though: in most 15 minute suburbs, this is only true until more of them get built, and the 15 minute ride in the car turns to a 20 or 30 minute one. Before you know it, your sitting on an interstate in stop and go traffic wondering how they should add another lane... But even then, they won't get it.
Speaking as a cyclist and a suburbanite, I absolutely despise walking and think it is a terrible way to get around. It’s so slow and tiring. On a bike, from a physics standpoint IIRC, you expend approximately half to three quarters of the energy of walking but go three times faster, and that’s leaving aside the growing plethora of e-bikes.
Only, in order to enjoy those times/proximities, we have to drive.
No, we don't. Most of suburbia is a 15 minute walk or ride from stores.
to see for oneself,
1) maps. google.com
2) frisco, tx --- note the borders
3) then in maps.google.com search for "grocery store, frisco, tx".
Note that most residents are no more than 2-3 miles from a store. A short bike ride.
I have been thinking about this a lot and I think what the suburbs need is not a 15-minute city movement. Many suburbanites already feel that they have the access and convenience that the 15-minute city movement is solving for. Instead, for the suburbs we need to focus on the issues specific to the suburbs. Instead, suburbs need a ‘third place’ movement.
The commenters here have made many excellent points. Urbanism on its own, without planned and balanced access to various transportation modes, is a poor recipe for quality of life. The idea that a suburban community gives its residents access to most services within 15 minutes as long as it's dominated by private automobile transportation is doomed by it's own success. In fact, I'd wager that the existence of this described suburbia is the exception rather than the rule.
Ultimately, designing, building and maintaining a car-dominated transportation system is more than a moral failing; it demonstrates a failure to employ visionary analysis. The benefits of such a system aren't centered on the populace they supposedly serve. The system itself and its suppliers reap the profits.
I definitely agree that "eating your vegetables" is what a lot of people think and is kind of the opposite of how I look at urbanism. I think personally, I tell people why i find walkability as more convenient, why I find taking the bus as a more convenient daily option, why i enjoy commuting by train/bus/walk vs driving, and same for daily errands. And then I tell them something like "it's not for everyone, but if you let some people do this, it makes it easier for people who want to drive too. If you build a few suburbs in our very large metro that are more walkable and transit-focused, then there are less cars on the road for people who want to drive. And there's clearly demand for dense living that's unmet."
When they ask about the rain, I tell them that it's ok to wear waterproof jackets and boots, it's a little inconvenient but feels safer to me than driving in rain or snow.
Great post you should also write about the changing urban environment like the DuPont cvs with all products now locked up and other sad changes since Covid. Has that changed the feelings on moving back to DC?