Reality Check

16 May
Image lifted from Stylesight.com.

Image lifted from Stylesight.com.

Car Love is on the Wane

Ask a random person whether our culture is changing and my guess is that they will respond with a resounding “Yes.”  Social media and computer technology alone have impacted the way people go about socializing and living daily life in huge ways.  But I’m guessing most people do not immediately include among those changes a decline in driving and affection for cars.  The car traffic in most cities would seem to contradict this, but people following these things closely say we’re at the beginning of a shift away from the decades-long love affair with the car.

A recent post on Grist cites recent studies that confirm what forward-thinking leaders and traffic engineers have already realized: the era of planning communities and transportation around individual auto travel is coming to a close.  That doesn’t mean cars are going to disappear anytime soon, but the trend — especially among millenials — is away from driving and car ownership.  The evidence is pretty clear: despite population growth, the number of miles traveled by car in the U.S. is going down, and there are clear indications that for many young people it’s not just due to the recession.

So why would this be the case?  One author cited in the piece suggests it boils down to two things: Facebook and Brooklyn.  The first makes physical mobility less important to building and maintaining social connections; the second — cities with exciting social and cultural scenes that are walkable, bikable, and have good transit — is where many millenials want to live.

Getting the Region Ready

So the question is whether the people guiding development in Richmond will see the writing on the wall early enough to compete with other “cool” cities.  If bike infrastructure is any indicator, the answer is that the city is already behind, as the recently released Sports Backers Baseline Report made clear (see RTD coverage here).

The good news is that people seem to be coming around.  “Smart Growth” does not seem to be a far-out concept anymore.  Enter Reality Check RVA: an urban planning game/exercise organized by the Urban Land Institute that took place Tuesday at VCU (RTD coverage here).   The game was set up like this: teams of 10 placed legos representing jobs and housing on a map of the Richmond metro region.  The number and “value” of the legos was made to reflect the projection that the region will grow by over 400,000 residents and 200,000 jobs in the next 20 years.  So basically the question was, “Where should all of the housing and offices and other business facilities go?”

I’m not quite ready to claim that everyone is on the same page with this, but I was struck by the fact that  the patterns of development that dominated for the last few decades are no longer viable.  The whole exercise was introduced in a way that made it clear that mixed-use development and multi-modal transportation is the future, so it would have been hard for anyone to insist on more big-box stores and subdivisions along the lines of Short Pump (minus West Broad Village).  That said, I think there’s a widely shared sense that the practice of moving development ever further out for cheap land and building more roads to accommodate that is on its way out.

The main piece missing in all of this is a regional approach to transportation — transit in combination with biking and walking — that will connect Richmond city and the new higher-density, mixed-use developments.

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