Ed Braddy: Ron's dumb smart-growth utopia
Published: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 11:52 p.m.
In Ron Cunningham's Dec. 23 column (“Cars or People”), he affirmed two key elements of urban liberalism: First, a simplistic and absolutist approach to complex problems and, second, the revelation that envy is at the core of progressive public policy.
Assigning human characteristics to inanimate objects is the first sign we're in trouble — thus, Cunningham's quest to make cars “behave themselves.” How clever!
In “smart growth” circles, this reasoning passes for intelligent discussion. The rest of us would like to dismiss it as absurd, but such addled ideas become actual policy affecting our everyday lives.
So commissioners pursue lane reductions to make downtown attractive by restricting access to it. This isn't so much a clash of visions as it is a triumph of the innumerate. Main Street handles a certain volume of vehicles. Remove travel lanes and traffic will have to squeeze through the remaining lanes, creating bottlenecks and extended queuing, or fewer cars (driven by people, Cunningham) will travel the corridor in order to avoid congestion.
Never mind the research showing modest traffic flow improvements allow an area to draw a much larger customer base. Or that a 10 percent increase in average travel speeds — say, from 30 to 33 mph — boosts economic productivity by 3 percent and expands the labor market by 15 percent. Or that EPA data show urban centers where, by design, cars idle in traffic have higher concentrations of air pollution than in smoother flowing environs.
By contrast, smart growth theory holds that by inconveniencing people driving cars, other people — presumably tremulous and intolerant automo-phobes — will arrive by way of bicycle or sidewalk or maybe even on the bus to spend lots of money.
Some will be so impressed, they might move into the vacant apartments and condos above the unleased retail space in the taxpayer subsidized mixed-use developments. Densities will rise and so will prosperity and quality of life and the vegetables in their urban gardens will grow three feet taller.
And while in downtown, maybe these urban dwellers will visit the boarded up Louis Lunch, the iconic restaurant that survived the Great Depression, and numerous other economic downturns before succumbing to the New Urbanist vision of the first narrowing of Main Street.
The irony of smart growth is its claim to promote multi-modal transportation while seeking to inconvenience people's preferred travel mode. Cunningham acknowledges this in his false choice: “We can have a fast and efficient car conduit out of town. Or, we can have a vibrant downtown where people want to live, work and play.”
In Washington, we witness absolutist ideology stopping progress in its tracks. Locally, the absolutists are the smart growthers, irrationally believing a transportation system that accommodates automobiles is incompatible with other travel modes.
A better vision is one that doesn't view transportation through a zero-sum lens where one mode gains only if another diminishes. It promotes automobility as well as bike, ped, and transit. A road, after all, is inherently multi-modal, and cars are mobility machines designed to get people where they want to go in a manner convenient to them.
Unfortunately, our officials are wedded to their one-dimensional plan of strategic diminishment. What drives urban progressivism is not a desire to improve conditions for most commuters but rather the yearning to retrofit our city to copycat other places.
That Cunningham finds Gainesville's downtown anemic compared to Stuart, Palm Beach, Clearwater and other places is not because Gainesville has too many cars but because it has too few businesses. Gainesville's downtown is a concentration of government buildings for day workers and clubs and restaurants for evenings.
Innovation Square might improve the economic diversity of downtown, but inducing congestion around it is not a recipe for a sustainable future. Overwhelmingly, people earning good incomes do not stay in apartments near their work but, as wealth builds, seek single family homes in the low density suburbs.
This is true not just for biotech geniuses but also for certain city and county commissioners and even an editorialist who has demonstrated one can successfully bicycle in an environment of cars, thus proving that we need not diminish the latter to encourage the former.
But envy is a powerful vice. As long as other cities spend millions on fanciful road diets, our progressive elites will want to do the same. They will rationalize it and euphemize it, but when we reduce capacity for cars we are restricting access for people.
Ed Braddy is executive director of the American Dream Coalition and a former Gainesville city commissioner. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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