I started reading Jeff Speck’s new book Walkable City this week. I’m only a few dozen pages in, but one stat jumped out at me early on. Portland is, in many ways, the paragon of urban planning success. While other cities were focused on easing traffic by widening highways, Portland implemented a strict urban growth boundary, inside of which high-density development is highly encouraged through a variety of incentives. As a result, Portland’s vehicle miles traveled per person peaked in 1996:
Now, compared with other major metropolitan areas, Portlanders on average drive 20 miles less. Small change? Not really: according to [prominent Urban Planner Joe] Cortright, this 20 percent (four miles per citizen per day) adds up to $1.1 billion of savings each year, which equals fully 1.5 percent of all personal income earned in the region. And that number ignores time not wasted in traffic. … Cortright calculates this improvement at another $1.5 billion.
$1.1 billion savings a year in transportation costs + $1.5 billion savings from equals over 3.0 percent of personal income. That’s another way of saying that, year after year, citizens of Portland are 3.0 percent better off than the average citizen of the United States. In economic terms, the share of output that was devoted to moving people around is lessened. Those savings can be reinvested into other sectors and, potentially, used to improve human life.
About half of those savings come from reduced fuel costs—which is the easiest way, by far, to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Long-term solutions like these could lessen the need to increase oil production domestically principally involves environmentally destructive measures such as fracking or drilling in wilderness refuges.
Yet the prevailing narrative in the United States sings the virtue of the small town. Few politicians have embraced the needs of cities, except for a few enterprising politicians like Mario Cuomo. In several ways, American politics right now can be described as the fight for the heart of the suburban voter. In 2010, 51 percent of the population lived in suburbs. Democrats have cities on lock and Republicans dominate rural areas. There isn’t a political incentive to make urban issues a priority. As a result, the cause of increasing walkability does not get taken seriously by either party.
While it’s true that planning is a local issue, what we really lack from our politics is leadership. And that affects people everywhere.
Photo: Ray Bodden via Flickr