We Don’t Need Roads

Back to the Future is probably one of my favorite time-travel related movies. It’s not the best time-travel related movie maybe, but it illustrates cause and effect pretty well, which has always been prevalent in my mind each day as I try to live a good life. Unless of course someone figures out robotic immortality, and then all bets are off you dirty pig-apes. 🙂

I always had a knack for geography growing up. As a kid I rode my bike everywhere, and even riding in the car, I paid attention to roads, landmarks, and signs everywhere we went. Chances are, if I have been someone once or twice, I can find my way back there fairly easily. I’d probably make a good pizza delivery driver or taxi cab, but those professions are pretty dangerous. FedEx/UPS guy though, might be my go-to when I run screaming from IT. I love city-simulation games like SimCity and Cities Skylines because it allows me to develop cities and towns in fantastic ways. In the midwest, roads and highways seemed to make sense. We had highways, beltways, parkways, getting around never seemed like a lot of trouble unless there was an accident or during rush hour traffic closer to the bigger towns and cities. But moving to the northeast has made me view things much differently.

The obvious answer to such an issue is time. Most of the midwest was settled long after the original thirteen colonies, so redevelopment and zoning is tougher up here because you have a lot of older infrastructure and buildings, and unless those people willingly give them up to municipalities or the state for development, it can be a struggle to build new roads or improve existing ones. I’ve read a lot about the history of this state’s early transportation projects in the 60’s and 70’s, and it’s amazing how many useful ideas were rejected for things like noise, water pollution, or eminent domain. All are valid reasons of course, but the end result is now we have 30+ year old crumbling infrastructure and little money to improve it. I often wonder if people back then thought that in 30-40 years, we’d be driving the flying cars envisioned in Back to the Future, or adopt high-speed rail like Europe or Japan. Sadly, it’s a problem of America, really.

One of the things I admire most about Japan is their transportation network. A country with a lot of people and little space, most never drive cars, they walk, bike, or ride public transportation like buses and trains not only around major cities and suburbs outside, but across much of the country to other cities and prefectures. It’s the kind of systems I build into my sim cities, and can only dream of living in. Sure, you have cities like New York City, Boston, Chicago, and others with light-rail and subway systems, and some of them are designed quite well, but we’ve pretty much snubbed the train era in favor of more motor vehicles. I know it makes sense from a fiscal standpoint, it costs less to move people and cargo around by air and vehicle in this country, and we have more space than countries like Japan or Europe, but I can’t help but feel that a much more robust high-speed rail system that can connect most of the eastern half of the country, go out west, and then sprawl out into the western coastal states and south near Mexico, would provide people alternatives to fast travel besides air, and reduce the amount of cars traveling large distances. Vehicle transportation doesn’t have to go away, but much like flying to another region and renting a car, you can ride a train to another region and rent a car to use around that area, and return home. Local vehicle traffic can reduce oil consumption and emissions and free up roads for trucks moving goods and cargo around, or they can load their own rail cars like we used to before vehicles became more efficient to do that job.

But getting back to urban living, one of the things that separates us from other countries is the stigma that surrounds living in an urban area. Detroit is unfairly painted as the top target by many as being a “failure” of a city, with its crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, and sinking property values. Most will blame its “liberal/socialist” government for driving out anyone who could contribute to the tax base. This usually leads to polarizing the debate into racial territory by implying that white people fled for suburbs and other towns when unemployment and crime shot up. Considering Detroit is historic for being the birthplace of the automobile industry, it seems awfully sad to see a transportation icon crumble to a perfect storm of social instability and bad fiscal policy. But even the city near where I live fares no better sometimes, being supported only by the large insurance companies and other companies that keep the tax base flowing. But unlike Boston or Chicago, the lack of a well-laid out and well-funded transportation system is effectively killing people’s ability to get around, and limits urban development and incentives to attract younger, racially neutral people in to the city to live and work. With over twenty homicides this year, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to live in that situation willingly, and it makes it difficult to reimagine urban development in the twenty-first century. Is this because we failed to develop key features long ago? Or a greater social problem keeping us from developing now?

A transportation system will probably never solve all woes. But transportation systems link us all together. They create jobs, both in running and maintaining these systems, as well as all the little things alongside it, like coffee shops and food stores, clothing or magazine stands. Creating a working transportation system in urban centers and linking it to key points of infrastructure and city living incentivizes businesses to consider investing in the area and investing in its residents, and combined with intelligent housing development, can draw back the people who want to live and work in smaller areas with a smaller carbon footprint than they would get in the suburbs. It gives people of all walks of life opportunities to improve their lives and redevelop their futures. It won’t be an instant process, but one that takes time and dedication combined with other development plans and ideas.

Because really, when I hear taglines like Donald Trump’s “Let’s Make America Great Again”, I doubt he is actually talking about America, he is probably talking about the hundreds of other countries where corporations invest in besides America, all because we are too apathetic to invest in ourselves.

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