Suburbs, Highways and Cars

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May 25, 2017
May 29, 2017

Suburbs, Highways and Cars

By Matthew Warren and Charles Newham, GIS Students

The future is something we all like to talk about, especially now that so many things are just over the horizon. Self-driving cars, travelling to Mars, green energy, and losing our jobs because robots can do everything for us (yay?).

But what about the future of cities? These are places that most of the world reside in, and these cities have been growing rapidly in the past hundred years as new ways of building and planning them have been devised to quickly deal with the influx of new residents and the expansion of these cities. What have we learned, and how can we improve the cities we already have?

The American Dream is to live in a big house outside the city in places known as suburbs. People wanted to “live closer to nature” in a quiet environment where their kids could safely play in the streets. These suburbs expanded after World War 2 when America became the largest power in the world, but we didn’t realise the effects of having people live so sparsely.

There are environmental issues. Building cities out instead of up takes up much more land than usual. Cities became far less dense than before, with a lot less people per square kilometre. People built – and still build – over forests or farmland, destroying the natural habitats or taking up space that could have other beneficial uses in the process of expansion. Ironically, living “closer to nature” means destroying it. It’s not just the space too, as studies show that the average carbon footprint of people living in the inner parts of cities are significantly lower than in the suburbs.

The reasons for these are that because people living in the suburbs tend to have a lot less access to public transportation and a lot less walkability compared to dense inner cities where people can walk or take public transport to practically anywhere in the city, and at a moment’s notice. In the suburbs, things are located further away and people have to drive to get to where they want to go as a result of this (to the store, to school, to work, etc), which leads to a greatly increased carbon footprint in these areas, as well as largely increased amounts of traffic.

So all these people were living a lot farther away from their workplaces in the suburbs, and city planners needed ways to get workers from the farthest reaches of the metro area to the downtown core of the city quickly and efficiently.

Highways were devised and implemented, which cut straight through cities and let people reach their destinations quickly. However, this system encouraged the use of cars, making traffic and pollution even worse than it had been before. Take somewhere like Los Angeles, a city that is virtually made of highways:

And yet despite the many highways the city hosts, Los Angeles is often described as having the ‘worst traffic in the US’, with traffic jams that can often last for hours. The average resident of LA spent 81 hours in traffic in 2015, the highest in America. This was unhealthy, as pollution increased because of all these cars stuck for long periods of time and it reduced overall efficiency for working people as it took longer to get to their workplaces. Plus, we all hate traffic jams anyway.

So how can we change this?

Well, there are a lot of people changing things now. We have realized that widening roads doesn’t really make traffic better. All it does is discourage people to walk by making streets more uninviting with big heavy machines speeding through them and encourage people to drive.

First of all is public transport. Public transport gets people to use their cars less if it’s cheaper and more convenient to use. Having lots of people in one vehicle (even if it’s bigger) is a lot more efficient than just having one car for every person. Less cars are used which is better for the environment.  Public transport doesn’t work by itself though. People also need to live densely. If people live closer together, transport lines have a lot more people they can service in their catchment area. Making cities denser also encourages people to walk to where they need to go since everything is closer. In Kuala Lumpur, density doesn’t seem like much of an issue though. A lot of people here live in high-rises.

And we need to make the streets themselves friendlier environments. Instead of having wide 6 lane avenues, why don’t we take out a couple of lanes and instead put trees, parking or bike lanes? Trees make the environment nicer, create shade, absorb CO2 and decrease the overall temperature in the area. Roadside parking creates a barrier between the sidewalk and a busy road, increasing safety and confidence in pedestrians. Roadside parking also means that we don’t have to waste space building lifeless, boring parking lots. Encouraging people to use bicycles is also a great idea. Countries like the Netherlands or Denmark have huge biking infrastructure with traffic lights and intersections that give priority to bikers instead of drivers. Biking encourages a healthy lifestyle as well as reduces the carbon footprint of people greatly. Copenhagen has more bikes than inhabitants, and biking is not something just done by the less wealthy people, everyone does it, even politicians. In fact, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands travels to work by bike!

Cities like Chicago have started seeing the benefits of biking and have set up their own infrastructure with protected bike lanes and rentable bicycles.

We need to turn the car into something we choose to buy, not something we need to buy. We don’t need to stop building out or to stop building highways, but we should stop encouraging it.

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