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By James Lehman, MSW
But slamming up against the stubborn wall of society’s inertia, all day, every day, can lead to some displays of choice language. If only we could grasp onto even a tiny fraction of the improvements that are hanging right in front of our faces, our society could bypass decades or centuries of pain, and billions of people could lead happier lives, starting this afternoon. We can illustrate this problem perfectly with an example from right here in my home town. And that is exactly my point. It’s a boring, utilitarian bridge, in a blighted, shitty area of town dominated by parking lots, used car dealerships, traffic, and noise. When you drive along that part of 287, you don’t even notice you are crossing a bridge.
It’s just part of the wide, flat road. Now, I happen to bike right under this bridge quite often, because Longmont’s excellent St. Vrain Greenway path allows you whiz along through the whole town, bypassing all the trouble that the car drivers have to deal with above. Down on the bike path it’s just you, recharging your soul and your muscles, passing a few other cyclists and watching the crystal clear water as it flows over oval multicolored granite rocks, maybe a few ducks and geese building nests along the water’s edge. In 2013, that Main Street bridge was partially destroyed, along with quite a few other things in town, by an enormous flood.
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So they decided to rebuild it. And I decided to follow along with the project, because hey, I’m an engineer. What I learned is that building even the smallest, least noteworthy road bridge is a spectacular project. The engineering calculations alone cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The machinery involved would fill a football field, and the quantity of soil, steel, and concrete you need to move around is difficult to even comprehend. They have been working on this one insignificant bridge for over three years now, and I’m still waiting for the bike path to re-open. Here’s a peek under the bridge.
Although you rarely look at this stuff, you definitely pay for it. The total cost was estimated at 5. And if you want a bigger bridge, like the flyovers with cloverleafs that get built every time two highways happen to interconnect, you can spend 100 times more. How many megamansions will this cost us?
Do you see the problem here? This is exactly the same stuff I talk about in personal finance, except applied on a bigger scale. And yet he has a net worth of nearly zero, and subpar physical health, for most of his life. The average American city builds the largest roads and parking lots it can possibly fund, maximizing the amount of available space for vehicles, in a noble attempt to reduce traffic and serve its citizens. But the result is that cities become nothing but wide, well-engineered, fast, deadly expanses of concrete. These are terrifying places for walkers and cyclists, which builds still more demand for more cars and more roads. Let’s be clear here: I’m a capitalist, lifelong student of economics, pro-growth techno-utopian, and basically the opposite of a luddite.
Efficient transportation is a huge wealth-builder for society, so we will always need bridges and fast roads. But these valuable resources will always be very expensive, so it makes sense not to waste them. A transport truck full of factory components or food brings great wealth to Longmont when it crosses that bridge over the creek. The problem is the 400 single-occupant personal cars and trucks cramming up the rest of that road, full of people who are only driving because they don’t realize there is a better way.
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Collectively, we spend almost half of our tax dollars on paving over our living spaces, or dealing with the consequences of the lifestyle created by that pavement. The solution in both cases is so obvious, and yet almost nobody ever talks about it. In fact, many of us are still working to perpetuate and accelerate this stupidity. Because we obviously need to build even more of it, even faster. Space for cars, or for people? Two ways to use a chunk of city land.
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When you’re born into a system, you come to think of it as normal. This was even true for me, growing up in an industrialized area and lusting after nice cars and motorcycles as I passed through my teens, feeling the frustration of heavy traffic jams and the joy of the open road. But the quest for optimization led me naturally to bicycle transportation and minimizing car commutes, which led me to the study of urban planning, and the forehead-slapping realization that we’re doing everything wrong. What it didn’t tell me, is how we got to this bizarre place. I mean, here are all of these relatively smart, wealthy people in this incredibly rich country, but our behavior is demonstrably self-defeating. What led us to this point, and how do we fix it? Recently, I had the joy of reading a book about exactly this subject, from an author who has put much more thought and work into fixing it than I have.
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To put it moderately, it blew my mind. And yet, for over 50 years we have been designing our cities in almost the most stupid, expensive, ineffective way possible. We consume more concrete, water, pipes, wire, sidewalks, sign posts, landscaping, and fuel for this privilege. But we don’t get any value for these dollars: we spend more time and money getting around than ever before, which leaves us with a chronic shortage of time to enjoy any potential benefits of dispersed living.
People who live in suburbs are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighborhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services, and places to work. This is because they have far fewer relationships with people who live nearby. And yet the overwhelming message of happiness research is that relationships with other people have the biggest influence on our happiness. 10 percent more people thought they had someone to count on in life, it would have a greater effect on national life satisfaction than giving everyone a 50 percent raise. So we are getting a poor value for our money. But how can it be a poor value if this is what people chose for themselves?
It’s the free market at work, right? This is the city Houten, just South of Utrecht and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Originally, we had big dense cities, small towns, and agricultural areas. The small towns were where people tended to be happiest.