I like to live in walkable areas. I like bicycling to get groceries. I like living near parks. I like sidewalks and bike lanes. I don’t like driving out of necessity.
Because I like these things, I have been called a hippie liberal. I have even been called anti-American. It’s probably because I live in Georgia. I have been told that walking, biking, and transit are bad for the economy and that paving over cities to make room for cars and parking is good for the economy. We will all be better off if cars are given more and more of our valuable urban real estate.
I’m not an economist. I don’t like walking and bicycling because they are good for the economy or even because they are “green”. I just like them because I enjoy them. However, many people, notably Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute equate driving with prosperity. He argues that driving is good for the economy and driving more will improve the economy. Mobility is the key here, and accessibility is less relevant. Take a look at the graph below for evidence. The data here is from Randall O’Toole’s 2009 book Gridlock. It shows per capita GDP and average miles traveled by Americans between 1800 and 2000. From this data, he basically concludes that smart growth is bad and that we should live in a car-dominated society or else face economic catastrophe. This is because driving cars more miles leads to a more productive populace.
It’s hard to disagree with graphs like this. Except for the minor detail that correlation does not equal causation, it seems evident that my hippie, urban-elite, liberalism is going to destroy America. So I have actually been down on myself a lot for the past couple of years since reading his book. I don’t want to be a bad person. I just want to ride my bicycle and walk instead of driving, and I want others to be able to do it too. (Notice the wording here anti-urbanists conspiracy theorists. I said “be able to” not “force to”. I’m not a dictator)
Because I feel guilty for destroying our American way of life, I am always looking for evidence that indicates that maybe I’m not such a bad person after all. I know. It’s like an alcoholic looking to justify his behavior. Anyway, today was a good day for me because I read an article in the Atlantic Cities. The article, called Cars and Robust Cities are Fundamentally Incompatible, made me feel like a less terrible person for advocating against handing over our cities to the automobile.
The article reports a study of cities in New England that have either limited parking or increased parking since 1960. The results are very weird because they seem to indicate that limiting parking and building more accessible places may not be the job killer O’Toole had me believing. Jobs and income have actually grown in the cities that limit parking faster than the other cities. Now I know that this is just a small study with a small sample size, but it does possibly indicate that maybe there is more to GDP and productivity than merely how many miles we each drive.
The arguments that I hear most often against transit, bicycle infrastructure, and even building walkable areas is that those projects will impede automobile travel. It is widely believed that impeding automobile travel will have strong negative effects on the economy. Like a said, I’m not an economist. I just like living in pleasant areas away from hordes of exhaust-belching, noisy, and aggressive automobiles. If living in pleasant areas destroys America, then I have serious problem. But somehow I think that building smart cities doesn’t destroy economies. I’m actually inclined to believe the opposite is true. If anyone out there, who is smarter than me, knows of more studies that compare rail, bicycle, parking, pedestrian, or automobile infrastructure and economic indicators, I would like to read them. I won’t be able to continue working to build nice places until I know that I am not simultaneously destroying our society.