One short and one long piece today. Derek Thompson writes about the worrisome decline of entrepreneurism in the US over the last 30 years. Thompson discusses the reasons, but it's clear to me that the rise of franchising is the *biggest* culprit in that regard, and it's clearly the most obvious physical difference in our cities.
Alex Ihnen at NextSTL has a long and excellent take-down of the mentality that building more roads is actually good for the economy. He makes a point I've also been making for years and is so critical to this conversation:
One transportation infrastructure development completely dominates the last half century in St. Louis – urban Interstates. How has that worked for St. Louis? What growth and development are we grappling to sustain? Perhaps the city is just one more bridge, or two more highway lanes, or three more Interstate ramps from success. What’s dangerous is that MoDOT purports to derive its policy statements from factual information. From that same EIS:
The City of St. Louis has lost much of its resident population. The City of St. Louis’ total population is now barely one-third of its post-World War II high. Only seven of the nation’s 35 largest regions are sprawling at a faster rate than St. Louis, and yet all but six of them are growing faster in population than St. Louis.
The conclusion? A few more highways ought to do the trick! It’s simply stunning to consider the ahistoric leaps in logic. Your city’s gaining population? Build more roads. People are driving more? Build more roads. Your city is losing population? Build more roads.
The past 20 years of highway building in St. Louis has resulted in less congestion and longer average commutes, meaning St. Louis drivers spend more time overall in their cars, but less time sitting in congested traffic. Is this what we get for billions of dollars in highways? We’re sprawling faster, spending more time in our cars, and growing slower, even MoDOT knows this. Fighting congestion to produce economic development is idiotic, and also demonstrably wrong.
The same can be said for city after city after city. One thing that has amazed me in this field for many, many years is the complete disconnection between reality and emotion when it comes to transportation and development. It's plainly obvious that since about 1930 cities have been desperate to "cure" congestion and traffic in cities by building lots of roads and lots of parking. It's also plainly obvious that this policy correlates with a tremendous decline in the economic fortunes of cities. In this case, yes, correlation is causation. One directly affected the other, as the remaking of downtowns and cities to make driving and parking easy *directly* destroyed what makes those areas desirable to begin with. And yet, the prescription from a surprising number of people that should know better is to keep doing more of the same. It's the definition of insanity.
I have no doubt that a fair amount of residents and businesses would have fled cities for suburbia regardless of what was done in the era following WWII. It was in the air at the time - suburbia was what a LOT of people wanted. It was new and fashionable. But the problem is that the programs by state DOT's, elected officials and even many well-intentioned people in the business community to remake the old areas made it exponentially worse. And today, we're left with the difficult task of fixing those mistakes while having budgets a fraction of what earlier eras had. Some cities may never recover. I hope St. Louis does, but it's going to be a long, difficult struggle.
Ihnen alludes to what needs to be repeated over and over: if you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for biking and walking, you get biking and walking.