A river of asphalt

I’m stuck in traffic again, the guy says. “Don’t worry, I can deal with it for a while, not seeing the kids ‘til supper until the road is widened,” you’re thinking while listening to the Beatle’s “Here Comes the Sun,” on my CD player.

At least the traffic jam gives me time to sing along to your golden oldies. Driving from Honeywell you make your way to Route 10 and head home to Woodlake.

Even though Route 10 was widened just last year (what a traffic nightmare) it seems to be as busy as ever. “I can’t even sing along with my Abbey Road CD without some guy smiling at me from the next car.”

And there’s the sign I see every day, NEW HOMES, AVAILABLE NOW.

Finally getting out of Chester and onto Route 288, I bump along and eventually hit heavy traffic, limping along to the Hull Street Road exchange, where I creep up the off ramp and then I brake to a complete stop waiting for the traffic light at Commonwealth and Brandermill. A little gas, brake, coast, brake. Switching CDs, I begin to sing along with Traffic’s “On the Road.” How appropriate, I thought.

James Howard Kunstler calls it “the national automobile slum.”

Mr. Kunstler continues, “The public realm in America has two roles: it is the dwelling place of our civilization and our civic life, and it is the physical manifestation of the common good. And when you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there. The public realm comes mostly in the form of the street in America because we don’t have the 1,000-year-old cathedral plazas and market squares of older cultures.”

Increasingly we live in places where you can’t see the Target from the Walmart because of the parking lots stretch on and on until the curvature of the earth hides one from the other.

Remember that Chester and Bon Air, for that matter, were born as a place to get out of the city, breath the fresh air and spend weekends and vacations away for the city. But this evolved during the 18th century as more moved to the fresh air towns and the street cars dropped more and more people in Chester and Bon Air as well as communities rising up like crocuses in late winter.

Kunstler says it better than I can. “A lot of this comes from the fact that the industrial city in America was such a trauma that we developed this tremendous aversion for the whole idea of the city – city life and everything connected with it. And so what you see fairly early, in the mid-19th century, is this idea that we now have to have an antidote to the industrial city, which is going to be life in the country for everybody. And that starts to be delivered in the form of the railroad suburb: the country villa along the railroad line, which allows people to enjoy the amenity of the city, but to return to the countryside every night. And believe me, there were no Walmarts or convenience stores out there then, so it really was a form of country living.

“But what happens is, of course, it mutates over the next 80 years and it turns into something rather insidious. It becomes a cartoon of a country house, in a cartoon of the country. And that’s the great non-articulated agony of suburbia and one of the reasons that it lends itself to ridicule. Because it hasn’t delivered what it’s been promising for half a century, now.”

City planner Jeff Speck, author of the Walkable City, likes to talk about urban sprawl.

“By suburban sprawl,” Mr. Speck says, “I refer to the reorganization of the landscape and the creation of the landscape around the requirement of automobile use, and that the automobile that was once an instrument of freedom has become a gas-belching, time-wasting and life-threatening prosthetic device that many of us need just to – most Americans, in fact, need –just to live their daily lives.”

That’s what is happening on Route 10. Wider road, more people, more people, wider road and so on.

“When I was growing up in the ‘70s,” Speck says. “the typical American spent one tenth of their income, American family, on transportation. Since then, we’ve doubled the number of roads in America, and we now spend one fifth of our income on transportation.”

Speck says, “And probably the best example we have here in America is Portland, Oregon. Portland made a bunch of decisions in the 1970s that began to distinguish it from almost every other American city. While most other cities were growing an undifferentiated spare tire of sprawl, they instituted an urban growth boundary.”

“Is being more sustainable what gives you a higher quality of life?” Speck says. “I would argue the same thing that makes you more sustainable is what gives you a higher quality of life, and that’s living in a walkable neighborhood. So sustainability, which includes our wealth and our health may not be a direct function of our sustainability. But particularly here in America, we are polluting so much because we’re throwing away our time and our money and our lives on the highway, then these two problems would seem to share the same solution, which is to make our communities more walkable.”

If we had made better planning decisions 30 years ago we might not be in the mess we are today and it may not take a half hour to cross the street at Chesterfield’s Superstreet.

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