Commentary: Changing How We Get Around U.S. Cities

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Widened sidewalks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has arguably served to constrain traffic and restrict on-street parking. Photo by Page Graham.

Widened sidewalks may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has arguably served to constrain traffic and restrict on-street parking. Photo by Page Graham.

As I’ve started preparing to move to Mexico City, I’ve been thinking more about the form of cities in the United States, how we got this way and how we might change.

The other day I made the following points in a Spanish presentation about transportation in the U.S.:

The majority of U.S. cities are designed to move cars. Yes, many older cities have well-known infrastructure like trains and subways but for many decades most of the investment has been in roads and parking. Alternatives like trains, buses, biking and walking are still novel in the grand scheme. Even in Portland, which famously adopted light rail in lieu of building a new freeway, the train is often considered a dangerous, poor man’s way to get to the airport.

However there are four factors that could change the form of urbanization and build support for a new approach to getting around.

First, traffic will get worse. We can’t build enough roads and highways because of induced demand.

Second, the cost of driving will keep rising. The high price of gas and the cost of lost time spent in traffic will get more difficult to accept. For my last job I commuted 25 miles each way through Seattle-area traffic – it’s soul-crushing.

Third, fiscal reality will set in. Eventually government subsidies will get more scrutiny and we’re bound to change laws that permit the deduction of mortgage interest from taxes. Right now these rules encourage excessive home ownership, even when it’s not convenient. Someone will buy a big house in a distant suburb and commute across a metro area to work – because the house makes financial sense. When the mortgage deduction goes away more people will choose to live closer to work and rent.

Fourth, people are hungry for community. As a result, there are more new communities with a “town square,” places where people can walk to stores and restaurants and interact with others.

Developers are building places like Mosaic and Reston in Virginia and Issaquah Highlands in Washington because market research shows people prefer them. This sort of density only makes developing transit easier. As these four factors gather momentum we’ll start recognizing more fundamental changes in our urban transport system. There are others, to be sure, that have helped curtail endless sprawl and are starting to change the way we move around. I’m looking forward to seeing more examples.

This story has been republished with permission from

*Featured/top image: San Antonio’s Houston Street downtown has wide sidewalks but strained traffic and no on-street parking. Photo by Page Graham.

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3 thoughts on “Commentary: Changing How We Get Around U.S. Cities

  1. There’s some odd assumptions here – including that ownership of housing in the US won’t be possible close to jobs / in ‘urban’ areas and that housing ownership is only valuable as a mortgage-tied federal tax break.

    This logic does not apply to the majority of long-term (trans-generational) and low-income homeowners – and some transplants (housing is cheaper here than in much of Mexico and elsewhere) – living in walking and cycling distance of downtown San Antonio, who don’t benefit from such federal tax breaks and who frequently no longer have (if ever had) formal mortgages to pay off.

    Urban residential owners in San Antonio are, however, frequently stymied by county property taxes tied to the subjectively perceived value of their structures and location and divorced from income or time in the neighborhood (except for the elderly) – taxes funding, in part, new high-end rental housing developments controlled by a few developers.

    You can have higher density and high amenity ‘urban’ development (not car dependent) without enriching a handful of developers or removing home ownership as an option for most and the poorest . . . as San Antonio has proven in some of its inner city (historically ‘walkable’, mass transit and car-limited) neighborhoods.

    Much more could be done to use tax dollars in San Antonio to improve public connective infrastructure providing alternatives to driving and encouraging density in established inner city neighborhoods and residencies without displacing current residents or increasing their home ownership or rental burden.

    Property tax relief for long-term inner city resident-owners (particularly in poverty zipcodes) as well as zoning, infrastructure and construction or renovation support with alley flats / ‘tiny homes’ (for rental or possible ownership) could be starting points. Increasing taxes on long-vacant properties could be a follow-up.

  2. I could not have said it better myself. A Zoning change would be an improvement. Getting people into affordable and easily maintained housing that doesn’t have a large foot print (tiny home) is a good start. Reducing the property tax burden is also welcomed. Adding additional learning resources to the mix to improve the education of community members is necessary. Geekdom, the makerspaces, incubators, are all great but the downtown area needs more.

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