Even with such opinions about books, the pandemic – or, in fact, a random reaction to it – has changed people’s perception of what a city can be like. “As a species, we’re not great at imagining things we’ve never seen, and the vast majority of North Americans have actually only seen family homes dominated by cars as the way we build things,” says Shoshanna Saxe, an engineer at the University of Toronto who studies sustainable infrastructure. “It was not the only option. It didn’t have to be that way. We made a choice. In the pandemic, people saw something different. “
The question is whether things will stay that way.
For the first time in a long time, policymakers on many levels support such changes. In 2019, municipalities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, Minnesota began get rid of exclusive, family zoning to try turn to justice and the climate crisis. Under Biden’s administration, transport grants states still allow highway widening, but also minor changes that improve the neighborhood.
New York City, Washington DC, New Orleans, and San Francisco have relocated to make pandemic parquets durable; Boston is not. “We don’t know if those changes were just a reflection of a desire for local businesses to continue to have services, or a desire to change our attitude toward the street,” Freemark says. “The reality is we’re somewhere in between.”
What people really I don’t like, and never liked, is traveling a lot more than half an hour to get anywhere. Until about 150 years ago, this meant that most people lived at most a mile or two from the places where they worked, ate, studied, and had fun, because that was roughly the distance a person could walk, or, if you were rich, on horseback. The result in practice is a high-density city – the city center you would see in Europe or the older cities of North America. This is the goal of leaders in developing cities such as Paris or Barcelona cycling and transit infrastructure to meet climate goals and enable more enjoyable urban experiences.
When electric carts and buses entered cities in the 19th century, the radius of that circle expanded to tens of miles. The result was (as this very good account says) higher-density corridors that connect neighborhood with neighborhood or, more likely, places where there are a lot of houses with a place where there are a lot of jobs.
The inclusion of cars in this space-time budget after World War II really messed things up. One car, unrestrained, can easily cross 30 or 40 miles in half an hour. But as soon as many cars try to do the same thing on the same route, the system breaks down – especially if there are mostly houses at one end of the route and mostly business at the other end, so everyone wants to drive to the same place at the same time.
In the United States, instead of building more houses inside the old circle (or, god, even closer to each other and close to where people go), people built houses even further. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, transit was built before houses; trolleybuses were what made residential buildings practical – even valuable. When the car got in, the caterpillars were torn, but excluding (and usually racist) zoning who favored single-family homes on large plots remained in place. Housing costs have risen. And, well, here you can see the problem of geometry.