Opinion Columns & Blogs

Is this a city for cars or for people?

A few Sundays ago, the Ledger-Enquirer published “Officials seldom get credit for the things they do well” by Jim Houston. I have always admired Houston’s chill-out-the-sky’s-not-falling articles. They bring common sense to the drumbeat of doom and despair that fills the airwaves these days.

I’m afraid, however, that my admiration stalled with this one, even if its point is one I happily endorse, that our local government often gets things right but gets no credit. Where I depart from the article is in its examples. It refers to the building of J. R. Allen Parkway and the widening Macon Road as brave and laudable decisions. In fact, these two projects were at the beginning of a wretched and costly series of decisions, and we continue to pay a steep price for these projects today.

What the article captures is the moment in the middle of the last century when our community stopped building the city for human beings and started building it for cars. It wasn’t just Columbus; nearly every community across the nation abandoned the grid system for a pattern of development designed exclusively for cars. For most of the postwar era, the demands of the automobile swamped all other considerations when it came to making decisions about transportation and the uses of space in cities.

We’ve become so dependent on cars to get around, it’s easy to ignore everything but the narrow benefit of a wide Macon Road, a fast J.R. Allen Parkway, or any number of car-intensive projects.

But what are the costs? Here is the most staggering of all the costs of what we might call No Car Left Behind: Since 1960, more than 2.4 million people have died in crashes on the roadways in the U.S. Hardly a family exists in Columbus or anywhere in the nation that has not felt the tragedy of traffic violence. And the toll continues, with the U.S. on track this year to suffer more than 40,000 traffic fatalities. If our population-adjusted fatality rate were more in line with those of other First World countries such as Canada, the UK, or Germany, tens of thousands of American lives would be saved every year.

Another cost, ironically, has been decreased mobility. When the city got sliced up by multilane highways, a simple walk to work or to the store became impossible for most residents. The system of roads of increasing capacities — from residential cul-de-sacs to multilane arterials — means you can’t get very far on foot before encountering an impassible highway. And even if you’re brave enough to cross one of these big roads, the destinations are likely spread apart so far that walking is impractical.

Other costs? A higher tax burden, when expensive infrastructure and city services are spread out over fewer homes and businesses. Greater expense for families, when big roads make driving necessary, essentially forcing car ownership as a condition to full citizenship in the city. An epidemic of diseases associated with sedentary habits, when basic modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, were engineered out of our lives. Interior blight, when urban neighborhoods were divided or even paved over to provide motorists a straight and wide shot to outlying housing developments.

Fortunately, Columbus is a resilient city, and we can repair much of this damage if we start asking the right questions. Rather than asking how many cars can we get through a corridor, let’s ask how streets can serve the people who live and work there. If we start treating city streets as public spaces rather than car sewers, we’re sure to see a wealth of benefits.

Pat McHenry is associate dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at Columbus State University; mchenry_james