Road Worriers

With volatile gas prices, imploding suburban real estate, and an incoming administration, the New Urbanists seize their moment.
Craig A. Tucker

The locals on the light-rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina, seemed amused by the horde of transportation tourists that crowded onto their cars one afternoon in early November. The visitors carried cameras, took notes, and seized on every detail: “This used to be an industrial corridor?” “How much do those station-side condos sell for?” “Does that bike trail follow the tracks the whole distance?” At the end of the line, the group followed a guide off the train and over to a large concrete park-and-ride garage. It was completely filled with cars! It had a soccer field on top! The crowd gawked and snapped photos like they were looking at Machu Picchu.

The explorers—a city planner from the Bay Area, an analyst for New York City Transit, a sustainability consultant from Indianapolis, an urban designer for the city of London, Ontario, and a dozen others—were members of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization of developers, architects, engineers, and activists who champion traditional, mixed-use neighborhoods over car-dependent suburban sprawl. The congress’s choice of Charlotte for this year’s transportation summit was a belated endorsement. Ten years ago, downtown Charlotte was notable for its enormous bank towers, the staggering array of parking lots around them, and a paucity of city nightlife and historic charm. In 1998, the fed-up citizens of Mecklenburg County voted to increase their local sales tax by half a percent to pay for new transit, and today the city has a thriving bus system and the year-old Lynx light-rail line, which has already sparked more than $1 billion in planned neighborhood development near its stations. About 17,000 riders board the train every weekday—a figure not far short of the initial projections for 2025.

These are hopeful times for mass-transit boosters. Public concern over gas prices and exurban home values has prompted voters in Los Angeles and Seattle, for example, to approve half-percent sales-tax hikes for new bus and rail lines. Not only is the federal transportation spending bill up for reauthorization in 2009, but Barack Obama (whose hometown of Honolulu just voted for its own local rail project) has explicitly supported smart-growth agendas, and plans to create a White House Office on Urban Policy.

How might the future look if the New Urbanists have their way? Like an idealized past, according to the suggested reforms they laid out in Charlotte, which they planned to present to Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. John Norquist, the congress’s president, spoke of replacing elevated freeways through cities with boulevards for driving, biking, walking, and shopping. Geoff Anderson, the president of Smart Growth America, said it was time to build more rail—“the second half of our transportation system,” he called it.

Andres Duany, a co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, whose critiques on suburbia have often been dismissed as snobbery, told the group that the current synchronicity of the real-estate crash, global warming, and peak oil is not “some kind of cosmic punishment … But there is one connection, and that’s our urban pattern.” It’s not too late for Americans to change our ways, he said, but “it will be much harder to do better in the 21st century, because of the way we’ve built the 20th.”

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Matt Dellinger is at work on a book about Interstate 69.

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