Bicycle Cities

Do you ever find yourself wondering if they’re purposefully trying to mess up traffic? Ill-timed construction, poorly scheduled events, cops that’ll gleefully block two lanes just to hand out a speeding ticket to some asshole in a BMW – are they trying to drive us insane?

That’s on top of all the usual inconveniences, mind you. Red lights every half block. Bike lanes. Painfully slow pedestrians.

Well, what if I told you that in some cities, there really is a conspiracy?

Yes, that’s right. The conspiracy is real. The fix is in.

City planners call it rightsizing, traffic calming, or a “road diet”, as if to insinuate our cities have become as dangerously bloated as our waistlines. The idea is to inhibit suburban sprawl by making driving your car hell. That way, no matter how bad developers want to build another subdivision 30 miles out into the farmland, no one would ever move out there. The commute would be too insane.

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Sprawl. Can we stop it? Should we? Photo by Rebecca Wilson.

But why? Why would cities want to stop sprawl, possibly the greatest money-making Ponzi scheme this country has ever seen?

For one, once you’ve built up a suburban city, it’s tough to expand the tax base. You’re stuck with what you’ve got. The only way to bring in more growth is to urbanize.

Secondly – and this, again, goes back to growth, that paradoxical engine of capitalism – cities know that the next generation of young techie job creators want urban amenities. Or, at least, the employees those job creators need want urban amenities. You’ve got to deliver.

Companies, and in turn cities, are being forced to react to powerful market dynamics.

That’s why many suburban cities are going ahead with rightsizing despite vocal protests from many constituents. You might’ve been happy with your low traffic four-lane road and big, free parking lots, but someone has to pay for all that shiny infrastructure you use on a daily basis. Unless you want to see your taxes go up, you’d better smile when they take two lanes out and decimate your beloved parking lot with a bourgeois infill apartment.

That’s how a city grows in a post-sprawl era.

I’ve been living in Fort Collins, Colorado for a few months now, a city at the forefront of the rightsizing movement. A historic college town situated at the foot of the Rockies that’s home to over a dozen breweries, the potential for further urbanization is obvious. With a rapidly rising and highly educated population of over 140,000, the city has the money and momentum to pull off some serious urban retrofitting, and has done just that.

The retrofitting was necessary. The original urban core of Fort Collins is pretty small, built to service a town of around 10,000. That core is surrounded by many decades worth of suburban expansion, with sprawled out exurb-style developments emerging at the edge of town by the ’90s.

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Old Town Fort Collins. Photo by Travis Swan.

With urban living cool again, the auto-dominated landscape of the city has presented major challenges to the city’s rightsizing plans.  But the city has forged ahead,  racking up one trendy urban lifestyle amenity after another. The end goal being, of course, to lure in high tech jobs and other “cool” industries from other trendy cities.

Fort Collins city leaders acknowledge as much in the official city plan:

“The new reality is that home or business location is a real choice, and cities that thrive will have to be attractive places for people to live and work. Fort Collins already excels in meeting this requirement, but will have to continue to do so if it is to be a world class city.”

And Fort Collins is doing a hell of a job. An extensive network of bike lanes and trails makes it easy for bicyclists to get around town. A bus rapid transit line, which uses fare boxes, fixed stops, and dedicated rights of way to mimic light rail, connects Old Town and Colorado State University with suburban neighborhoods. The city has also established a system of natural areas, pristine bits of nature protected from development that also act as de facto urban growth boundaries.

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Bike lane in Fort Collins. Photo by Tony Alter.

What’s more, if the city plan is to believed, government officials appear dead set against widening most roads, this in a congested city overflowing with frustrated drivers that already don’t think the roads have enough lanes. The word “rightsizing” is even used. With over 100,000 people set to move into Fort Collins and the surrounding county by 2030, you can’t imagine drivers bubbling over with happiness at the continued lack of action.

Get this – some kooks (coughGlenBeckcough) even think cities like Fort Collins must be in on Agenda 21, an allegedly sinister UN action plan that detractors believe was designed to destroy America by outlining ways to urbanize it. They view apartment towers and buses as un-American, and social services as dehumanizing, a direct attack on the American dream.

They don’t want to live in an urban environment anymore than they want to live in Red China, and resent government attempts to push development in that direction. And it’s not just the conspiracy theorists thinking that way. There’s a reason American suburbs continue to grow. People seem to like single-family homes with yards, even if they’re not paranoid Glenn Beck readers.

Still, as long as economic growth and low taxes remain a priority, mature cities will continue to seek out urban developments, and it doesn’t hurt that young, well-to-do people want that, as well.

At least until they have kids.

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5 thoughts on “Bicycle Cities

  1. I personally like bike lanes, road diets, and all of that stuff. I’m not a big fan of driving.

    But, you know, with job sprawl being so terrible in this country, I almost wonder if removing lanes before fixing job sprawl is putting the cart before the horse. Sure, it could “force” companies and people to move into more traditional urban setups.

    Or, it could induce businesses to move even further away. Tough to say.

  2. The problem with road diets is that they artificially inflate real estate values. This, of course, drives out the service workers on which the city’s economy depends. Can’t have top-flight amenities when the people providing them can’t afford to live in the city OR commute in.

    Aside from that, whether or not someone lives in the city in which they work isn’t just based on the urban vs. suburban experience.

    Where does my partner work? Where can we find the best return on our investment? Where do our families live? These are the foremost considerations for a lot of people. Road diets put unnecessary strain and burden on those who have damn good reasons for living where they live.

    I’m all for vibrant, urban areas. But a lot of this activity punishes the poor, artificially inflates real estate, and makes life hell for people who must live in a different area than they work – which can also include nearby urban areas.

  3. I totally agree with you, Andrew. I mentioned in my comment above about how pursuing road diets without first reigning in job sprawl is probably a big mistake. SE Michigan, in particular, has some of the worst job sprawl in the country. You’re punishing innocent people when you take out lanes on busy roads or refuse to increase capacity when there’s an obvious need for it.

    I can see why city planners like road diets, though. For one, they’re hoping it’ll revitalize urban commerce, and it has done so in many cases (9 Mile in downtown Ferndale, MI is a great example of this, with traffic calming doing wonders for local businesses). And while regular people dislike inflated real estate values (unless they bought before the bubble), the city gets more tax revenue.

    Sadly, it’s one of the few effective tools cities have to try and control growth. As we’ve seen time and time again, tax breaks to big businesses tend to be a double-edged sword.

    Honestly, I think the U.S. needs more top-down planning. Otherwise, you have all of these comparatively tiny municipalities fighting each other and creating a mess of metropolitan areas. While City A is taking out roads, Township B is luring a corporation away from City A with a sweet deal on a greenfield.

    To relate how top-down planning could help metropolitan areas, let’s use San Francisco as a prime example. Right now, there are urban planners chomping at the bit to fill it up with bland modern urban apartments. They see the insane real estate in that city as demand not being met.

    They’re right, but I think they’d ruin what makes San Francisco great. Why can’t we somehow get neighboring areas like Daly City to build up instead? Why can’t we clean up the crime in Oakland? Oakland only has a density of 7,000 people per square mile, less than half of San Fran. I’d like to see Oakland get up to the same density as San Fran before they talk about radically changing the latter.

    But what do I know? That kind of planning wouldn’t be ‘Murican. The center city is supposed to bear the full brunt of urbanization, while most everyone else gets to live in greenfield suburbs and criticize everything “the city” does.

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