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.
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.
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.
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.