The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond

By MARY SODERSTROM

In the best chapter of The Walkable City: From Haussmann?s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs? Streets and Beyond, Mary Soderstrom visits Carlsbad, California, where Betty York is recovering from a double-bypass surgery. York?s doctor has instructed her to do the simplest thing in the world: walk. In a world of exquisitely complex medical technology, it is a comfortingly simple therapy. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. But Carlsbad is all roads and no sidewalks. York fears that she?s not as spry as she once was. She worries about cars. ?And that?s when I became a mall walker,? she recalls.

A mall walker sounds like what it is: A person who walks around malls. York in particular would travel to Plaza Camino Real Mall at 8:30 a.m. to join with a club of other mall walkers for a few brisk laps around the Body Shop. This is what our society has come to: Residents of Southern California, arguably the world?s most kindly climate, must take refuge in the recycled air of the mall if they want a spot of exercise.

Embedded in this is the central insight of Soderstrom?s book: The features of the places where we live have a lot to do with how we live. And those features have a lot to do with policy decisions. Urbanists may sneer at overweight suburbanites who seem to think exercise is a stiff clutch, truck drivers might mock sniveling city dwellers who missed the memo that biking is an activity for ten-year-olds, and everyone might make fun of Mini Coopers, but this is a deceptive form of superiority. We imagine that our choices of transport say much about our personalities. In fact, our choices of transport say much about our choices for transport.

I have some perspective on this. I grew up in Irvine, California, one of the suburban communities mentioned in Soderstrom?s book. I used to spend hours poring over Auto Trader and Edmunds. I could recite every model of most every car, and give you the MSRP to boot. Some kids could tell you Rickey Henderson?s rookie year stats. I could tell you the base price of a Toyota Avalon. And why not? Cars and palm trees were the primary features of the Southern Californian landscape. You couldn?t walk to the mall, and there was no easy bus line. At 16, I got my license and my first car: A Ford Focus. It was the Golden State version of a bar mitzvah.

But it?s time to say goodbye. This year, I?m letting the insurance on my Focus lapse. My beloved car will have to find a new home. And not because I?ve changed. I still love the sanctity of a loud stereo, a dark interior, and an empty road. I still open the hatchback, perch on the bumper, and watch the world spin by. But I?ve moved. I live in Washington, D.C., now. The roads are thick with buses. The sidewalks steam as the subway cars hurtle beneath the grates. The bike lanes are used, and the drivers are accustomed to stopping for cyclists. The parking is nonexistent. The traffic is terrible. I now know more about deals on a new bike than a new car. I?ve stopped using the car because the car has stopped being convenient. No man is naturally an island, and neither is he a freeway.

Transportation, in other words, is an issue of public policy, not just a question of personal choices. The absence of sidewalks in York’s neighborhood, for instance, was the product of policy. Money the government spends building roads is money it doesn’t spend building subways. Zoning regulations that require a certain amount of parking for every retail establishment necessarily make areas less dense, and thus less walkable. The aggregate impact of these decisions is tremendous: Our choices for transportation are central to our health, to our environment, to our bank accounts, to our jobs.

The problem is that Soderstrom?s book recognizes the significance of those policy choices but doesn?t treat the issue with sufficient weight or rigor. The book is a carnival of strange gimmicks and unexpected influences. Much of the beginning, for instance, takes place as a series of imagined conversations between the legendary urbanists Jane Jacobs and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. But the gimmick is tendentious and simplistic. Who cares what Jane Jacobs ?might say?? Jacobs said plenty. Quote her!

Mercifully, Soderstrom abandons this affectation a couple chapters into the book. At that point, the format switches to a narrative of walks — it?s never clear if they?re real or simulated — in a smattering of different cities. Each city and stroll is chosen to illustrate a different point. The strength of these arguments vary enormously. The Carlsbad chapter, for instance, is quite affecting. Most of the others aren?t memorable. Some literally seem like the author simply took a quick walk. They lack either enough data to make a policy argument or sufficient interviews to give a sense of the everyday life in these communities. In some ways, the absence of data is most galling: If urban policy is a problem, then the copious research devoted to those questions needs to be part of the answer.

But it hardly exists in this book. Instead, there is a fascination with the glittering, but aged, work of Jane Jacobs, and a smattering of other studies. Toward the end, you get the feeling that Soderstrom is a member of a liberal book-of-the-month club: Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Paul Krugman?s The Conscience of a Liberal, and James Howard Kunstler?s The Long Emergency all make quick and inexplicable cameos.

Indeed, if the central insight of the book is that urban policy matters, the central failure of the book is that it doesn?t take urban policy seriously enough. The danger in these conversations is always that normative arguments about ideal policy will be mistaken for self-serving arguments that demonstrate lifestyle preferences. That the arguments for walkable cities will be understood as an expression of the distaste liberals hold for SUVs. That urbanists are soft-hearted and interested in waxing on about community while developers are hard-headed and willing to bring actual data to bear. And happily, books that counter this myth are increasingly entering the market: Chris Leinberger’s The Option of Urbanism and Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking are both excellent resources. The Next American City is a magazine that engages these questions in depth. Online, StreetsBlog.org is an essential read. Soderstrom’s book has an essential insight into the problem, but these books are closer to the solution: These issues will only change when urbanists can walk into meetings with the developers and make a stronger case. They won?t be won by simply walking around.

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