For a broader perspective on transportation, look closer to home.
Discussions of bicycling and transportation revolve naturally around, well, transportation. But involved citizens might be better advised to focus less on mobility, and more on staying put and focusing on what’s right next door or down the street. Or, more to the point, on what ought to be there, but isn’t.
European transportation activists are pushing to shift the dialogue on transportation to encompass not only the intuitive issues of traveling, or “mobility” to what they call “proximity.”
“Proximity means focusing less on how to move large numbers of people efficiently across town, and more on how to ensure that people have choices nearer to their homes.”
Proximity means focusing less on how to move large numbers of people efficiently across town, and more on how to ensure that people have choices closer to their homes.
It means focusing on neighborhoods and building community and making sure that everyone, even those who don’t have a car or money for gas, can get food and romp around in a park with their kids.
I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of grocery stores, large parks, movie theaters, a bookstore, a bike shop, a hardware store, several bars, many restaurants, and countless coffee shops. I’ve lived in other Portland areas with more limited nearby services, and would never want to return to the frustrations of spending so much time in cars and buses, and having to navigate my bike on dangerous, high traffic streets like East 82nd Avenue.
While proximity, in this light, is a pretty basic, non-revolutionary concept (remember Main Street at Disneyland?), unfortunately it is increasingly rare in the U.S..
Of course, people will always need to leave their neighborhoods. We just need them to consider the way they get around, and urge them to make good choices. But we must at the same time consider the reasons people have for traveling so much and so far each day.
Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder is on the right track when he urges people to live near where they work. But to take this seriously is completely out of the question for all but those who can afford to choose where they live and work, and for the diminishing few who can count on working in the same place year after year.
As a city that supposedly “gets” the impacts of transportation choices on our health, environment, and neighborhoods, we need to do more to encourage people to live near their jobs, favorite shops, schools, parks and families.
High-density neighborhood development is not so important, in the grand scheme of things, as much as simply the development of neighborhoods. Inner urban, suburban, or rural areas can all be great places to live so long as you have local places to go.
Moving is hardly the only way to achieve this — active citizens historically have had considerable sway in improving the schools their children attend, affecting land use and parks, and advocating for and against certain kinds of zoning and businesses in their community.
This is not our parents’ and grandparents’ economy, where your career plucked you out of college, trained and groomed you, and carried you comfortably through to retirement. The work economy is becoming more and more flexible. Jobs are no longer stable commitments.
“The greatest success for bicycle advocates will be to shrink the necessary distances between parts of our lives so that bicycling itself becomes obsolete.”
If people are to live near work, much less live and work, broader economic fixes are called for, such as improving the climate for small businesses, so that more people can be their own employer, or have a personal relationship with their employer. We need re-zoning and economic incentives so that all neighborhoods can enjoy multiple options for most services within walking distance.
The government must in turn fulfill its side of the contract by working with citizens to ensure that this sort of proximity is possible.
We need the government to continue to encourage and listen to engaged citizens who know their neighbors and care about their communities. PSU’s Traffic and Transportation class, which teaches citizens how to work with the city to do transportation projects, is a great example of this.
Finally, we need to frame public discourse on transportation in terms of neighborhood integrity, citizen involvement, and quality of life for all.
Councilor Burkholder’s call for people to live where they work will be more effective if he makes his message at once more expansive and more sympathetic to the current widespread lack of transportation options.
The same thing goes for people and groups like the BTA who want to encourage more people to choose bikes — we must also consider limits to bicycling that have nothing to do with transportation per se, but fall into realms of things like zoning, taxation, and school choice.
When all this is added up, the greatest success for bicycle advocates will be to shrink the necessary distances between parts of our lives so that bicycling itself becomes obsolete.