Last summer I filled my gas tank on June 30th and didn’t have to fill it again until September. I’ll let that sink in a little. This is the only way I have to explain to my relatives about how my “alternate lifestyle” pays off. By alternate lifestyle, of course, I mean “urbanist.” I figure that in conversations with my extended family, they imagine me aspiring to a crunchy, car-less urban hell, going for joyrides on light rail, owning a bike – it’s all very abstract until I toss in the anecdote about filling my tank so infrequently, and they suddenly snap to attention. And this is why two opinion pieces in last week’s Star Tribune were so discouraging and call in to question how little we are moving down the “road,” if you will, on providing meaningful transportation options. It’s not an abstract concept of trains versus driving, it’s about choosing to live in a place that allows a variety of choices.
One Star Tribune story was about navigating a notoriously dangerous stretch of Highway 65 in Ham Lake, and witnessing the carnage of driving there. I give a lot of credit to Ben Greene for helping at the scene of a pretty awful car wreck. I also have sympathy for him raising children in a world filled with stroads like Highway 65. But he concludes by stating his hope that his girls will one day drive and choose to go the extra mile to the traffic signal. The problem is he’s already transporting his girls in his own vehicle on this dangerous roadway. My hope is he considers moving to Minneapolis, where it is possible to live without needing to drive everywhere, much less on Highway 65. Furthermore, moving to Minneapolis means his girls won’t have to wait until they turn 16 to move independently about their lives – they can bike or take transit earlier.
The other is a 10-point plan by Kevin Turnquist to save money on highway construction by becoming better drivers. I’ll reserve a shred of credit for Mr. Turnquist’s premise. He’s right, if humans weren’t such idiots, we’d probably have slightly better traffic flows on our highways. But if the choice is between driving and better driving, I want neither. How about not driving at all, or driving less, or building our cities so we’re not dependent on arterials and highways for daily life? Mr. Turnquist, moving to Minneapolis might measurably reduce your need for frustrating highway driving.
I can’t help but notice the residences of the two writers – Ham Lake and Shoreview. Both are decidedly car dependent when compared with a location like Minneapolis. The land use pattern of separate uses combined with few practical options for getting around other than the car result in frustration. But both writers seem to indicate there isn’t another choice. There is! Call me a smug, elitist urbanist, but keep in mind, like any free American, I have a choice about where to live, and my wife and I chose to buy our house in south Minneapolis, with its parks, good schools, and light rail. We wanted a lifestyle that didn’t require too much driving and we chose it, far from being forced in to a high-density transit-riding existence. I encourage both Mr. Greene and Mr. Turnquist to consider joining me in the city so they, too can enjoy the many blessings of urbanism.
Already today I have dropped my kids off at school, met a colleague, went to lunch and a seminar (three separate trips, no less) without needing my car. If that sounds smug, fine, but it’s also a lifestyle choice – I haven’t paid for gas yet today, I’ve gotten a little exercise, and have not risked life and limb on or near a highway or freeway. Sure, I have to drive for many things, but when I do it is typically on a slower-moving, sane, sometimes crowded city street.
All choices have tradeoffs, and sure, you may have to give up a larger yard, among other things, in exchange for benefits of city life. I respect Mr. Greene and Mr. Turnquist’s decisions to live where they do – I can sincerely say I understand the positives. I also want them to understand, that by virtue of where they live and the land use and transportation options available, options are limited, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Choose to live in the city and your transportation options improve in terms of safety, sanity and finances. My relatives understand, through my lower bill for gas, just how valuable that choice is. It is also safer (for me and my kids) to drive less, and my well-being is greater because I get a little more exercise and don’t sit in traffic on highways as much. If Mr. Greene or Mr. Turnquist ever want to visit my neighborhood, I’ll be glad to show them around, by bike, of course!