The urban revolution: We're in for a 'Streetfight'

The urban revolution: We're in for a 'Streetfight'

crowded city urbanization sustainability
Cities are efficient. But that alone won't compell a growing population to move to urban centers.

From "STREETFIGHT: Handbook for an Urban Revolution" by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow, to be published March 8 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow, 2016.

I often tell people that if they want to save the planet, they should move to New York City. But it could be any big city.

And it’s not just a matter of bright lights, landmarks, great restaurants, entertainment, museums and cultural institutions. Cities’ geographic compactness, population density and orientation toward walking and public transportation make them the most efficient places to live in the world.

Large cities like New York or Mexico City offer the best odds for sustainable growth as global populations increase rapidly. The collective energy of millions of people concentrated into high-rise buildings instead of being spread out over hundreds of rural and suburban miles is itself a reason why so many people are attracted — culturally, professionally, politically and practically — to cities. But there is also an economic sustainability-in-numbers case for dense city living.

New Yorkers have a carbon footprint 71 percent lower than that of the average American, a function of driving less, living vertically and the economies of scale that come with centrally located goods and services. Fifty-nine percent of people who work in Manhattan get there by public transportation, nearly 12 times the national rate. The city has lower per capita energy use than anywhere else in the entire nation.

But what can cure us can also kill us. Urban population is expected to grow — by 1 million people in New York City alone from 2007 to 2030, and by nearly 100 million more people nationwide by 2050. Adding a population nearly equivalent of the nation’s four largest states to cities and their suburbs could easily exhaust their ability to house and move people or provide them with basic services and utilities, bringing their economies to a halt.

Concentrating as much of that nationwide growth efficiently in cities will thus be one of the most important strategies for nations to embrace during this century.

Living in cities isn’t a random demographic result. It’s a choice.

In order to attract, retain and accommodate rising populations, our leaders must rapidly implement strategies that make cities more attractive places to live while making their infrastructure function more efficiently.

Making cities a choice preferable to the suburbs cuts against a long-standing anti-urban bias in the United States based on the view that cities are dangerous, crowded and havens for crime.

Suburbs and exurbs not only force long-distance commuting in cars, but also require cars to be used for every trip. Zoning requirements in many suburbs restrict commercial development and office parks to segregated areas, guaranteeing that residential communities will be far outside of walking distance.

After years of rhapsodizing about the virtues of pristine forests, modern environmentalists have changed their tune on the city, advocating smart or compact urban growth as part of an anti-sprawl strategy. It’s better for the planet to build one 50-story residential tower in the heart of Manhattan than to force developers to build hundreds of residential units across former greenbelt farmlands.

Seen this way, many of New York City’s neighborhoods aren’t nearly dense enough, particularly if they want to retain even some of the varied architecture and small-scale streets that make cities great.

Urban economist Edward Glaeser wrote that simply rejecting denser, taller development creates more problems if the overall number of available homes doesn’t keep pace with population growth.

“When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.”

Expensive like San Francisco, where antidevelopment policies have greatly limited new market-rate home building in the hope of preserving affordability. By limiting denser urban development within city limits, more people are forced to sprawl even farther around the Bay Area, eroding the greenbelt — a recreational oasis that makes San Francisco such an attractive city in the first place.

People don’t move to cities because they’re efficient places. They move where quality of life, convenience and price lead them.

Despite the natural advantages of cities, political leaders haven’t fully capitalized on them. Cities don’t come with owners’ manuals. Within city transportation departments, most street design practices were standardized by traffic engineers long ago. In this way, cities have tended to operate in much the same way that their cities have sprawled: by doing things the way they’ve always been done.

The inertia of outdated street design isn’t merely dangerous, it reflects outmoded assumptions about how people want to use their streets. Americans today are driving fewer miles on average than a decade ago, the first sustained drop since the oil crisis of the 1970s. The federal government has missed these dramatic shifts, forecasting consistent, high growth in driving even as average miles traveled has flattened out or decreased over the last decade.

Federal policy incentivizes people to live in sprawling suburbs. The federal gas tax, designed as a mechanism for drivers to pay for the upkeep of the roads they use, hasn’t been adjusted in two decades, asphyxiating the Highway Trust Fund and transportation infrastructure.

The misreading of what is occurring in America isn’t confined to driving. While spending money to build roads is seen as a public investment, critics characterize public transportation as a wasteful welfare subsidy. The pervasive myth that public transportation riders are subsidized and that people who drive pay the full cost of their trips has never been less true than it is today.

A 2015 study by U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that from 1947 to 2012, American taxpayers as a whole paid $1 trillion more to sustain the road network than people who drive paid in gasoline taxes, tools and other user fees.

Sprawling distances also mean long travel times, traffic congestion and slowed deliveries. These issues aren’t merely inconveniences; the study found they affect the entire economic and developmental metabolism of urban America, a $1 trillion a year drag on the American economy, or 13 percent of the nation’s economic output, slowing growth.