Road To Ruin

      In the coming century, America is going to pay a heavy price for the piss-poor urban planning which occurred in the last century.
      This thought struck me while I was sitting in a traffic jam the other day, near the very beginning of my daily 45 minute, 25 mile drive to the courthouse in Clearwater, Florida.
      In all honesty it’s not really fair to use the Tampa metropolitan area as a basis for criticizing this country’s planning failures. Simply put the people responsible for laying out this area’s roads either had heavy drinking problems or carried around the group I.Q. of a comatose dunce. For example, the peninsula of south Tampa, the most desirable place to live in Tampa, is generally accessible by three roads running north-south. Two of these roads are two-lane roads, and the third, the major north-south thoroughfare, is four lanes, with no center turning lane.
      Toss in the fact this area is pressed up against a coastline and you’ve got the potential for some truly idiotic planning.
      But then again, this is probably the best place to base my initial assessment, because it strikes at the heart of how short-sighted American urban planning was in the 20th century. This was a century when people responsible for long-term planning had the luxury of ignoring such theoretical concepts as the future and population growth. If you don’t believe me, take a look at any mid to large sized city which experienced significant growth after the Model T started rolling off the assembly line.
     Tampa is one example. Dallas is another. Orlando is another. Atlanta is another. The Washington D.C. area is another. Vegas. Austin. Phoenix. I could go on. All day.
     American cities grew fat in the 20th century, not tall. In other words, city planners took unlimited land, coupled with the enormous rise of the automobile, and started laying out cities that presumed that people would have access to cars. Forever. So instead of legitimate downtowns where people work and live, most American cities these days have elaborate ghost towns that masquerade as a downtown. Sure they look good, there’s just nobody there after dark.
     People drive everywhere. To work. To go shopping. To go to bars, grocery stores and so on and so on. Very few people walk to do these things, or ride bikes, or even ride public transit. It’s because Americans have been conditioned to believe every house should have its own property and every building should only be one house. God forbid you have one large building with seven or eight row houses in it and city permission for a grocery store at the corner.
     Zoning laws certainly don’t help. In my neighborhood, within walking distance which I’ll consider to be about a mile give or take, there’s one pizza place, two gas stations, two funeral homes and a boat dealership (go figure). That’s it. There’s no neighborhood bar, or hardware store, or grocery store. The newest Starbucks in Tampa had to jump through some pretty stupid hoops to get permission to build about two miles from my house. The closest grocery store is three miles away. And I live in an old neighborhood that was first laid out before 1920, back when cars still carried the hint of indulgent luxury.
     So now we find ourselves in the midst of a gas crisis. People are starting to wonder how they’re going to live in the coming years and decades if oil prices keep climbing. Cities are starting to realize they should have been more responsible. All of a sudden talk is being bandied about for the need for light rail…to replace the light rail systems that existed before the rise of cars.
     I don’t want anyone to think I’m some green freak on a high horse who rides a bike everywhere. I don’t even own a bike. To me “freegan” is a fancy word for bum, and I intentionally dumped some paint thinner in the alley behind my house on Earth Day as a sort of silent protest.
     I drive. Everywhere. I have to, because there are no such things as neighborhood stores anymore. That’s 20th century American urban planning for you. It’s going to make the 21st century a real gas.

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