Sunday, May 06, 2007

Getting Around: Highway Access

You move into an urban area. You buy a scooter. You ditch the car. You walk to the local coffee shop. The automobile is a thing of the past! You're living the perfect pedestrian-friendly life, where mass transit and population density combine to make private car transportation unnecessary. Ah, the pure bliss of the urban wonderland!

Then you wake up and realize it's still a dream. Let's face it: you need a car if you live in America (ok, car-free bloggers and New York City residents, I'll grant you an exception). How else can you get your IKEA bookshelves and Target footstools back to the apartment? How else can you get to work if the existing transit system isn't convenient for your work location? How else can you visit friends on the other side of the city?

Furthermore, since cities function more as metropolitan regions than self-contained municipalities, car transportation demands that a viable regional highway system be available. Consequently most urban regions have large and complex systems of highways connecting center cities with their respectives suburbs. In Cleveland, I-90 runs along the shoreline of Lake Erie, with I-77 and I-71 heading south and southwest and I-480 and I-271 functioning as beltways. In Minneapolis, I-694 and I-494 form the outer beltway, while I-35E and I-35W run north-south through Minneapolis and St Paul and I-94 acts as a direct inter-city connector. Without these highways systems the network of suburbs could not function. Commuting would take an unacceptably long time. The metropolitan economy would not work.

The quality of life of any metropolitan resident, then, is in large part determined by his proximity to a highway access point. If you live close to an on-ramp, you're in good shape: you can probably get to work more quickly, and you can travel to visit friends, family, and other businesses easily. If you don't live close to an on-ramp, your commute is likely long, and your social and retail choices are severely geographically limited.

Although community and local-retail advocates may very well point out that this lack of highway access can strengthen a community (by encouraging its residents to shop locally), I would argue that it hurts the metropolitan region as a whole. Metropolitan residents participate in metropolitan economies, and lack of convenient highway access means longer commutes and an inefficient metro economy. Cities should consider their highway networks carefully, and remember that they are indeed the lifeline that drives any given region.

Coming this week:

Monday: Blogabout!
Tuesday: Blue Sky Guide
Wednesday: Getting Around: Highway Access
Thursday: Downtown Living
Friday: Reader Responses


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