I pushed the basket swing. Its weight plus my son was enough to keep its momentum. Each push I gave was gentler than the last.
My son had been so full of energy moments prior that I had thought this detour to the park was an outlet. We had a little buffer time and there were in-ground trampolines that he couldn't get enough of the day before.
Now, he was feeling the weight of his eyelids. It was okay for him to doze off. Our train station was across the street and I had gotten myself ready much too early. Frequent, 120-mph trains would take us from this small city to the big city zoo if not within the hour, at least by mid-morning.
I felt peace in the pleasant cool of 8am. I looked up the park path. It was half-shaded by spindly plantings of young trees. I had read on a plaque that they had planted 500 trees for the 500 year anniversary of the reformation.
My son was now fully asleep. I saw my dad strolling in my direction. 500 trees would make a good conversation starter.
Fatherhood and my city’s future
I have not been involved in local urbanism circles for very long. I have not been a dad for very long either. These two things are interdependent. Now that I care about my family’s future, I’ve started to care about my city's future.
When you find out you’re going to have a child, you begin to tangibly think about the future. Your wife’s tummy becomes a big, unknowable placeholder for a whole person you have yet to meet. The burning curiosity spirals into endless daydreams.
Will they have a better future than you? Will they be rich when you were poor? Will they be safe when you were reckless? Most of my most reckless moments were on a bicycle. Will they grow up in an environment where biking to work isn’t reckless?
See, that’s when you start to care about urbanism. It’s all there in that moment when you dream about a future that would be better for your child than what you inherited.
I want a future for my child like what I experienced at the park with the 500 trees. Whittenberg (Lutherstadt), Germany only has a population of about 40,000 people but it is conveniently located within a day’s excursion to the Berlin Zoo. The old town is about the size of Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. It has two train stations: a central station and the one across the street from the park.
Meanwhile, Richmond’s metropolitan region has a population of about 1.2 million and also has two train stations: a central station and one in the neighboring county, tucked away in a strip mall, across the street from undeveloped land, not even a crosswalk to the closest Dunkin’s.
There is a sizeable gap between our present landscape and the tranquil future we should be building for our children.
But, it’s not the existence of that gap that I mind so much. What really bothers me is how our region can’t stop widening that gap further. Why? Because even when we want to build a better future, we are fearful at doing it at the expense of the status quo.
How I see the status quo
The best way I know how to explain what I mean by “the status quo” is with a story.
A local county near Richmond published a 20-year vision while my wife was pregnant. At the time, my brother lived and worked in the county. He lived 3 miles from his job because he had a disability that restricted him from driving. His options were a moped or bicycle.
I scoured the map of the county's proposed cycling routes. About half of his route was safer. The rest stayed as it was: 45 mph, multiple lanes for drivers, no sidewalk, no shoulder, no concern for anyone outside a vehicle.
Most cycling routes went the long way around to avoid the popular roads, adding a mile or two compared to the direct route. Sometimes the cycling routes T’d off at a busy road with no bike lane to cover the zig-zag to the other side of the road.
In this bright, hopeful future, my child would be 20 years old, an adult and the best this local county could offer his uncle would be half a commute as dangerous as it’s always been and half a little safer. An improvement to be sure, but an incremental one.
If you ask the planners (and I did), they’ll tell you this is for safety reasons. The popular roads are dangerous. They’re too busy. The speed limits are much too high. It would not be safe to put a bike lane on a 45 mph road with thousands of cars.
All this is true. Non-interstate arterial highways in urbanized areas, despite making up only 15% of road mileage, account for 64-67% percent of all 2020 traffic deaths (NACTO, Smart Growth America).
But the logic starts with an assumption: the road is dangerous.
The implied conclusion of this 20-year vision is that direct, popular, arterial routes in our region will continue to be dangerous. That’s a certain assumption that we can plan on.
Is there future in the status quo?
Here we have a clash between two visions of the future.
In the urbanist’s vision, we see our inability to make arterial roads bike-friendly as a symptom of a crippling adherence to the status quo. We address the root cause and unlock regional opportunities for non-drivers.
But in the current vision, we can’t make our roads safer because that might come at the expense of driver convenience. We can only give cyclists safe routes if they meander around, avoiding negative effects on cars. The meandering routes are best used for recreational purposes. Cars, able to use the direct route, remain the fastest and most practical mode of transportation.
In this vision, the best-case scenario is that our region grows, flourishing with economic opportunity. Unfortunately, this is only a car-dependent economic opportunity and comes at the cost of congestion. But, in this hopeful future, we spend $750 million per project to fix one bottleneck after another. The fight to maintain the status quo is a fight against inevitable deterioration but we fight the good fight.
But what would we get for all that diligence to defend the status quo?
In the best scenario, our children will grow up to have roads that they can drive the speed limit on. If we work hard to give our children the same future we inherited, someday they might enjoy free-flow traffic.
Maybe they’ll be able to drive as fast as 45 or 70 mph—not 120 mph and certainly not with a swing to doze off in across the street from the train station.