Written by Michael Lewis on February 26, 2019
As highway capacity grows more slowly than traffic does and we see such gaps expanding in mass transit too, look down the road at the end game: are live-work-play communities going to become not just convenient but necessary?
Are our children and grandchildren destined to seldom leave their neighborhoods, venturing out only for specialized trips?
We think of freedom of movement as a right, like freedom of speech or religion. But the harder individual mobility becomes as population and visitors increase, the more limits we will face.
Those limits today are convenience and economics. How much time are we willing to expend to get from here to there? How much cash are we willing to expend on expressways that have variable toll lanes? How much will we pay for luxury rail?
Such limits based on convenience and economics favor the well-to-do, who don’t have to think twice about the choices. It is the less well off, however, who must travel a long way to work because little affordable housing is near jobs they can hold.
Government continues to plan mobility gains in transit to ease the pressure, especially on those who must live far from work. But as we all await the six transit corridors of the promised Smart plan in Miami-Dade County, pressures build with more people trying to get more places at the same time but no added capacity.
County government is trying to move more of us faster – thus adding capacity – with technology like smart traffic signals that can move more cars through any given point every hour by changing timing to match the real traffic flow. And that will be a boost – until the constant increase in people trying to get around is greater than the gain from signal timing, which is finite while demand growth seems infinite.
Take one statistic in this week’s Miami Today: total Florida visitors have risen 45% in the past seven years, from 87.3 million in 2011 to more than 126 million last year. We need those visitors for our economy, but they all join residents in trying to get around quickly. Miami-Dade’s visitor growth is surely far greater than mobility gains.
Even if mobility could keep pace we should be encouraging live-work-play areas such as those in Doral, Coral Gables and Miami Lakes. They are easier on the environment in using less energy for mobility. Moreover, all-in-one communities probably generate more civic pride, unity and good governance – studies would be interesting.
But if we can’t solve growing mobility issues quickly, we’re most likely headed out of necessity toward smaller areas where we spend most of our lives. We are rapidly fencing ourselves in.
We recognize that no single change can relax the pressure of decreasing mobility. It’s many smaller steps, each doing a bit of the job, whether that means adding biking or walking trails to handle some recreational trips or bike lanes for some commuters or trolleys for small areas of the community – anything that helps is a step forward while we seek money and willpower to take major mass transit strides.
Meanwhile, we individually build personal fences. Friends won’t travel across the county for a visit: it’s too time-consuming and timing is so uncertain that if they did come they might be an hour late. Those who went two places in an evening say one is enough now. Some skip major events because of the trip time. Some won’t leave home on busy weekends.
Those are individual choices. But the more of us who make them, the taller the fences we surround ourselves with. We’re not fencing others out; we’re fencing ourselves in.
Some people have always done that, but far more are now. And that begins to change the way we all live.
Because there is no silver bullet to fix transportation, there is also no silver bullet to stop us from erecting fences that we are reluctant to cross. Some of us have greater tolerance for mobility inconveniences than others. And some can afford to minimize inconveniences with cash.
But view the changes of recent decades and look ahead, realizing that these changes are coming faster and faster as mobility capacity is used up and population grows.
Three decades ago we zipped through the Brickell area in two minutes. Try that today. Then think of the area’s continued density growth and image the not-too-distant future.
The likelihood is that areas like Brickell are going to work better and better for their live-work-play residents, and the rest of us will visit them less often.
Such changes wouldn’t decrease the need for more mobility. Every step we take to make it more convenient and quicker to get around is vital.
At the same time, however, developers and redevelopers are likely to be tailoring more and more areas not to commuters but to the live-work-play lifestyle that seems destined to become more prized as mobility issues take a greater toll on us all.