Alleviating Poverty through Urban Design

By Dan Goodman

They say more money=more problems, but in my experience the opposite seems to be more accurate. Even poor Americans enjoy a pretty high standard of living compared to much of the rest of the world, but there’s an important distinction to make. Most poor Americans live in cities designed for people with cars.

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For many of us, automobiles and the costs associated with them make up a significant portion of monthly expenses. Monthly car note, insurance, gas, and any other unexpected maintenance expenses can be extraordinarily burdensome for people without a lot of cash to spare. Such is the cost of mobility. Escaping poverty can be difficult without access to a car in many American cities where public transportation is either unreliable or downright non existent.

According to findings by The American Public Transport Association, 45% of Americans have no access to public transportation at all. Here in New Orleans the streetcar is mainly used by tourists and those whose daily commute happens to run close enough to the very limited route it covers. This wasn’t always the case, as is evident by the remnants of old tracks that used to connect a much larger portion of the link

I always wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to remove these streetcar lines in the first place. If these tracks were still functional, the city’s poorer residents would have a cheaper, convenient way to access more of the city. As it turns out, streetcar tracks were removed to make way for bus routes in the early 1960s, with proponents citing the lower costs of operating buses than building new street car tracks for the increasing population. Due to the fact that New Orleans is built on a giant mud puddle below sea level, there was no way to build underground tracks. Bus manufacturers paid for the removal of these tracks and thus removed their only competition. The era of the auto boom left a permanent mark on the city and now, nearly sixty years later, New Orleanians without a car are stuck riding the bus.

Today there is a movement of mainly younger Americans who want to restore the tradition of public transportation. We can look to examples all over the world, particularly in Europe and Asia of just how effective a well designed public transportation system can be.

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Now let’s take a step backwards in time before the industrial revolution. People used to have to actually walk places. Such an idea is preposterous to someone living in a sprawled out American city like Phoenix or San Antonio. Crossing a street in many American cities has the tendency to feel pretty dangerous. Eight lanes of traffic whizzing by, with drivers glare at any crossing pedestrian who delays their commute by a few seconds. It’s clear that in most of the urban landscape in the United States, travel on foot is ill-favored. Walking is to be done on the occasional downtown main streets, parks, or maybe in your own neighborhood if you own a dog.

Because of this culture, cars are seen as status symbols. Anyone who wants to live car free better save up some money for a closet sized apartment in New York. In New York it’s unusual to have a car because the city is structured in a way to make driving less convenient than walking or taking the subway. This is largely because of the dense population, but also because of the culture, which is fueled by the structure of the city.

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New York was a bustling city long before the auto boom, which is why its older areas are so tightly scaled and easy to get around on foot. Even more so the old cities of Europe have a culture of car free living, due to their pre automobile design. When a city is scaled to fit the needs of a person traveling on foot, its culture does not stigmatize those without cars. Living in a city like Los Angeles without a car is like being handicapped, but in Paris or Amsterdam it poses no impediment to getting around as needed. If the traditional city design practices were to be recreated in a modern American context, those unable to afford a car would be the first to benefit.

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Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a car along with its inevitable maintenance expenses in the future, a person could spend a couple hundred on a nice bike. Unfortunately, most efforts to achieve this in the US have involved little more than painting lines on the street.

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This just creates a dangerous environment for cyclists who are still operating within a system that caters to automobiles by design. In order to make a city genuinely friendly for bikes and pedestrians, it has to be built for this purpose. Retrofitting existing areas by infilling and reducing lanes of traffic is the only path forward.

Imagine being poor in a city where the nearest grocery store is five miles away and the only businesses in walking distances aren’t hiring. Do you move to an area with more opportunity? Do you suck it up and bike seven miles for your daily commute? There are no easy options for those without the means to leave the area they live in. American cities are designed in such a way that the poor stay poor, while those who can afford to own cars are resigned to designating a portion of their income to maintaining them. Millions of Americans are stranded in a sea of pavement, without any opportunities in walking distance. This creates a sense of isolation which only makes the sense of hopelessness worse for those living in poverty.

The best thing that can be done to help those who can’t afford a car is to make it so they don’t need one.


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