Photo by futureatlas.com on Flickr.

While last Wednesday’s hyped “thundersnow” underdelivered on the snow, it certainly didn’t in the chaos department. Storms like these highlight the benefits of compact urban development while underscoring the weaknesses of sprawling suburbia.

Residents of Washington’s outer suburbs struggled Wednesday night with horrendous traffic on the city’s commuter routes.  At the same time, many DC residents were enjoying happy hours, snowball fights and otherwise carrying on with their lives.  By the time people in the central city were fast asleep, many suburbanites were still fighting to get home.

People often say they prefer driving over transit because a car allows you to go where you want, when you want. Events like last week’s storm or the week-long blizzard last February highlight problems with this strategy. 

Even under normal circumstances, though, how many of us drive to work at 6 am “to avoid traffic” or forgo a shopping trip “because the parking lot is too crowded” or take a detour on a trip because “the football game is letting out?”  As Carla Saulter, the Seattle Bus Chick, has said, driving a car doesn’t necessarily mean being in control.

I grew up and went to college in Lexington, Kentucky, a city of 270,000. Despite having the country’s oldest urban growth boundary, it is a sprawling, auto-centric town except for a few central neighborhoods.  Before I moved to DC, I lived a relatively car dependent life. I often found myself rearranging my schedule based on the best times to drive where I needed to go.

In my second year of graduate school I moved to an older house in an early twentieth century streetcar suburb. Centrally located, today that neighborhood is often referred to as “downtown.”  It’s a wonderful neighborhood with beautiful housing stock (all with sizable yards!), a small, connected street grid, and several great retail streets with nice local stores, restaurants and bars.

I still had to drive to school several times a week or to visit friends who lived farther out of the city, but I could walk to my job, the grocery, the neighborhood bar, even the hardware store and the bank.  I could ride my bike many other places in and around downtown.

When the state was shut down by a debilitating ice storm that winter, I was able to get to work as soon as the office reopened, while many colleagues were still snowed in.  My roommates and I enjoyed drinks at our favorite neighborhood watering hole, and we had no trouble availing ourselves of what food remained at the local grocery store.

Upon taking a job in DC, I made an early decision to give up my car. Having lived an increasingly car-light life, I knew I would much rather invest extra money to find housing in a close-in neighborhood that would spare me the traffic, maintenance, time waste and other headaches of dealing with a car.

The result has been much more than just time and money savings. I’ve found myself far more free and mobile than when I relied on my car to get places.  Even without a car, driving is an option: I use ZipCar or a normal rental car when I have to go somewhere that’s not transit accessible.

More importantly, in choosing to live in the city by giving up driving as a my primary means of mobility, I gained three other legitimate mobility options, and significantly better access to services and amenities than I ever had before.  I can walk, bike or take transit nearly anywhere I want to go.

Photo by jim_darling on Flickr.

During last year’s blizzard, I enjoyed a few days of vacation trying new restaurants in my neighborhood (most were open after the first day). The Metro was running underground, so if my office had actually been open, I would have had relatively little trouble getting to work.  Dupont Circle was as vibrant on weekdays at noon as it typically is on a summer weekend.

These examples underscore the fallacy of our car dependency. Cars give people mobility. But what’s more important is accessibility.  Sometimes these are the same: if I live 10 miles from a grocery, and I own a car, I have access to the grocery.

But if my car breaks down, it snows a foot and a half, or I’m suddenly unable to drive for another reason, I no longer have access to that grocery.  Because I’ve relied on a single means of mobility, when it is no longer available, both my mobility and accessibility are severely diminished.

Many people often argue that smart growth proponents (like me) are trying to force people of their cars in favor of biking, walking and transit.  But, to me, growing smarter really is just providing more legitimate options.  I don’t necessarily want to live in a place where you can’t have a car. Nor do I want to force other people to do so.

I do, though, want to live in a place where you don’t need a car, a place where, when driving is no longer an option, we are not imprisoned by our built environment.  I don’t mind that some people in my apartment building drive their cars across town to work everyday, that’s their choice. The important thing is that when traffic brings the region to a grinding halt, I know that my neighbors will still be able to get groceries or go to a restaurant, or visit their parents across town.

This is what disasters like last week’s commute can help the smart growth “uninitiated” understand.  Where a normal day of traffic often leaves people crying for more lanes on more highways, no level of extra auto capacity would have alleviated the problems that left people stranded in their cars for hours on end.

Walkable, compact development is certainly beneficial because it supports high quality transit service, but at its heart it’s beneficially precisely because of its compactness. Transit may be greener than driving alone, but the most sustainable way for us to get around is on our own two feet.

The unsustainability of our development patterns is apparent at every level of analysis. At the micro level, we see the failings of dendritic neighborhoods when a fallen tree blocks the only entrance and exit for the 5,000 families who live in a subdivision.  At the macro level, the impossibility of moving 700,000 people out of the city at one time on a dozen major routes highlights the folly of limiting our mobility options.

Improving new development and retrofitting existing areas to improve our options can be expensive. Many argue that we shouldn’t spend money to alleviate problems that only arise under the most stressful system conditions.  Yet we spend billions of dollars a year preparing for or mitigating against the most unlikely of situations, especially when it comes to security.

Changing our development patterns has major implications on public health, financial health, environmental health and even national security. As many area baseball fans can attest, a sports team rarely is successful when it relies solely on the skills of one or two star players.  Why, then, do we insist on development habits that make us dependent on one expensive, polluting, unhealthy, and stressful way to get around?