Last December, I took my traditional Christmas trip to see relatives in Chicago’s northern suburbs. We decided to eat dinner at an Italian place down the street from my aunt and uncle’s Arlington Heights, IL home. Unable to convince the family to take a 10 minute stroll through the bracing evening air, I skipped a ride in their minivan and set out by myself on foot, hoping to get a little physical activity in before the big meal.
The first nine minutes and 30 seconds of the walk were delightful. I was almost there – I could even see my family inside the restaurant, just being seated at the table. But an impenetrable barrier separated me from them: Rand Road. My aunt had advised against walking to the restaurant in part due to the road in the way; I had plenty of experience with pedestrian-hostile environments and wasn’t fazed, but hadn’t ever seen anything like what she’d warned about.
A nonstop stream of cars hurtled past, with no crosswalks threatening those all-important Level of Service numbers. The stoplight rotations at all intersections in sight failed to account for possible pedestrian crossings. Taking those final few steps toward the restaurant seemed so impossible that my mom offered to pick me up in a car, but I was determined to succeed. I don’t remember exactly how long it took – at least 10 minutes, maybe 15? – before a brief gap in the traffic allowed me sufficient time to sprint across the street.
You might live physically close to that restaurant. But transportation obstacles mean that you have to drive there.
Even in suburban and rural areas not known for their multimodality, residents gladly take advantage of a variety of transportation options when they are available. But much too often, artificial obstacles like Rand Road infringe upon their freedom to use these options.
Car-centric infrastructure physically prevents people from using other modes
Difficult-to-cross highways and arterial roads are just one of many obstacles blocking direct routes, regardless of the transportation mode you choose. The logic behind this is pretty clear – the street pattern is set up to maximize car speed on arterials like Rand Road, but prevent those automobiles from cutting through residential neighborhoods. Gigantic parking lots at housing complexes, retail complexes, and even transit stations further bloat travel times on foot.
The cul-de-sacs and looping roads of many suburban housing tracts often force residents and their visitors to take circuitous routes to exit a neighborhood, sometimes turning trips of a few hundred linear feet into miles-long adventures. A case in point, again from a northern Chicago suburb (this time Glenview, IL): the trip from my grandparents’ recently-sold home to Walker Bros. Pancake House, with its delicious, large portions.
A short footbridge over a stream and a safe pedestrian route through a car dealership would make this a no-brainer walk of less than five minutes, but the circuitous route required is around four times as long. My relatives always traversed the route in a car. And this mess is not in the middle of nowhere – it’s a little over a half mile from a Metra stop just 35 minutes out from Chicago’s Union Station.
Some people may accept this inconvenience as a necessary price to pay for residential peace and quiet, but others simply may not realize how close they actually live to the places they shop and dine at. But in reality, no such sacrifice is necessary. It makes sense that residents want to keep cars from speeding down the streets their kids play on, but direct pedestrian and cycling greenbelts don’t pose such a threat. In fact, they can make low-density neighborhoods even more laid back and idyllic.
Circuitous or wide roads and parking lots pose substantial challenges for suburban and rural transit providers, especially given that seniors and handicapped riders – one of transit’s primary constituencies in low-density areas – may not be physically capable of taking long walks just to reach a bus stop. To help accommodate these riders’ needs, bus routes often are indirect; lengthy loops through parking lots to stop right in front of key destinations such as malls and hospitals (instead of on an adjacent arterial) are commonplace.
But perhaps the biggest problem these transit providers face is one they have inflicted upon themselves in a desperate attempt to cater to the driving public: park and ride lots.
While some residents of low-density areas may use these lots to access multimodal options (as we discussed last week), transit will never be more than a secondary option to the drivers who park their cars at stations. In the meantime, maintaining the parking eats up funds that could instead help improve the rail and bus systems the lots surround, inhibits development that could capture the systems’ economic value, and makes access to transit difficult and dangerous (think the same type of artificially lengthened walks and slow, indirect bus travel) for the car-free individuals who depend on it most.
Obstacles to freedom are meant to be overcome
It’s clear that the most pressing challenge affecting suburban and rural transportation is not a lack of multimodal options, but instead the barriers that distort people’s perception of and block access to these options. Next week, we’ll propose how to break down these barriers and make low-density mobility restriction-free.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.