Livin’ the Low Density Life

I spent the 4th of July holiday weekend in Eastern Washington, visiting family.  I was in a town that had essentially been built over the last 50 years – post automobile development.  I looked at this car-based city with a new lens after two weeks in Portland.  It’s clear that active transportation in a city, or a suburb, or a neighborhood that is based on the car provides a whole set of challenges.

Richland, Washington looks like so many Western towns and cities, where land was plentiful and lot sizes can accommodate the American Dream – nice house, a yard for the dog, room to store the toys (boat, trailer, and camper).  In many ways, this describes my own home in central Denver.  There are some obvious issues that make bikes as a transportation solution problematic.  First, this low density housing approach means there are few places within 1-2 miles that allow the residents to shop, or pursue other activities of living. This lack of neighborhood grocery stores and other amenities arises from the zoning rules that don’t mix residencies and businesses, and the low density of residents, which really can’t support a local business.

So where does biking fit?  In Richland, biking appears more as a recreational pursuit, both on the local streets and on the trails.  The city actually has some beautiful trails along the Columbia River, with lots of people out enjoying the bikeway.  But you certainly don’t get many people using the bike for short utilitarian trips.

My sister in Richland sees the large number of people on the trails as a sign that “if you build it, they will come” (her words) – that if more lanes were built, people would use them.  I’m not so sure.

Coming home to Portland after the weekend, I got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam, made a wrong turn and found myself heading across a bridge into downtown, upset because I knew I would have to get back in traffic all over again.  I came off the bridge into a wonderful Portland neighborhood, with small groceries, cafes, a library, families walking the streets and people getting around on bikes.  It was a neighborhood that just worked really well for the kind of short trips that bikes can create.

 “Transportation and Land Use”.  City planners stick these two terms together, and always point out you can’t plan one without the other.  I see that now.  Mixed use, higher density neighborhoods are more conducive to bikes for short trips, compared to the low density living of the more recently built neighborhoods.  These two neighborhoods will probably look to the bicycle to serve different roles, solve different issues.  Efforts to increase utilitarian, short bike trips have a natural place in the higher density neighborhoods of our cities, where destinations abound.

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