A Better Future is Possible
by Michael Wright, Form VI
6 min. read — December 13, 2023
It’s another normal day. the 8-year-old leaps out of the doorway past her less-than-enthusiastic mother, still on her first cup of coffee. She scampers down the front steps, ever damp from last night's rain. She runs to catch the bus. She was warned not to stay up late Sunday night or else she'd sleep in late. Excited, she stepped onto the road, thinking about how she’d present that day – blink, bang, dead. Her body, thrust into the air by a multi thousand pound machine.
We call it a car. A presentation never given, a life never lived. That is the story of 40,000 Americans each year who die in the event of a car crash. 40,000 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and family, taken too soon. Yet it has become all too common, a triviality. Something we accept as a part of life, a cost of doing business. Just as predictably as the sun rises in the morning and descends in the evening, is there a story of another car crash, another injury, another death. We mustn't succumb to complacency. This isn’t an unchanging aspect of our modern lives, it's a choice, our choice every time we prioritize our vehicle’s speed over pedestrian safety. It's a choice we make every time we expand highways over improving and developing transit. Our choice every time we choose to maintain the status quo of car dependency over ending the suffering of millions. It's all a choice so we can choose to make a better future, a future that not only recognizes the value of human life but improves our communities at the same time. We know the disease and we know the cure. All it takes is the will to change.
Take Hoboken, New Jersey, for example. A small city of 60,000 across the Hudson river from New York City. The city has not recorded a single traffic death since January 2017. Their city and leaders saw the problem and fixed it. How did they do that? Well, it started with safer streets.
According to the U.S Department of Transportation, you have an 80% chance of death if you are run over by a car going at 40mph. That drops to 10% at 20mph. Hence, a big part of reducing traffic deaths is reducing traffic speed. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this goal. Massive, imposing, highway-type roads, like University Blvd, are built to encourage us to go quicker. This level of speed might be fine on a highway, but not on a street full of people and businesses. That speed plus people is a recipe for death and disaster. Hoboken is, instead, removing and narrowing car lanes, putting bike lanes and planters in their place. Physically narrower streets create a deeper psychological effect than a speed limit ever could. This saves lives. Bike lanes allow people to get out of their cars and, maybe, get some exercise, too.
“These measures will increase traffic,” you might contend, but these sorts of streets actually improve traffic. Instead of making traffic levels worse, this permits those who really need to get to where they need to go faster. The number of bikes you can fit in a bike lane is much higher than the number of cars on a similarly sized street. Even more so, cars keep getting bigger and bigger, yet most are occupied by a single person. But the benefits don’t stop at saving lives and exercise – these areas become nicer places to live.
Imagine walking down a tree-lined street without traffic, without the noise of cars rushing by, without being forced to breathe in toxic fumes every moment. Isn’t that somewhere you'd want to live? This is no fantasy; that future is possible. All we must do is build our streets for everyone, not just cars. In building a society without traffic deaths, safer streets are just one part of the equation. What if the place you’re going is much too far to walk? That’s where transit comes in.
Hoboken is in some ways uniquely gifted in this regard. Their southern end is a terminus of the third busiest commuter railroad in the country, NJ Transit, and is connected by PATH trains to Newark and New York. Their buses, provided by that same NJ Transit, run some of the best regional services in the country. But this didn't come out of nowhere. Even though much of NJ Transit and PATH’s infrastructure was built with private money, it costs the public money year after year to operate. Just as roads require constant maintenance and construction to keep traffic flowing, transit agencies need operational money to provide frequent and reliable service, all day and night. Bad transit is a choice. We can choose to make it better.
Let’s add to our imagined safe street. There would be subways and trains every which way, allowing you to read, relax, or ruminate during your commute every day, instead of feeling your blood pressure rise in the stress of bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. That future is possible and already exists in Hoboken as well as numerous places across the world. We can choose to build our own communities that way. In doing so, we will prevent needless death and make our own lives better in the process. However, transit and safer streets can only go so far if where we want to go is too far to walk or too sparsly populated for transit. To fix that, we must change the rules that govern where things can be built.
I encourage you to take a look at the houses and homes that surround your own. More than likely, those will be single-family detached homes, and that’s no accident. According to the New York Times, 75% of residential land in the U.S. is zoned, or exclusively set aside, for single-family homes, making it illegal to have coffee shops or tower blocks near your plot. For most, the only shops and services are miles away, much too far to walk and too sparse for frequent transit, forcing them to drive. Hoboken, yet again, shows us that it doesn't have to be this way. They allow homes to be built atop supermarkets and libraries and coffee shops, bringing people and the things they need closer together in what’s called mixed-use development, mixing together the beautifully diverse parts of life into close proximity, ridding us of that 28% of car trips under a mile as per the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. Fewer car trips will save lives, and make our communities nicer and safer places to live.
Our final addition to that tree-lined, transit filled street, is mixed-use development. Instead of going miles for your needs, you can hop round the corner for a coffee, grab a book at a bookstore down the street, and end the day at a theatre on the ground floor of your building. Instead of being cooped up in your single-family home, you can feel the community of being close to the people around you. All the while, saving people’s lives in the process. We know how to do this. We can choose to remove restrictions that force isolating single-family development on us all. We can embrace a diversity of uses that allow us to be closer to what we need and who we love.
That vision of tree-lined, transit-filled streets, with everything you want or need only steps away, is possible. The unnecessary theft of life that is the status quo is also a choice. We can choose to build our streets for everyone, not just cars, to fund public transportation for all, and to abolish the restrictions that tear our communities apart. That future is possible. We must choose to embrace it.