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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

Car-dependent suburbia has America spinning its wheels

Why increased walkability should be a top priority in city planning
Jack Muscatello
Cars drive by an empty bus stop north of the corner of Whitney Avenue and West Woods Road during rush hour on Monday, March 18.

The average American suburb has a few key ingredients: big box stores, seas of parking lots and six-lane roads cutting through neighborhoods. From behind the windshield of a car, it’s the ultra-normal symbol of the American Dream.

But it shouldn’t be this way. Housing availability has plummeted, car prices and insurance premiums are soaring and complaining about traffic still ranks supreme in small-talk conversations with relatives. Traveling through modern suburbia is broken, expensive and fundamentally boring.

A history recap, a trip to South Carolina and a look into Quinnipiac’s own backyard may provide answers for a more promising future in American suburban transportation. Let’s break it down.

The history of car-dependent suburbia

American cities and towns were once decidedly walkable. Pedestrians, trollies, bikes and the occasional car filled avenues, each criss-crossing the other on shared pavement. It was chaotic, sure, but by design. People had viable options for how they liked to travel, creating a genuine sense of freedom in transportation.

But after Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized car production and World War II ushered in a new era of American-made manufacturing, urban planning shifted gears.

Bustling avenues turned into larger roads, the term “jaywalking” quickly became a crime and highway systems only allowed car traffic to trek miles into the new suburban sprawl. The car, and suburbia at large, were immediately emblematic of a somehow better, safer and wealthier region for a largely white section of the middle class.

Everyone else was left behind, in cities suddenly desperate for funding, with crippling infrastructure that has lacked recognition or political support.

This almost exclusively suburban focus has continued for more than 70 years, further segregating expansive hamlets from city centers. Only ugly, brooding interstate highway networks connect the two.

A lesson learned in Myrtle Beach

To make the most of this year’s spring break, I took a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But the vacation destination soon revealed itself as a shining example of how misguided the aforementioned “American Dream” really is.

Just inland from the famous hotel strip lies Kings Highway Route 17, stretching parallel to the beach. It’s a six-lane highway functioning as an arterial, a term that urban planners use for a road that connects smaller streets together in a neighborhood.

With seemingly unending signs for roadside tourist traps, drive-thrus and seafood restaurants, it looks like the perfect rest stop for that three-row SUV.

But, without access to a rental car and eager to save an Uber trip, myself and two friends walked alongside it.

A sedan crosses the intersection of Kings Highway and 31st Avenue North in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The closest crosswalk is a half-mile south, at the next traffic light. (Jack Muscatello)

Thankfully, there were sidewalks available for most of the walk. But the rush of cars and pickups cruising in excess of 55 mph mere feet from us was alarming. How does one comfortably walk here, and much less enjoy it?

They can’t. Outside of the beach’s tourist segments, wide sidewalks are slim to none and many of the streets adjacent to Route 17 have barely any pedestrian amenities at all. Crosswalks are also difficult to find, and we spent several minutes walking out of the way to safely cross the multi-lane behemoth.

Yet there are plenty of parking lots.

Hamden’s highways

The supposed mini-golf capital of the world is not the only place with such anti-pedestrian design. Town after town, including Hamden, feature the same major arterial highway structure and car-loving design philosophy. Whitney Avenue and Dixwell Avenue, which both funnel the majority of traffic through the busiest parts of town, carry the Route 10 designation in the same way the Merritt Parkway is also Route 15.

A pseudo-main street that functions just like a major state parkway practically declares the automobile as the only viable way to fulfill local trips.

To be fair, there is a public transportation network in Hamden. But it’s relegated almost exclusively to CT Transit buses or Quinnipiac’s native shuttles, which would work much better if they didn’t get stuck behind the same car traffic — especially in busy rush hour. With no designated bus lanes and infrequent stops along Whitney Avenue, which doesn’t have any safe shoulder area, it isn’t a suitable alternative to driving.

This problem is quickly amplified, especially for students, by the sheer cost of owning a vehicle. The car market is only just now returning to pre-pandemic numbers, though new vehicle costs are almost 20% higher than in 2019. Used cars are much worse, with an average cost of over $26,000, per CNBC.

That’s almost half of the average starting salary for college graduates across the country, which is before insurance, maintenance, gas and other fees are factored in.

The once-promising emblem of freedom that the car provided has now turned into an expensive burden. And, with year-over-year climate change forecasts setting up this century’s best sci-fi dystopia, the impending electric vehicle craze doesn’t promise any relief in the costs department.

A promising idea

There is a local sign of promise, though, which could spark a cultural and economic shift away from car dependency.

To celebrate Hartford’s 400th birthday, the iQuilt Partnership, which began in 2011 as an effort to beautify Connecticut’s capital region, has been steadily working on elaborate plans to add several acres of park space and walking paths, in place of the current I-91 and I-84 looping mess of an interchange.

It’s an ambitious idea, removing decades-worth of car-centric development in favor of increased walkability, sight lines to the Connecticut River and less barriers between the downtown and other city neighborhoods. That ambition might even be too great, with a price tag of $17 billion and a timeline of nearly two decades.

But change needs to start somewhere. The almighty automobile shouldn’t hold the top spot for how Americans can get around town. Beautification projects are a promising step toward rectifying the horrible planning decisions that have come to define an entire country’s over-reliance on cars. The future, and your savings, practically depend on it.

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Jack Muscatello
Jack Muscatello, Digital Managing Editor

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