Since the beginning of civilization, communities have been built on a walkable scale. As hamlets grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, the community as a whole might not have been as easy to traverse, but boroughs or districts within the city remained walkable and most of the necessities of life were still within a short distance from where people lived. As the modern era began to unfold, we added railways that radically altered transportation between communities, but the villages and towns themselves continued to be built upon that walkable scale.
And then came the automobile.
In a matter of only a few decades, our ideas around urban development changed substantially. Cities no longer had to grow organically, with new development clustered tightly around the old in order to maintain the densities required for economic survival. Instead, new developments could be located in far flung places, such as when, in the 1950s, a McDonalds came to the Fort Collins area and was plunked down right in the middle of a corn field on S. College, way out past the edge of town. (Though the building has changed over time, the McDonalds is still there in the same shopping development where there is now a Whole Foods, Kmart, and several other stores… all of which are surrounded by a sea of parking.) Businesses that would have been miserable failures in the time before cars (Walmart, Target, Safeway, etc.) have now become the norm. I think it’s fair to say that big box stores only exist because of the automobile.
This section of west Old Town is one mile by one mile in size. Current grocery stores are marked in yellow. Past grocery stores are marked in red. The size of the star gives a sense of the size of the store. Note how the old grocery stores were scattered throughout the neighborhood, within easy walking distance of most houses.
I want to reiterate what I’ve just said above — when automobiles came on the scene, they substantially changed our world. They inserted themselves so completely into our lives, that they quite literally have shaped our day to day activities in a way that is entirely alien to how humans have lived for the past bajillion years. Cars have affected our health, our safety, the distances we live from one another, our environment, our economic stability, our politics, our social activities, the distances between our homes and our work places, and even the way we make choices such as what church to attend, what school to send our children to, or where to spend our weekend.
Some of the changes are wonderful. (Just think of the variety of produce we have available to us in the middle of winter.) And some of the changes are horrific. (The number of deaths by automobile every year in this nation is mind-numbing.) But apart from whether it is good or bad, I think we need to recognize just how invasive the car has become. It is hard to find a part of our lives that the automobile hasn’t affected in some way. I believe we need to acknowledge these changes, find ways to maintain what has been good and weed out,… no, stomp out, the things that are bad.
This section of mid-town is slightly larger than the Old Town example because all of the grocery stores fall outside of the one mile by one mile neighborhood block. Again, current grocery stores are marked in yellow. An old Safeway (where Chucky Cheese is today.) is marked in red. With the grocery stores on the periphery, cars are definitely more useful in this midtown example compared to the easily walkable distances between the historic grocers in the Old Town example.
One of the first things we need to end is sprawl. It’s simply not economically sustainable. The City took steps towards that end in 1980 when both Fort Collins and Loveland set up Urban Growth Areas (UGAs), which are now referred to as Growth Management Areas (GMAs). This led to code changes that have already increased the density levels of new development. When I talked to one city planner last year about which part of Fort Collins had the greatest amount of sprawl, he didn’t point towards the southeast end of town as I had expected, but to Mid-Town, where neighborhoods were built in the car-happy 1950s and 60s.
It wasn’t just streets and neighborhoods that sprawled in the 1950s; houses did as well. Before World War II, houses had been built long and skinny to reduce the distance between buildings and create more walkable neighborhoods. But with the introduction of the car, it didn’t matter how much distance there was between houses. And with a wider front facade, there was more room to add an attached garage.
Fort Collins has been growing increasingly dense thanks to changes in the City’s Land Use Code. But this has in turn led to parking problems, traffic and congestion. It’s a very rare day when I can travel along S. College at the posted 40 mph speed limit. There are generally far too many cars on the road to go more than 30 mph. So it’s time to put more focus on improving multi-modal transportation options. Hence the MAX line with the concomitant Mason Corridor bicycle/pedestrian trail, the recent updating of Transfort routes, a Bike Plan that was unanimously approved by City Council in 2014, and the creation of several “low stress network” bicycle routes throughout town. Work is also being done to build sidewalks where there are none and improve those that are in poor shape or are too skinny. (There are some 2 1/2 foot sidewalks in Old Town that barely fit a trash can let alone a stroller or wheelchair.)
The City will continue to improve infrastructure with an eye towards building more “Complete Streets” that take into account all forms of transportation. And Fort Collins will continue to grow, with more and more people packed into tighter and tighter spaces. A tipping point will eventually occur when residents start to realize that they can get to where they want to go faster and more easily by riding their bike, using Transfort, or carpooling. Based on the Code and the direction of current development, I can’t see it going any other way. The real question is, when?
It’s fun to fly when you’re the only one in the sky. The Jetsons cartoonist appears to have not taken population growth into account when he drew this ideal future.
Our transportation patterns are not going to change overnight on a personal or societal level. But each of us could take baby steps towards making the change. Setting goals of biking, walking, or taking Transfort at least once a month/week in place of driving would be a huge start.
But another easy way to start making a life change would be to shop hyper-locally. No matter where you live in this city, there are probably restaurants, shops, or other resources that are within walking or biking distance. Instead of hopping into your car and driving across town to eat at your favorite restaurant, try a new place that’s closer to home. When possible, do your best to support locally owned businesses. This not only strengthens our economy (See the two previous posts in this series for more on that.), but it will also in turn lead to even more small, local businesses opening up. This builds a diversity of choices for shopping, eating, etc., and it pushes these businesses further out into the community.
The growth of small breweries in Fort Collins is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. Originally almost all of our local breweries centered around Old Town (with the exception of C.B. & Potts, a Colorado mini-chain). But as they’ve started to max out the downtown area, new breweries are beginning to pop up all over Fort Collins: Black Bottle, 1933, and Zwei span the length of S. College; Snowbank, Funkwerks, and Horse & Dragon have landed out in, or just past, the beer triangle of Fort Collins, Odells, and New Belgium; and Rally King, McClellan’s, Three Four and Barrel House are scattered to the west and east sides of town.
There’s a synergy that develops between multi-modal forms of transportation and small local businesses. A study published just last month points to positive economic development arising out of bus rapid transit projects (like MAX). Researchers found that rapid transit encouraged new office growth within a half mile of transit stops and that office buildings within this range also recovered better after a recession than other office buildings within the community. There’s a similar economic boost when parking is removed in order to make way for bike lanes. According to a study done in Salt Lake City, sales rose 8.8% after a six block section of diagonal parking was shifted to parallel parking, with the freed up space being used to add a protected bike lane. Similar findings have been made in Indianapolis (pdf), New York City (pdf), and several other communities.
Small local businesses would do well to support multi-modal forms of transportation in Fort Collins. In addition to being involved in local transit projects in town (like taking part in the West Elizabeth Enhanced Travel Corridor Plan discussions), becoming a bike friendly business is a great way to hone in on that multi-modal transportation/small business synergy (and it can make for happier employees to boot).
The shift away from a car-centric world has already started. It’s better for the environment. It’s better for the economy. It’s better for our health. And it’s better for our community. Every step that we can take as a city towards reaching that tipping point into a more multi-modal network of transportation will help Fort Collins to be a more vibrant, sustainable and resilient community. The city government has taken some big steps towards making this change. As residents, consumers and small business owners, it’s time to do our part in helping to bring Fort Collins into a better tomorrow.
This article is the third in a series on creating a vibrant local economy.
1 – Creating a Vibrant Local Economy: an Introduction
2 – Creating a Vibrant Local Economy: Bigger Isn’t Always Better
3 – Creating a Vibrant Local Economy: Multi-modal Transportation Is Key
4 – Creating a Vibrant Local Economy: an Authentic Sense of Place