On Highways, Transportation and Zoning
As we were driving down the beautiful four lane CA85 highway back home from Santa Cruz last Saturday night I could not help but wonder: what an incredible insight people had back in the mid 20th century that it should become a commodity, a right even, for a regular person to be able to just hop in their car and drive where ever they want, at a whim. It is liberating to get from your home to a beach, a mountain, or a national park, in one direct shot, comfortably. All that is supported by a really stunning system of infrastructure: highways, bridges, ramps…
All that works wonderfully [almost] on the weekends. Then come week days, and the traffic begins. It’s infuriating for many. It’s untreatable source of stress and life unhappiness. It’s just unjustifiable. Now, many people say “You are the traffic — get a bike”. While I totally agree we should invest and do better with bike infrastructure and encourage self powered modes of commute, I believe this is just a corollary of the actual problem: people just can’t all bike to work because it’s simply too far.
Why is it too far? That question bogged me for a while, but I think the reason is the zoning rules that probably had made sense during the times when majority of people worked “dirty” jobs in factories that had nothing desirable around them. Think about it: all those stunning campuses of Google, Facebook or any other corporation are basically unused during the off work hours and weekends. That’s like <50% occupancy. Any hotelier/car rental will tell you that’s terrible — occupancy is the single most important factor for the business’ success.
Again, while there were not many reasons to hang out around factories in the 19–20th centuries, now that most of the people work in comfortable offices it looks just so bizarre to not use that same parks / boardwalks for everyday living. Which brings us to zoning. There are neighborhoods for living, zones for shopping, and zones for work. But WHY? Do you ever go more than in one shop? And even if you do, were they interspersed within the living quarters you could just walk down to that grocery store, combining the shopping and exercising (a closest store to my home is 2 miles away, which is not something I want to walk back and forth; in Moscow that distance for me was 0.6 miles which was perfect).
And now work. Would not it be great if you could not simple reduce the commute, but eliminate it all together? I don’t even want to get to the more complicated story of home ownership, but a significant part of employees rent. Would not it be awesome if you could rent directly on campus?
Think of university campuses. All the lecture halls and labs are in the center, and all the dorms are on the perimeter. Why companies campuses could not do the same? Then you don’t even have to think much — people naturally will just walk/bike or whatever.
Now think if 30–50% of people would stop needing to commute. Now all of the sudden all those who do (say, they live far away for what ever reason) find themselves on much less occupied highway, because all the people who just needed to go a few miles are not jamming the stoplights and intersections.
Revolution starts now. Who do we need to convince to build housing interspersed with the work and shopping?