Unintended impacts: the 21-mile walking commute and what that really says about our decisions.

What-you-do-will-have-impacts-you-didn’t-expect is probably one of the strongest themes in the Local Economy Revolution Book.  As I describe in there, one of my earliest encounters with the profession of planning resulted from being hip-deep in the aftereffects of  a massive urban renewal project in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  No matter what I did, where I was, which building I worked on, who I dealt with, most of my professional time and energy seemed to get tangled in trying to address the aftershocks of a decision to tear down a large part of the city’s downtown and put in a shopping mall.

From the loss of identity and relative paucity of what we now call “sense of place,” to the downtown’s economic decline and the displacement of residents and businesses of modest means more than two decades before, it seemed like everything I did in that community in the 90s had to do with trying to repair the stress fractures that emanated from that event.

The decisions we make as residents and officials have long-term repercussions that extend like shock waves into the future, and the bigger the thing we try to do, the number and intensity of those shock waves seems to grow exponentially.  But too often, when we make those decisions, we do little more than pay lip service to that potential.

I thought about this as I read CityLab’s excellent analysis of the recent crowdfunding phenomena around a dedicated gentleman whose story of a 21-mile commute to work on foot led to a huge outpouring of support.  It’s a heartwarming story, but CityLab did an excellent job of teasing out the bigger story:


Just think about it for a moment: strangers are falling over themselves to help subsidize a personal vehicle for one individual (although insurance, gas, and maintenance are obviously on him going forward), but voters in dozens of suburban communities in the Detroit area have voted to “opt out” of the region’s public transportation system. In so doing they have shut down job opportunities for thousands of area residents who are eager for employment, and denied employers access to untapped sources of labor. [….]

Strong regional public transit systems help people to find employment and keep it, which is a good thing for everyone. But many regions shrink from making tax contributions to such systems because they like to think of themselves as being separate from those who need public transit. They don’t want to think about a scenario in which they or one of their family members or friends might not be able to drive because of medical or financial reasons.


I usually shy away from writing directly about transportation issues, mostly because platforms like Streetsblog cover that topic better than I have the energy to do. But there’s a prime example of unintended consequences here.  These are oversimplified, but consider:

  1. Community decides not to fund transit.
  2. Increasing numbers of people can’t afford to travel to work because service jobs do not pay as well as the blue collar jobs they replaced and because cars are expensive (and cheap cars are both expensive and unpredictable, which screws up that whole getting to work thing pretty regularly).
  3. People struggle to make a living.
  4. Money available in local economy declines and gets shifted from local goods and services to cheaper goods and services provided by big suppliers who can cut costs and survive on narrow margins due to standardization and massive volume.
  5. Tax revenues decline while needs of residents increase
  6. People who have the means and ability to move, do, while those who have less means or ability stay.
  7. Return to #3, repeat cycle.

Ok, yes, that’s certainly not the whole story, and there’s a whole lot of other factors in community economic health and decline, and transit isn’t the only factor, etc. etc.  I gave you a model, not a full-blown system.  But consider: in our guts, we understand that all of these things, from employment to local business to tax revenue, have at least a decent chance of being logically and systematically connected.

And yet, after all these years of knowing this, how often do we conveniently close off those connections in making these decisions?

I use “we” a lot, because these big issues are about all of us, whether we are professionals, electeds, or plain ol’ resident/voters/potential voters.  We all have a piece of this.

We don’t talk about the connections because they’re hard, they’re hard to prove, they’re complicated.

Unfortunately, tough crap for us.  We gotta do it anyways.


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