New urbanist realities may not include ‘commuting’
by Matt Edens
Funny, isn’t it, how the cutting edge can be oddly old-fashioned? Writing about how skyrocketing gas prices have reinvigorated the push for public transit nationwide, Knoxville blogger Glenn Reynolds rightly observes that strategies such as commuter rail systems are geared to solve problems that are already largely obsolete. The problem with “commuter rail” systems, says Reynolds, “is that they presuppose commuters, and the changing U.S. economy makes traditional commuting—in which armies of workers flock from suburbs to downtowns in the morning, and back home in the evenings—less significant.”
That vision of armies of workers flocking to downtown is an old one. It predates the automobile, actually. No matter how much we associate it with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway, the notion of the daily commute from the suburbs to the center-city began back in the railroading days. Originally it was the province of the rich, commuting by rail from country estates outside of town (Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs date from that pre-auto era). Later, the streetcar made the daily commute a fact of life for the common man.
If anything, even as it augmented and then replaced trains and trolleys as the main method of commuting, the automobile killed the traditional downtown commute much as it killed the traditional downtown. No longer tied to the rail hubs, factories and offices fled from downtowns, chasing after the commuters who moved away in the first place until the commute from suburb to suburb increasingly supplanted the old commute from the suburbs to downtown. West Knoxville is a prime example. Traffic in the area is fueled not just by people driving in from all over the region, but by the thousands of people who both live and work on the west side of town.
But in these days of telecommuting and the all-pervasive Internet, even that daily drive to the workplace, whether in the ’burbs or in a big building downtown, is disappearing from more and more people’s lives. Technology has made it far easier for many office workers to work from a home office, leading writers like Reynolds to compare the transformation to the pre-Industrial Revolution days of “Cottage Industry,” when “artisans worked in or alongside their homes.”
Prevailing ideas regarding mass transit, however, aren’t the only thing out of sync with the rapidly evolving nature of work in the real world. Modern American suburbia also has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. Not just in its initial impetus, fleeing the pollution of factory scale production and the crowding created by its armies of workers, but also in its form.
At their most basic level, separation of use is the concept underpinning most modern zoning codes, including Knoxville’s and Knox County’s. The idea, that homes should be sheltered from the ill effects of industry and commerce, can be traced back to the urban reformers of the City Beautiful Movement, an early 20th-century attempt to undo the worst excesses of the previous half-century of havoc wrought by runaway industrialization. It also, inadvertently, enshrined in law the transformation that industry began. Before the Industrial Revolution rounded up workers and herded them into factories, the home was “the traditional place for most kinds of work,” as Reynolds observes.
I’m not suggesting some wannabe Andrew Carnegie fire up a blast furnace on a cul-de-sac near you, but if we should adapt our ideas about commuting to the new (and in many ways old) reality, why not our ideas about how we live as well? If we are moving toward a world where life and work are increasingly intertwined, shouldn’t that be reflected in the way that we build? In fact the transformation is already underway, if the new Northshore Town Center currently under construction in West Knoxville is any indication.
Mixed-use, walkable communities that are as much akin to the villages of the pre-industrial era as they are to factory towns are making a comeback. And if energy prices continue to climb, I think the trend will accelerate. Plus, as more people make their home office their only office and perhaps run afoul of the busybodies in their subdivision’s homeowner’s association, it’s only a matter of time before the pressure to rewrite the zoning codes to reflect the new reality increases, too.