Where the Sidewalks End, and Why: Don't Blame the Market


Image credit: Alex Wiebe, used under Creative Commons license.

When I wrote that being carless in America is like second-class citizenship, it stirred up quite a debate. In between the calls for me to "go back to Britain", and the firm metaphorical nods of agreement from many carless Americans, commenter Vboring made an assertion that "the fact that neighborhoods without sidewalks exist implies that people don't value sidewalks enough to pay for them. If they don't want sidewalks, who are you to force them to install them?" On the face of it, there's a certain logic to this argument—but that logic is limited. The market is not, and should never be, the final and only authority on what should, and should not, exist. Supply Does Not Always Meet Demand
It is, of course, true to say that supply usually catches up with demand—and if people want something bad enough, then other people will realize they can make some money by giving it to them. I am not sure, however, that the reverse is true. Just because something is in short, or non-existent, supply does not mean there is not a market for it—it just means that for whatever reason, the market has not yet been created. You can't look at the hegemony of the Walkman in the eighties, for example, as an indicator that nobody wanted an Ipod.

Sometimes visionary suppliers have to create that demand. In fact, communities and developers who have been ahead of the curve and built dense, walkable, well-planned communities have often found that consumers are willing to pay above the odds to live in them. (We also know that walkable communities make people happier.)

The Market is Not a Democracy
The second issue I have with assigning the market absolute authority is that it leaves an awful lot of people out. While the concept of using your money to inspire change is empowering to many of us greenies, it is not and cannot be a replacement for democratic decision making. One-person, one-vote is a fundamental principle—and sometimes a fundamental practice—of democracies. The more we sign over decision-making powers to market forces, the more this is replaced by "money talks".

This problem is doubly true when it comes to the issue of carlessness and community planning. If the implications of Vboring's assertion—that community's are planned solely according to what house buyers want—prove to be true then we are in deep, deep trouble. Not only are those without any money unable to participate in the discussion, but also those without enough money to purchase a home are out of luck too. And let's not forget that if you've not got money to purchase a home, there's an increased likelihood that you've not got the money to buy, maintain or run a car. Those to whom this issue matters most are left entirely out of the equation.

The Market of Today is Not the Society of Tomorrow
The final problem with the idea that markets reflect the will of the people is simply the lack of vision that it represents. A lack of sidewalks was once a non-issue, as streets were considered multi-use and cars had to share with cyclists, playing kids and the occasional pedestrian out for a stroll. This only became unworkable when the motorcar too priority over other users. A community model built around one reality failed to evolve and adapt to what came next.

In many ways this is analogous to our current predicament. If markets simply pander to the needs and wants of today, we risk losing sight of both the challenges and opportunities of the future. With peak oil looking increasingly imminent, we need to start the process of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, and we need to do so urgently.

Whether that weaning happens through visionary entrepreneurialism, government intervention or collective community action, I am not sure matters. What matters is getting the job done—it's way too important a challenge to let ideology bind us to any one approach.

I suspect and hope that sidewalks and other non-motorized transport infrastructure will be a big part of whatever comes next. The fact that these things are undervalued now should not prevent us from prioritizing them in the future.

More on Walkability and Livable Communities
New Study Shows Walkable Communities Make People Happier
Parking Lots to Parks: Designing Livable Cities
The Top 10 Least Walkable US Cities

Tags: Activism | Bike-Friendly World | Communities | Economics | United States | Urban Planning | Walking

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