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The Places We'll Go: What the pandemic taught us all about transportation

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Almost every person on the planet was impacted by the pandemic. If not for health reasons, then for psychological ones. Isolation was a large catalyst for feelings of depression and anxiety. It made people realize just how important human interaction is to an overall healthy state of mind.

If any silver-lining can be taken from the pandemic, one could be our newly established observance of how affected we are by isolation and not being able to convene in day-to-day routines. What this new perspective does is open the doorway to offer how critical connectivity is for social, economic, and health in a community.

We noticed the impact because the pandemic was such a dramatic shift from the norm. Yet, Americans have been moving towards a life of isolation for more than 70 years. With this, it’s no surprise that people are also suffering in greater numbers from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The movement toward isolation, also known as urban sprawl, coincides with the Industrial Revolution. The modern associated issues started to become noticeable in the 1950s when cars became more affordable for the American family, which was experiencing a boom in numbers after WWII.

“The term urban sprawl has been used to describe low-density automobile-oriented settlement patterns with little comprehensive public planning. Opponents of this kind of settlement pattern claim that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally damaging, and aesthetically ugly,” explains Robert Bruegmann in his book Sprawl: A Compact History.

According to How Stuff Works, the rise of urban-suburban population increased 200% between 1950 and 1990.

“Of course, big business followed suit in the form of gas stations, shopping malls, restaurants and big-box retailers, which heavily pepper the suburbs today,” states Alia Hoyt.

Modern car dependency took center stage at the beginning of the pandemic as Americans were sent home and stopped making a daily commute to work. An article published by CNBC in May 2020 notes that the average American spends roughly 27 minutes on their one-way commute to work. That’s about 200 hours a year spent in a car.

“People like having that time back,” Andrew Savikas, chief strategy officer at getAbstract, said in the article.

That commute was a continuation of the isolation felt in the cul de sac neighborhood of the suburbs. The book “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design” by Charles Montgomery explains how the neighborhoods were designed for the illusion of safety, but the reality is that they created less opportunities for social interactions because each home was its own oasis.

Image Courtesy of CallisonRTKL

“People who live in monofunctional, car-dependent neighborhoods outside of urban centers are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighborhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services, and places to work.”

The walkable neighborhood is a trend that’s coming back in fashion. It’s coupled with an environmental need for Americans to return to the cities they abandoned during the pursuit of urban sprawl.

“Just living in a sprawling city has the effect of four years of aging,” Montgomery notes.

When living in an area that has small businesses, parks, and other amenities nearby, residents are more likely to walk or bike to those destinations. Along the way, individuals are more likely to interact with people, whether that be a brief conversation or just a few friendly waves. Those interactions, researchers have found, is just enough to build a community connection.

“The more connected we are with family and community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and depression,” Montgomery says in “Happy City.” “Simple friendships with other people in one’s neighborhood are some of the best salves for stress during hard economic times—in fact, sociologists have found that when adults keep these friendships, their kids are better insulated from the effects of their parents’ stress. Connected people sleep better at night. They are more able to tackle adversity. They live longer. They consistently report being happier.”

And don’t we all want to be just a little bit happier? Now that we’ve experienced the effects of being isolated, it’s time to look for opportunities to move away from isolation and move towards a life of independent mobility. But this is going to require more than a change in individuals’ mindsets, but rather a full infrastructure redevelopment and bold decisions from our local government.

Through the OneRouge Transportation Coalition, The Walls Project and MetroMorphosis is working to convene community members, nonprofits, government, and businesses leaders to determine and develop accessible and equitable transportation options for everyone.

To support our next OneRouge mural on Transportation, click here!

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