They’re Literally Driving Customers Away
In the name of economic development.
Among other claims, auto-centric transportation projects are said to increase safety and efficiency and promote economic development. This post focuses on the latter.
Expanding auto-centric infrastructure to promote economic development is an oxymoron. It is a promise within a story that gets repeated over and over in the economic development scene. It is used to justify and exacerbate sprawl. In this post, I will hopefully convey why this is–quite frankly–bullshit.
The Faster, The Better, Right?
The primary purpose of transportation projects in low-density, auto-dependent areas is to move cars more quickly between destinations. From point A to point B. If you doubt this, this was confirmed by a 30-year career transportation engineer in the Valley.*
Deductive reasoning tells us that if an environment is designed to move cars as quickly as possible, then it is not designed to slow them down. It is not designed to promote social interaction, and it is most certainly not conducive to creating positive memories, associations, and experiences.
Welcome to the corridors where nobody wants to live. Where human activity is nonexistent, aside from those fending for their lives to get to point B on foot or bicycle.
Welcome to the corridors that shit on small businesses.
Discovery Mode or Eyes On The Road?
In an auto-centric environment, small businesses are fighting for their market share against corporations with seemingly limitless marketing budgets. And, I think it’s safe to say that our economic development leadership knows this. Why do you think some of the “top” economic development organizations will invest in a Dunkin’ but not a startup specialty coffee shop?
Because the environment is not conducive to the startup’s success.
The pace of driving does not put people in the type of “discovery mode” that small businesses need to gain recognition and notoriety. When driving, a person’s focus is–hopefully–on the road. Entering a discovery mode could compromise their safety.
Autocentricity has created large-scale environments that call for large-scale (and very expensive) marketing tools. Think, a Dunkin’ sign the size of a car that hovers over a main arterial.
Now, of course, it’s possible for a small business to invest a significant portion of its startup funds in a big, bold sign that could stand out at the pace of driving. But even then, a new potential customer would still be very unlikely to stop because of the friction that exists for them to do so.
“Checking out” a business would require the person to pull over, find a parking spot, get out of their car, lock up, and do the same thing in reverse. That’s why a person traveling 45 MPH in a car is unlikely to “pop” into a new restaurant to grab a menu for their next lunch meeting, even if they did notice the sign.
As I write this post, one of my favorite memories comes to mind, which really highlights how a human-scaled environment can encourage people to stick around and spend more money locally. So, I happily invite you into this memory.
Pizza on Pearl
One evening while living in Colorado, my then-partner and I decided to fetch a bus from Denver to the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, just to mix it up a bit. Our ambitions were set on a gluten-free pizza joint, and no 40-some minute bus journey was going to keep us from that pizza.
When we arrived, we walked to the pizza joint with no hurry in our strides as we passed through an artisan market and fell captive to a drum circle.
When we got our pizza alas, it was everything we’d hoped for. The sun had set shortly before we left, with no plan in our pockets. We walked a little ways further down the street and our ears perked at the sound of a beautiful African melody. As we got closer, we saw a group of three young men, led by a beautiful Zimbabwean, playing the marimbas so harmoniously that I got chills. For about an hour, we watched and danced in bliss with others as they played an intimate concert just for us street people.
When they were done, we threw a twenty-dollar bill into their collection case and stuck around to chat with them for a bit. We learned about the Kutandara Center in Boulder, where the men were studying music from Southern Africa. The spontaneity of the show had us too energized to jump on a bus back home. So we walked about a minute before we came upon a patio that begged us to stop for a beer. It was a great beer, but every beer is great when it’s enjoyed overlooking a well-planned public space.
After our beer, we decided the evening was still too young to end. (Plus, I had the beer munchies.) So naturally, we decided we couldn’t pass up a couple of slices of vegan cheesecake that were only a half-mile walk off the mall, which we enjoyed on colorful patio furniture under the stars shuffling through a deck of tarot cards, courtesy of the café.
This struck me as a spectacular example of what we are missing out on when we give away precious space to cars. These kinds of memories aren’t made in suburban strip plazas and parking lots. People aren’t free to explore when the built environment doesn’t invite them to do so.
Compare this with the following experience of going for coffee with friends in a strip plaza.
Coffee in Suburbia
You get into your car. You start your engine. You text your friends that you’re on your way. You buckle up and connect to Spotify. You expect to get to your destination as quickly as possible, with no interruptions and little traffic. Because the main arterial that sits just at the top of your street was recently widened. And this is what you were promised.
You realize that no matter how many times they widen that arterial, no matter how many traffic signals they install, and no matter what intervals they signal, you are always stuck in traffic. Your heart rate is quickening, your palms are sweating. Suddenly, you’re annoyed by your own music. Your favorite music. You just want to get to the coffee shop.
And alas, you arrive. You have an incredible catch-up with your friends. A pour-over coffee and a slice of cheesecake. You cap it off with a single shot of espresso. The espresso hops you up, and you’re not ready to head home. You’re all having a great time and you flirt with the idea of heading somewhere else to grab a drink.
You put on your jackets and head for the doors. As they part like clouds giving way to the sun, you are greeted by a sea of cars. A sea of chaos. You take one deep inhale as you step off the curb and squeeze your way through the cars that found “rockstar parking” right outside the café. You side-eye the passenger who is browsing Instagram in an idling car. “Lucky bastards,” you think, as you choke on their exhaust. You dodge two SUVs and one truck, who are controlled by drivers looking for that perfect spot. Any spot, at this point.
You’re feeling vulnerable and invisible, just as you notice a pair of red lights making their way toward your knee caps. A minivan backing up. You scramble out of the way and alas, you see your safety zone. Your own car. You get in and reach for your phone, instinctually. You suddenly lost your appetite for music. You were keen to make one more stop, but now, you feel exhausted. Do you really feel like going through this whole parking thing again?
You text your friends that something came up and you decide to travel home. You curse the pesky pedestrians as you weave through the parking lot, never remembering that you were in their position three minutes before. You’re looking for the exit that seems so inconveniently placed. Why is it so far?
Corporations May Not Be Human–But Small Biz Is
When starting out, small local businesses do not have the name recognition to be the “destination” in an auto-centric environment that a large corporation or even an established local business has. Small businesses thrive in human-scaled environments. They thrive when people slow down.
Think about the times you discovered a “local gem” with little friction. A bookstore, a café, maybe an art gallery. Chances are, you weren’t behind the wheel of a car, passing ubiquitous strip plaza after ubiquitous strip plaza, gazing at the storefront past a two-hundred-foot deep parking lot. You were probably walking within arm's length of its front door, feeling free and relaxed enough to walk in and check it out.
So, build for people
So if businesses need people to thrive, then common sense says that we ought to build infrastructure for people. And I truly believe there is no greater complement to small business than public space. Why? Because small businesses need people to slow down. And how do we slow them down? We make space for them to walk, bike, socialize, and linger. We make space for them to move at a slower pace.
Interestingly, the complete and total lack of public space has become the norm in much of the U.S. Think about your own life, if you live in an auto-centric environment. Where do you feel free to hang out, outside of your own home, without feeling the pressure to spend money? Maybe a public park. Well, public space is like a park, but interwoven into the fabric of our cities. However, decisions that prioritize vehicles have effectively taken space away from people (the very people who are funding the system, mind you) and have given it to cars. But small businesses suffer, because they need public space just as much as the next guy.
Where we could have public plazas, terraces, playgrounds, and pocket parks, we have parking lots. Where we could engage in and experience nature and human activity, we find ourselves trekking pavement, weaving through cars, and breathing in their exhaust.
We have created hostile environments with no connectivity, continuity, or identity. And you know what it looks like. Seas of parking around every commercial and institutional building. Pedestrians scrambling for the safety of their cars while dodging moving cars that are dodging other cars that are dodging light poles looking for parking. It’s not a pretty sight, but in fact, so common that it doesn’t seem to be questioned.
I know what you might be thinking. How does public space lend to the economy if it’s “free” and will encourage people to “linger”? Well, that’s a good question. So let’s break it down.
The Business of Public Space
Contrary to popular belief, cars are not fueling the economy. In fact, the car, and everything that comes with it has deteriorated local economies and the type of small business development that creates unique places.
People Spend Money — Not Cars
So first, get rid of the notion that loitering is bad. Who–wha–why? Go to the best cities in the world and what do you see? A simple Google image search will suffice. But I’ll just tell you. People. You see people. People hanging around doing absolutely nothing, with no apparent reason for doing so. People loitering.
Second, no matter what they tell you, and you’ve got to just trust me on this one: People spend money. Not cars. And the longer people stay out and about, the more likely they are to spend money. Money they wouldn’t have spent had they just gone home.
You don’t have to like math to acknowledge that more space for cars = less space for people = less customers. And you could fit and attract far more people into a space where cars are not.
We want people to linger. We should invite them to loiter. And basically, it all comes down to creating environments that encourage social interaction, are comfortable, and lend to spontaneity. Where people feel inclined to linger; where they can make memories; and where they want to return to make more. It’s rooted in experience and emotion. And that fuels small business.
We Are an Emotion-Driven Species
I’m not sure about you, but never have I returned to a place because I wanted to stare out onto a sea of parking. Reflect on your own experiences and please feel free to share them below. I would love to read them.
- What are some of your favorite places, and what makes them so special?
- How has a good public space enticed you to discover local shops and spend more money?
- How has an auto-centric environment prevented your small business from thriving?
*Side note: when I reference “the Valley”, I am referring to the Mahoning Valley in northeast Ohio. But it’s worthy to note that the way planning, economic, and community development unfold here is not unique to this area, and is reflective of so many other areas in this country that are plagued with sprawl, lack of identity, and poor health and wellness outcomes.