When we were talking on another post about new urbanism, it got me thinking about a related topic.
I first met the folks with the alternative energy car company in California about twenty years ago, when they were trying to raise money for their early research and development. They moved to North Carolina later, when the second round of funding came from that area and when they needed more space. At one of the first meetings, they referred to their product as “paleo car.”
Today, that phrase has become trendy, in the sense that there is a philosophy that we, as humans, should be eating the same things are ancestors ate, as our evolutionary process dictates what keeps us healthy. But 20 years ago, the car folks were thinking along similar lines. The notion that the average American should drive 50 miles every day is really a very recent construct, no more than 50 years old. In terms of “displacement,” even 100 years ago the vast majority of people in the world had never traveled more than five miles from their place of birth. Cities and entire civilizations were based on a maximum travel distance of five miles. People who went ten had seen the world. So these car guys were designing an alternative energy car that would work for a ten mile trip–five miles out and five miles back. One of the potential investors challenged the marketability of a vehicle with this kind of limited range, and commissioned a study of the market attraction. The study was carried out by a group of sociologists at University of California, Santa Cruz (by the way, where Bruce Levine would eventually join the faculty), who made two somewhat astonishing findings. First, even in California, with the exception of job commuting, the average preferred trip was four miles. Second, almost 90% of those in the study reported that if their job was more local, it was unlikely that they would ever travel more than ten miles per day, and that they would buy an electric car with that range.
In our discussion of new urbanism yesterday, we were discussing the fact that all of Framingham’s major corporate headquarters are in isolated office parks. Rick mentioned that Bose and Genzyme want to put in some kind of elitist food court so that corporate employees can pretend to be in a third place. (my gloss on Rick’s words). He also pointed out that crossing Rt 9 to get to Dunkin Donuts was a life-risking adventure, which means that even if the elitist food court gets built, its going to be isolated to that side of Rt. 9.† I was noting that where my office is located, we have both major employers and small employers, large retailers, small retailers, light industry and so forth, all of which is walkable in the village. And I was hearing a certain amount of wistfulness in the responses to that description. I also thought it a viable model for Framingham, which was the point I was making.
But the broader point is that I suspect that people in this state, much like peninsular California would admit that, given the choice, they don’t want to drive to work in remote office parks, and they don’t want to drive more than five miles per day. In short, I would suspect, falling into that category myself, that people wouldn’t view traveling beyond mastadon range to be restriction on what they want to do. Planning an environment is pointless unless you understand what people want. It seems to me that if any element has been missing in most urban planning in New England in the past thirty years, that element has been the human factor. While many people have a vision of what looks good, and what constitutes sprawl, and what it is perceived to be favorable or not, I have rarely seen a town conduct a true survey of what people want.† Don’t tell me that attitudes are reflected in voter choice or Town Meeting. In 1993, the University of California survey, which was designed to eliminate group thinking, found results that were grossly divergent from results based on voting and political patterns.
If the people are thinking paleo, the Planning Board should read the painting on the cave walls and act accordingly.