The American Urban Paradox

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As the northeast suffers through an intense cold snap following the massive snowstorm of a couple of weeks ago, it’s really striking how terrible the weather is in all the American cities with green transportation profiles. The nation’s leading commute-by-walking city, for example, is Boston. And you know where it’s really unpleasant to walk even a relatively short distance in February? Boston, that’s where. If you took the physical layout of the city and transported it to San Diego’s location, I bet that many many many more than 14 percent of people would walk to work.

In general, good weather should facilitate green transportation. I ride my bike around DC a lot. But many days during the summer it’s unpleasantly humid to be biking, and many days during the winter it’s unpleasantly cold. In Los Angeles, this wouldn’t be a problem. Waiting for a bus to arrive is, likewise, a very different experience in good weather versus bad.

Obviously the causes behind this aren’t all that hard to discern. The northeastern quadrant of the country was densely settled much earlier than the sunnier parts of the country. But it makes me think that the prospects for transformation in sunbelt metro areas may be brighter than is generally realized if policymakers decide they want to take action. Ultimately the fundamentals for walking, biking, and mass transit are in many ways much better in the south and west than in the northeast.