I love maps like the one below. It shows dispersion of population across the United States and makes a difficult concept very easy to understand. In this case, the redder the map, the more people live in an area. Cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are easy to spot. So are the vast empty prairies of the American West.
This map reveals other things that might not be readily apparent to a casual observer. It shows that people in the western half of the country are not scattered across the countryside as they are in the eastern half. Most live in large metros, cities and the suburbs that flank them. Yeah, the rural west is more urban than the urban east.
There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is water. Water is plentiful in the areas shaded red and not so plentiful in the yellow areas. Distances in the west are great and surface water is scarce. Wells tend to be deep and so it’s very expensive to pump ground water to where it’s needed. It’s also expensive to pipe surface water long distances, so people generally choose to live close to developed systems.
There’s also geography. Whereas metros like Dallas, Minneapolis and Kansas City can expand out in all directions, many western cities are limited by mountains and deserts. Take Salt Lake City, for example. The population here is expected to double by 2050 and there’s really not a lot of land to grow onto, so population densities will have to increase. There simply is no alternative short of closing the gate.
All of this points to an urgent need to rethink transportation. There’s not enough room along the Wasatch Front for all the new arrivals who are on their way, let alone their cars and the roads necessary to keep them moving. This is our reality and we have to make it work for us. Resisting change is not an option. Change is too big. Change is inevitable. We need to hop on the change train.
Fortunately, many smart people realize this and are already moving the needle. State and metropolitan agencies like the Utah Dept. of Transportation (UDOT), Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and the Wasatch Front Regional Council are collaborating on things like first and last mile policy to integrate bicycling into the transportation grid. As infrastructure comes online, more people choose cycling over driving, especially for short trips.
In other parts of the country where land is more available change is slower to occur but it is still happening. For the first time since the end of World War II, many suburban residents are rethinking where they live and choosing to move back into town. I have a theory about this. Suburbia has become unwieldy. It has outgrown its purpose. The negatives of living there are now as great or greater than the positives. People will always do what they perceive to be in their best interest and these days they see denser, more vibrant neighborhoods as desirable. I’ve seen this in virtually every western city I’ve been in over the last six months…from Boise Idaho to Denver and even Las Vegas of all places.
In spite of this, there are still loud and powerful voices that resist what is coming down the track. They are vested in the present and they either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the sheer lunacy of doing the same miserable type of development they’ve always done while expecting a different result. Lately, I’ve decided that part of my advocacy effort is to respectfully challenge these people when they attempt to intimidate and silence cyclists. I am through being marginalized. Game on. They are the past and they are going away whether they like it or not. I just want to give them a little nudge. Maybe some will listen and change what they believe, just as I did a long time ago.
The future of America is more urban. The future includes cycling…lots more cycling. Population densities will continue to increase. Cycling will be the easiest way to get around. Places that stubbornly cling to the past will soon find that the cost includes decreased mobility. Those who anticipate change and prepare for it now by making it easier for people to move around by bicycle will thrive in the future.