Can Conservatives Build Sidewalks?

This editorial ran in the Orlando Sentinel, March 24, 2005

Fred Leonhardt, in his editorial, “Great State of Wait,” demands that the government fund more road-building to enhance business prosperity, “protect our homeland, and preserve our American way of life.” While he claims the mantle of conservativism, his desire to pave our way out of gridlock reeks of socialism. Like the Stalinist planners of a bygone era, Leonhardt wants government engineers to prop up a failed utopia—a society designed exclusively for the auto.

Over the last 50 years Orlando, like other Florida cities, has evolved into a sprawling mass of mediocrity because our “transportation system” was reduced to an exercise in road building. This single-mindedness has produced a straight jacket not a system. A system, according to Webster, “is an interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” Unfortunately, the failure to design or even plan for a transportation system beyond the auto has turned our communities into the killing fields of America. Metropolitan Orlando suffers the highest pedestrian death rate in the nation followed by Tampa, West Palm, and Miami. Losing children, like the Velez sisters, on roads engineered to traffic flow at the expense of human safety is a sad reminder of our “family values.”

Conservatives extolling family values fail to mention that building a world to SUV dimensions threatens a child’s well-being. When kids cannot visit friends, a park, or the library without parental chauffeurs they are deprived of the most elemental social experiences. Moreover, as they turn inward to a fluorescent screen the desire to pursue more vigorous activities wanes. It is small wonder that child obesity has become an epidemic. Like many social problems it is the product of addiction, in part, the lure of an auto-oriented lifestyle that trades health and vitality for convenience and an illusion of safety.

In Florida, thousands have followed highway expansion to nestle in the safety of guarded, gated subdivisions. Yet for these homesteaders on the periphery of metropolitan areas, there is a greater chance of dying in a traffic “accident” than being murdered in central Miami.

For Orlando and Florida to prosper, we must divorce ourselves from a 1950s approach to transportation. Existential road rage does not attract investors, quality of life does. Road building must proceed, but it must be integrated into a system of light rail, commuter trains, buses, bicycle paths, and sidewalks to insure pedestrian safety and activity. In return, developers can profit from building more compact neighborhoods, such as Baldwin Park, that provide safe access to parks, schools, and shopping. Allowing citizens between 7 and 87 to navigate their communities will reduce auto trips and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. This will require getting out of car, but in return we can embrace a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future.

Bruce Stephenson is a professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College

Phone work 407-646-1587

Home 407-898-5777

Information on Miami death rate: iAnd Frumkin, Frank, and Jackson , Urban Sprawl and Public Health (Island Press, 2004) 121-122

This is also identified in recent Sentinel article on Florida Rural Roads second most dangerous in the US