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I may never qualify for my membership card at the Institute for New Urbanism.

Or the Academy of Modern Municipal Planning. Or is it the Multi-Use Temple of Diverse Modes of Transportation?

Whatever the appropriate urban planning group is, I just don't think I've got the bona fides to get in.

I'm not quite a simple caveman lawyer (thank you, Phil Hartman), but sometimes the newer waves of urban planning philosophies go right over my head.

It's not that I'm entirely opposed to some of what they're preaching: The last few decades of sprawl has undoubtedly created cities that waste money and resources by putting miles and miles between where people live and the goods and services they need in daily living. The availability of relatively cheap land inspired, if that's the word, the idea that a city continually expanding its space is a successful city.

As a nation, we've reflected our values, which are informed by a level of consumption unmatched by most cultures. And in the way we've designed our cities, we have been, in a word, wasteful.

Here in Northwest Arkansas, we're making progress, oddly enough in part because of investment of private funding from a family made rich by our insatiable appetite for more stuff. The company that provided them their philanthropic power also played a part in that, constructing stores that helped push along the demise of small, neighborhood stores in favor of big-box facilities with big parking lots, because it required a car to get there and home again.

That family, however, has spent millions and millions, with more continually flowing, to create a new reality for Northwest Arkansas. The region's trail system has blossomed, largely because the Waltons funded the 36-mile Razorback Greenway connecting the cities along the Interstate 49 corridor. And they are investing in downtown areas both through public grants and private funding.

The Walton Family Foundation joined forces with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission recently for a series of talks focused on ways to improve mobility -- in other words, getting around -- in Northwest Arkansas.

Who can be against that?

Apparently, their primary speaker can, at least when it comes to cars.

Jeff Speck, a city planner and author, spoke to about 200 people at the Fayetteville Town Center. He's the author of "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at at Time."

I must acknowledge not having read the book, but it's now on my list to get around to. It makes perfect sense that communities need strong downtowns if all other parts of them are going to be strong. For too long, Americans forgot about their downtowns as they spread out, rather than making investments in remaking their city cores.

Speck rightly noted that American society had spent decades designing their communities to make driving convenient, at the expense of other modes of transportation. Turning that around is a necessity, he said.

"Walkable places are thriving places," he said. "The simple answer is the walk has to be as good as the drive."

That, he said, requires slowing traffic down and devoting more of each downtown street to walking, biking or other people-powered movement rather than motorized vehicles.

He makes sense. People walking or biking are never going to feel comfortable moving about if one wrong move gets them plowed over by a Mack truck, or even a Cooper Mini. They both can hurt.

But then, he lost me, and there went my chance at a lifetime membership in the Urban Development Poobah Think Tank. Speck urged his audience to resist widening streets and highways that are congested. Why? Because traffic congestion is one of the few incentives people have to avoid driving.

Congestion, as an incentive? How many millions of dollars could be saved if Northwest Arkansas just looked at congestion as an incentive, not a problem?

Oh, I get his point. It's like letting a teenage boy's room pile up with all the food, dirty clothes and who knows what else in the hope he'll one day realize the cleanliness is next to godliness. Meanwhile, the rest of the family has to put up with the stench. No thanks.

Still, Speck knows it will take something major to dislodge Americans from their habits. And hopping in a car is most definitely that. I'm not sure embracing congestion is desirable public policy. Government is, or should be, about solutions, not manipulation by infrastructure.

But whatever solutions for motorists are developed should no longer focus solely on the needs of motorists if communities are going to evolve into something better, something more desirable, more livable.

Hopefully, agencies like the Arkansas Department of Transportation are picking up on such notions as well.

Commentary on 02/05/2018

Print Headline: Congestion as a good thing?

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