Mayor Dave’s green neighborhood

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Rick Berg writes a very good article about a trip to Freiburg, Germany in this week’s Isthmus. A self-described conservative, Berg attempts to describe “the Vauban,” a district of Freiburg that has come to symbolize everything that American environmentalists yearn for. This of course is made in light of Mayor Dave’s open admiration for Freiburg’s system, including his proposal to put in place “car-light neighborhoods” in Madison.

Berg, despite many-an-underhanded snipe at lefties, gets the analysis right when he describes the Vauban as unlikely in Madison’s near future. The problem is not simply the cultural attachment to cars in this country and state, it is the utter lack of viable alternatives for so many residents. Like most mid-sized cities, Madison has a system of public transportation, however, it is not even close to extensive enough to be a convenient option for thousands of working people. The buses don’t run frequently enough, and the routes don’t cover enough ground for commuters in the area.

Because public transportation is so limited in the area, a green neighborhood in Madison would have to target one of two major constituencies – students at UW or professionals who work in the city. Northeast Madison, which the mayor cited as the prime location for the development, is far away from campus, so we can assume that the latter group is the more likely target.

If the plan mimicked the Vauban, it would attempt to reduce car use by making it exorbitantly expensive to park cars in the neighborhood. All the development in the area would be green, from solar panels to “passive solar heating.” Residents can save money, however, by selling excess electricity back to the utility company, which I suppose makes up a little bit of the cost of paying $23,000 for a parking spot.

A Vauban on a small-scale might be possible in Madison. A neighborhood for mainly young professionals who don’t have cars is easy enough to envision. Several streets of apartment buildings or houses that don’t allow cars. I can see it. However, something a long the lines of the Vauban, which attracts middle-class families, is absolutely out of reach at this point in time. It will only come after serious investment in public transportation is made at the state and local level. Commuting, taking your kids to karate, shopping – these are things that unfortunately require cars for the vast majority of American families. 88% of Americans rate cars as a necessity.

Hence, it makes sense that the mayor would champion a trolley system. It’s the first step to sustainable living. I’m certainly not convinced the plan would have been the most cost-effective or the most sane approach to public transportation – I would be perfectly content expanding the bus system. However, it represented a meaningful vision for a day when mid-size cities can welcome people without cars in the same manner than New York City does.

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