Strong Towns

October 9, 2023

I recently finished reading “Strong Towns: A bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity” by Charles L. Marohn, Jr. It’s a book I found during my recent urbanism youtube video binge. It roughly started with Not Just Bikes and evolved into watching a lot of City Nerd.

Anyways, the book is roughly about how US cities these days are using debt financing to build out road-based infrastructure, which has a poor return on investment. The value of the space created by towns that design around car based infrastructure is low compared to a denser downtown that does not rely on the automobile. As the infrastructure ages, the towns are stuck in a situation where the tax revenue provided by an area isn’t enough to cover the renovation costs of all the road-based infrastructure. It is a sobering read how a lot of US cities might be in big trouble if we don’t reform the way we build cities. I enjoyed the book and it was a pretty quick read.

The sad part of it all is that urbanism and city design is such a political topic that it won’t be an easy change. People generally are change-adverse and it will be hard to convince people to give up their cars and parking spaces for ebikes, transit, and pedestrian-friendly cities. It’s not just changing people, but changing industry as well. Big automotive companies have built a business around selling a lot of cars, and attempts to move away from car-based transportation will be seen as attacks against them.

The second biggest monthly payment for most people after housing is car-related payments. Many people don’t really know how much they spend to own a car, because it’s not straightforward measure. There is deprecation, gas, insurance, parking, registration fees, and other costs that you have to measure and accumulate to get the full picture. Having affordable transportation is really important for a city’s health, but I think it only really succeeds when everyone when everyone is riding it. There is a famous quote that roughly goes like this: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

One of the big questions is: “Do you move to a city that has already figured everything out or do you spend half a lifetime trying to change the city where you live?” When it takes 25 years to build a bike path, I don’t know how optimistic I should be. There don’t seem to be many places that have it all figured out in the US, but on the other hand, it doesn’t seem very practical to uproot my family so I can get away from a car-based lifestyle. I guess in the mean time I can look into buying a cargo e-bike (aka Bakfiets) to replace my car.