Are we there yet?

Roads May Get Us There, but Streets Are the Platforms for Building Wealth

I may not be a transportation expert, but I know what a road is. Or at least I thought I did.

As a supporter of Strong Towns and an “activator” in Activate Selma NC, sparking change in Selma, North Carolina, I eagerly read an advanced copy of Charles Marohn’s second book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town. In it, he explains the basics: a road is a path to get you from place to place, while a street is a platform for building wealth. Then he invites the reader to rethink everything you thought you knew about the paths that connect us – from widening roads to commuter rail.

For local example, if the NC Department of Transportation spends about $5 million to widen a road of less than a mile, is that a good thing? What if it carves off two dozen land parcels and the front yard of a peaceful homeowner? What if the result is now a visual speedway that pedestrians and bicyclists fear to cross? (Watch Marohn’s popular animated “Conversation with an Engineer” on YouTube)

What if high-level decision-makers are pushing the Cadillac of commuter rail to our cornfields when all we need right now is an expanded bus and van service that can take local low-income residents with no cars where they need to go to shop, bank and buy groceries? Can we still work toward a streamlined commuter rail service when we need it five or ten years from now?

Like in his first book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, Marohn reiterates a four-step process before investing in any kind of solution to a town’s challenges, including transportation:

  1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.
  2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?
  3. Do that thing. Do it now.
  4. Repeat.

Both of Marohn’s books convince me that I’m on the right track in focusing on sparking change at the street level to strengthen Selma’s platform for wealth. In the past, county residents have looked down on Selma because there is a high level of poverty this side of the railroad tracks. Marohn offers hope:

“Having a wealthy city does not mean having a city of wealthy people. In fact, the highest wealth-producing places in the United States today are often where some of the poorest people live.” – Charles Marohn

As activators, here are some things we apply a Strong Towns approach to:

I’m hoping to share more of Marohn’s ideas for Strong Towns from both of his books with others in Activate Selma, like advocating for denser development to bulk up our neighborhoods and downtown residents. His example is that four $100K houses with 25-foot frontage each are better than one $300K home with 100 feet frontage.

It may seem controversial but it sounds like common sense to me: Marohn even recommends that local police get rid of traffic stops as a law enforcement tool. We had a second generation immigrant come to one of our meetings and explain that while she loves Selma because she grew up here, she felt compelled to move away as an adult because she kept getting pulled over in her own neighborhood and she felt unsafe. Marohn gives examples of the same illogic in his Minnesota hometown. One of the things I saw in Manassas, Virginia, where I lived for three decades, was a less authoritarian and more community policing approach. City police officers rode bicycles in the downtown area, so they could interact with people more.

One of Marohn’s ideas, though not new, seems radical to me – taking down the stoplights in town to make the intersections a “shared space environment” where people, bicycles and cars are all moving slower, waiting on each other and moving when it’s their turn. I stood at the corner of Anderson and Raiford and tried to imagine that. What I experienced were noisy truckers barreling through and people running to cross the street even with green signals in their favor. Would they both really be more attentive, communal … and safe without the signals?

When the print copy of Marohn’s book that I ordered finally arrives, I’m going to highlight it, sticky note it, dog-ear it, and keep it on the back seat of my car so I can have it for our weekly Activate Selma meetings, or take it to the podium with me when I speak at citizen’s time before town council. That makes more sense than handing a shiny, jacketed copy to the town manager.

We may not be “there” yet in Selma – Marohn says that “private to public investment ratio should be 20:1 at a minimum; 40:1 is more stable. But again, I take hope from his words:

“The highest wealth-producing places in the US today are often where some of the poorest people live,” he says. “Not only are small investments in poor neighborhoods the lowest-risk, highest-returning way for a community to build wealth, but they are also the best way to lift a neighborhood out of decline without displacing the people who live there.”

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, by Charles L. Marohn, Jr. is available at https://www.confessions.engineer/ – check out his book tour there as well.

Cindy Brookshire is the author of two books, A Heart for Selma: 12 Stories of Activate Selma NC and Little Towns, a collection of short stories and poems about little towns.

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