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Opinion/Commentary: How we move shapes the city

Opinion/Commentary: How we move shapes the city

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One in an occasional series on how we move, develop and build a more sustainable and equitable city

Cities — by virtue of their diversity, compactness, and capacity to innovate — will play a critical role in solving the chronic problems revealed by the pandemic.

We will not arrest climate change or address inequality, however, until we transform our transportation system.

Unsustainable transportation practices have contributed to global warming and negative health outcomes.

Before the automobile dominated our landscape, residential densities in towns and cities ranged between 17 to 34 dwelling units per acre, in multi-story buildings on small parcels with shallow setbacks. These densities could support multiple activities accessible by foot within compact cities and towns.

Gross densities today are one-tenth these historical norms due to the development of low-density, single-use, single-story buildings on large lots with deep setbacks in far-flung subdivisions. These densities were enabled by the long distances traversable by cars and by national street standards that made uninterrupted car movement a priority in planning. Sprawling development has since encroached upon natural environments, destroyed habitats (which correlates with increased zoonotic infections like coronavirus), and consumed the forests that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

The transportation sector is now a prime contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global warming and instigate extreme weather events.

Human fatalities due to car crashes also have increased, as more Americans now drive to work than they did 60 years ago on fast, wide streets with low frequencies of intersections; such streets have been found to be more dangerous than the walkable, tight-knit block networks of historic cities.

Deaths from heart disease and diabetes are also on the rise, because increased driving means less physical activity. When walking diminishes the likelihood of dying from heart disease for people with diabetes and when Black Virginians die of diabetes at twice the rate of whites, then the lack of safe, public walking routes becomes an equity issue.

Ironically, the rise in telecommuting since the pandemic decreased not only tail pipe emissions but also traffic congestion, which has perversely increased traffic fatalities by 8% — attributable to motorists, though fewer in number, engaging in more reckless driving behaviors on roads built for speed rather than to the presence of more pedestrians and cyclists.

Today’s streets must literally be re-engineered to be less dangerous — narrower travel lanes, more visual constraints like street trees and buildings close to sidewalks, and more intersections with well-marked crosswalks, as can still be found within the walkable, small-block networks of historic cities.

Autos vs. equity

Inequitable transportation practices have reinforced geographic segregation by class and race, disproportionately killed people of color, imposed the cost of car-ownership on lower-income service workers and neglected investments in more affordable modes of travel such as walking, bus riding or cycling.

Beginning in the 1950s, car mobility was privileged by a federal urban renewal program that destroyed Black urban neighborhoods to make way for large, wide, fast roads to accommodate white suburban commuters. The historic Black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville, for instance, once had nine walkable blocks lined with Black-owned homes and businesses. Cleared in 1965, this area is now dominated by two superblocks filled with parking lots and corporate chains. Adjacent streets like Preston Avenue were widened to facilitate the “smooth operation at fairly high speeds” for suburban commuters, while West Main Street was severed from its eastern half by a widened Ridge/McIntire Road, resulting in one of the most hazardous intersections in the city.

Whereas East Main Street became a commercially successful pedestrian mall, West Main Street’s 19th-century storefronts were replaced by a commercial strip dominated by auto merchants and mechanics. Over time, its narrow sidewalks became cluttered with utility equipment, heaving surface roots and driveways, rendering walking hazardous for the physically impaired.

Pedestrian-oriented improvements recommended for Preston Avenue and West Main Street in 2000, however, were never implemented ahead of the zoning changes in 2003 that spurred higher-density private development. By 2016, both streets ranked among the city’s most dangerous corridors.

They are also flanked by two lower-income census tracts with high percentages of Black residents, which reflects a disturbing national correlation among race, geography and public investment. Between 2010-2019, nationwide 82% more Black pedestrians were killed in car crashes than whites, and pedestrian fatality rates in the lowest-income neighborhoods were nearly three times higher than in the wealthiest. Unlike their white counterparts, Black and brown neighborhoods often lack continuous sidewalks, marked crosswalks and streets designed for slow car traffic. They also lack street trees, making these neighborhoods hotter in summer with lower air quality year-round — conditions that aggravate respiratory ailments like asthma, which causes three times as many deaths among Black people than white.

When combined with poverty, racism, poor health care and food insecurity, these social determinants of health (defined as the “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, play, and worship that affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes,”) help explain why life expectancies can be as much as five to 20 years shorter in predominantly Black neighborhoods compared to white.

The few city neighborhoods that escaped urban renewal and managed to retain their pedestrian-oriented street networks and architectural character, however, saw their land values increase beginning in the 1980s, as the demand for walkable, authentic, urban places rose among America’s wealthier, often white professional classes, spurring revitalization efforts in cities nationwide.

The inherent injustice built into the way market forces distribute private investment and often drive those disturbing national correlations among race, geography and public investment is summed up by Spike Lee’s simple question: “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?”

Unchecked gentrification pushed lower-income residents into lower-cost sections of the city in overcrowded conditions (making them more susceptible to coronavirus) and toward outlying suburbs with cheaper land costs as they pursued more affordable housing. Those who left incurred the high cost of car ownership. Those who stayed became dependent on a public transit system, now subject to service cuts caused by the rise in telecommuting in the wake of the pandemic.

These dynamics have contributed to recent spikes in poverty and food insecurity and help explain disparities in coronavirus mortality rates among demographic groups.

Capital investments in inclusive infrastructure (that includes transit) and committed affordable housing units (as a check against gentrification) are not mutually exclusive, because both make for a more sustainable and equitable city.

Anti-displacement measures should also include zoning reform that safeguards a city’s unique sense of place while expanding affordable housing opportunities citywide and providing programs that relieve the tax burdens of low-income homeowners, provide rental and child-care assistance, and grow wealth within the Black community to redress the injustice of urban renewal.

By the same token, neighborhoods hallmarked by the physical and social conditions that promote health and longevity should no longer remain the sole domain of privileged, predominately white people with means, and affordable housing should no longer be sited within environmentally compromised areas absent the infrastructure needed to promote human health, because land is cheap.

Instead, affordable housing must be created in partnership with the communities it serves within the context of healthy neighborhoods that generate prosperity and well-being for all residents. Otherwise, if affordable housing is reduced to matters of density and relieving housing market pressures, then we will consign children born into poverty today to living in unhealthy places tomorrow, devoid of fresh food, public parks, and tree-lined streets safe for walking, bus riding and cycling.

A time of change

Today, all levels of government appear ready to transform our transportation system, while addressing climate change and inequality. Virginia has expanded funding for rail and transit and made capital investments in local multi-modal initiatives like Charlottesville’s West Main Street Project. Virginia localities must now plan for transit-oriented development like Charlottesville’s Hydraulic Road small-area plan along U.S. 29, which seeks to repurpose an aging retail center surrounded by parking lots into a neighborhood with walkable, interconnected streets lined with local businesses, public gathering spaces, and a range of affordable housing.

Proposed national “complete streets” legislation (like Charlottesville’s Streets that Work Policy) seeks to hasten the adoption of multi-modal street standards nationwide, while the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Michael Regan, has made transportation “important to our greenhouse gas goals.”

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan already includes funding for transit and school modernization, but his next major bill will focus on rebuilding our failing infrastructure while addressing climate change and growing local jobs.

If local projects need to be “shovel ready” to receive these federal funds, then Charlottesville’s West Main Street Project is ready. As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, repeated calls to rebuild our infrastructure “will no longer be a kind of Groundhog’s Day promise” but actually deliver “generational investments.” That promise however, depends upon local elected officials seizing these opportunities to turn plans into action and tangibly transform the way we move and shape our cities for generations to come. Otherwise, it will Groundhog’s Day again, even in progressive cities like Charlottesville.

Kathleen M. Galvin is a Charlottesville-area architect and former member of City Council.

Documentation and information links:

“Pedestrian and Transit-Friendly Design: A Primer for Smart Growth by Reid Ewing of the Smart Growth Network,” for the American Planning Association, page 2

“Sweden says goodbye to parking spaces, hello to meeting places,” by Sean Fleming Feb. 18,  Hyperlocal planning is creating pedestrian-friendly streets/World Economic Forum (

“Carbon Positive: Density, COVID and the Future of Cities,” Edward Mazria, FAIA, Architect Magazine September 2020

Centers for Disease Control website:

“The rise of “zoonotic” diseases: Why are animals more likely than ever to make us ill?” by Zayani Bhatt for the NewStatesman, June 1, 2016;

 “Warming Trend is Directly Related to Human Emissions of GHG” by Laura Tenebaum for Forbes, March 5, 2020;

Scientific American: “Is There a Strong Link between Extreme Weather Events and Climate Change?

“Car crash deaths since 2000 eclipse toll of World Wars” by Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, July 22, 2019

“The Effect of Street Network Design on Walking and Biking,” by Garrick and Marshall, 2010

Goldstein Study of Longmont, Colorado, Painter and Swift, 2009

Harvard School of Public Health, Obesity Prevention, State of Obesity Report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Vigor, by UVA Health, Spring 2021, page 34, from Harvard Health Publishing:

 “Traffic congestion vanished and more people died on the roads,” by Chris McCahill for State Smart Transportation Initiative, March 16

“Traffic congestion vanished and more people died on the roads,” State Smart Transportation Initiative, UW-Madison (

“Vinegar Hill: A Brief Urban History” by the University of Virginia, School of Architecture, under the direction of professor Ken Schwartz, History of Vinegar Hill ( 

“Torti Gallas Corridor Study 2000, pages 82-88 and 76-81

Urban Street Design Guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO; see Key Principles page 4)

Streets that Work Policy (Chapters 1 and 5)

Charlottesville’s revised Standards and Design Manual

MAPPS2Health Report 2019, “Improving Health Equity: A Community Plan for Action and Accountability 2019-2022; 1.1

“Understanding Health Equity: Health And The Social Determinants Of Health,” page 3, and “Strategies to promote” 4.2

“Priority: Promote Healthy Eating And Active Living,” pages 38-42;

MAPPS2Health Report 2016, page 166;

 “Torti Gallas Corridor Study,” 2000 pages 82-88 and 76-81

“Dangerous by Design” 2021 Report, by Smart Growth America and National Complete Streets Coalition:

“Housing Needs Assessment Socioeconomic and Housing Market Analysis for the City of Charlottesville, VA” by PES and FBCI, April 4, 2018, pages 26-40

HeatActionPlan_EdisonEastlake_highRes.pdf (

“Planting Trees Can Combat Effects of Urban Heat Island, Climate Change,” NPR and The American Lung Association on “Weather and your Lungs,” by editorial staff, February 16, 2016:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health website, “Asthma and African Americans”

CDC website, “People with Certain Medical Conditions,” updated March 15:

 “How our communities are planned, designed and built can have a major influence on our health,”  Robert Woods Johnson Foundation on the Built Environment and Health:

CDC website on “COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,” updated Dec. 10, 2020: “Disparities in COVID-19 Deaths” (

VCU Center on Society and Health:

“Short Distance to Large Gaps in Health map of Richmond, VA, VCU Center on Society and Health “Mapping Life Expectancy” project:

“The Pandemic Disproved Urban Progressives’ Theory About Gentrification: The ‘gentrification-industrial complex’ isn’t who anti-growth progressives think it is,” Jan. 2, by Jacob Anbinder; “The Anti-growth Alliance That Fueled Urban Gentrification,” The Atlantic

“Five myths about gentrification” by Lance Freeman, Washington Post, June 3, 2016:

AAA's annual Your Driving Costs study, 2019:

 “A Post-Pandemic Reality Check for Transit Boosters” by Laura Bliss for CityLab, May 6, 2020:

 “Children’s food insecurity increasing during COVID-19 pandemic,” Joseph Allen, Sara Bleich, Jessica Cohen, Benjamin Sommers of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, for USA Today, Oct. 28, 2020:

“Feeding America,” 2017

CDC website on “COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities” updated Dec. 10, 2020:

 Charlottesville Draft Affordable Housing Strategy of 2021, pages 77-81, Charlottesville Affordable Housing Plan

“Restrictive zoning is impeding DC’s goal to build more housing,” Jenny Schuetz, Brookings Institute Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, “Future of the Middle Class Initiative,” Oct. 8, 2019:

“Q&A with housing consultant Anita Morrison (Partners for Economic Solutions) on form-based code, gentrification and displacement,” by Emily Hays, Oct. 15, 2019:

“The Ingredients of Equitable Development Planning,” by Alexander von Hoffman, Joint Center for Housing Studies with Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School, 2019

 “Virginia General Assembly approves higher gas tax, speed cameras and cellphone ban,”  by Luz Lazo, March 8, 2020:

Sean Tubbs Reporting, Feb. 9: “Regional body says goodbye to incoming City Manager Boyles; Council briefed on $160 million five-year capital program - Charlottesville Community Engagement,”

CIP Budget Work Session on Nov. 20, 2020, PowerPoint Presentation (

West Main Street Improvement Plan website:

“Governor Northam Signs 16 Bills into Law: Newly-approved measures include pro-transit planning,” press release from Gov. Northam’s office, Feb. 25, 2020:

Hydraulic Land Use and Transportation Small Area Plan:

“More Than 15,500 Stores Are Closing In 2020 So Far — A Number That Will Surely Rise,” by Walter Loeb for Forbes, July 6, 2020:

“Senator Markey And Congressman Cohen To Reintroduce Legislation To Improve Safety, Accessibility For All Users Of The Road,” March 10:,just%20cars%20and%20freight%20vehicles.&text=The%20Complete%20Streets%20Act%20would,fund%20%E2%80%9Ccomplete%20streets%E2%80%9D%20projects

 “Science is back, says EPA’s new head,” by Grady Dennis and Dino Grandoni for The Washington Post, March 16:

 “$1.9T COVID-19 relief package includes billions for capital projects,” by Kim Slowey for ConstructionDive, March 11:


 “Biden team readies wider economic package after virus relief,” Kevin Freking, Hope Yen and Josh Boak, Associated Press, Feb. 28:

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