How to Make a Walkable Town Car-Mandatory

My partner G’s parents live in Sharon, MA. It’s a wonderful little town halfway between Boston and Providence that is thoroughly pleasant and surprisingly diverse ethnically if not socioeconomically, and which Money recently named the best place to live in the entire country. Though the township now encompasses large swaths of typical suburban sprawl, the layout of the village’s core dates to the colonial era, when Sharon was also home to probably the town’s most famous inhabitant of all time, Deborah Sampson. It’s a relatively neat grid that works pretty well for the town’s many Sabbath-observant Jewish residents:

Sharon is also home to a station, accessible by foot from most of the town’s core, on the MBTA’s Providence Line, running along the Northeast Corridor. So at first glance, Sharon would seem to have all the ingredients necessary for one to live a minimum-car lifestyle despite its suburban location. And yet, life in Sharon is essentially car-mandatory, even for those living in the core’s largest multifamily development, the newish (and partly affordable-mandated) Wilber School Apartments. Simply put, Sharon lacks commercial activity to walk to, and secondary public transit to move people around town. Measuring from village’s central intersection of Main, Billings, and Depot, the closest supermarkets are 2.1 miles away at Cobb Corner in Canton and 3.1 miles away near Exit 8 on I-95. The only places to buy food in the village center that I know of are a CVS and a gas-station minimarket  (there are a few restaurants as well, though oddly none that cater to the town’s large kosher-keeping population). There is no bus up and down Main Street (the closest bus stop is at Cobb Corner, and that’s for a few-times-a-day commuter bus to Mattapan), and I certainly wouldn’t want to try biking on that STROAD even if I knew how to ride a bike.

So yeah, Sharon has a nice “small town” feel, and it’s a great place to live if you need to be able to walk to synagogue, but you can’t really live a low-car lifestyle there. You still need a car to get any groceries aside from the odd roll of toilet paper. You more or less need one car per family member who has even a part-time job (with the possible exception of people holding jobs in downtown Boston); G’s little sister who’s in high school couldn’t easily get to, say, a job bagging groceries at one of the local supermarkets without one. It is far easier to commute by public transit into downtown Boston than it is to move around the village itself. The affordable housing provided in the Wilber School apartments might be a nice option for someone with a job in downtown Boston, since they can walk to and from the train and still live in a pleasant suburb, but they’re still going to need a car in order to get the necessities of life.

Sharon’s not about to become a dense town center with large multifamily developments–but there are a few relatively easy matters of public policy which would make using a car less more feasible for, say, the elderly or a young family who wants to join the Jewish community there but is struggling with the town’s expensive housing. Having some kind of a food market downtown would make it possible to not have to hop in a car every time you wanted a loaf of bread–perhaps the town should consider subsidizing such an operation. Providing even skeletal bus service on Main Street–say a half-hourly or even hourly bus between Stoughton and Foxborough–would make it possible for teenagers to have a part-time job without plowing all of the earnings back into a car. These things aren’t cheap, but they are relatively easy and uncomplicated–and they might help make the area remain competitive in the 21st century.

Sharon, as G is fond of saying when I complain about suburbs, isn’t a typical suburb; it’s pretty and walkable and feels like a town. Good planning, though, makes it possible to make the most out of walkability, and Sharon just hasn’t done that. A town that’s walkable for pleasure and because of religious restrictions isn’t the same as a community in which one can actually walk to most of life’s necessities. Pushing commercial activity out to the periphery made Sharon into the former; it may never become fully the latter, but there are small improvements that can be made to move in that direction.  It’s actually an interesting test case–as young people are more drawn to urban neighborhoods, will the Jewish community in Sharon  (which has always drawn a higher-than-usual proportion of young couples and families to the suburbs) benefit because of its walkability–or suffer because living there is still car-mandatory?

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7 thoughts on “How to Make a Walkable Town Car-Mandatory

  1. How would the economics of bus service change if it were a little mini-bus?
    And what about encouraging a culture of hitchhiking or ride-sharing. How difficult would it be to pick up some people at a designated, easy access “private-car” stop and drop them off at Cobbs Corner? What if they paved a little circular driveway in front of the library for that purpose?

    • Good questions! The economics of running a mini-bus instead of a full-size one wouldn’t actually change that much. The vast majority of transit costs are in labor–that is to say, the difference in gas costs is minuscule compared to the costs of hiring a driver. Any suburban service is most likely to be run with a smaller bus, but that only saves a little money around the edges, rather than making it so cheap that it’s more doable.

      Ridesharing (the 21st century incarnation of hitchhiking, I guess) is really taking off in many urban areas, but it’s harder in the suburbs for a few reasons. First, there’s less density of people, so it’s harder to find anyone going where you are. Second, I think there’s a little bit of paranoia in many suburban communities about hitchhiking or ridesharing. That’s not to say the culture won’t change, and I think it would be great to encourage it, but I think takes time to move away from a cultural paradigm where the perception is that anyone who’s not driving in the suburbs must be strange or abnormal in some way, and therefore to be feared.

  2. All well and good theory. Now: what tools are available to bridge the gap between a planner’s design and the reality of the private business market? Public transportation is in some ways a best-case scenario for this question, because it is most a question of making the decision to provide services (and fund them, but with the hardware most likely already available) at some local, regional, or state level. Stores are much tougher to control, with perhaps some economic incentives available in the toolkit. If there was an already economic advantage to locating a food store centrally, wouldn’t it have already been built?

    • For sure, I’m dealing with a best-case scenario. The major thing that Sharon could do if it wanted to listen to me would be to, say, subsidize the rent for a small market in the village center. It’s not a classical government role, but it could work. It’s much more likely, though, that you could give non-car access to groceries by having bus service. For my money, Sharon could stand a little more commercial development downtown–there’s very little commercial activity in town at all, which means that property taxes are very high. There are some nice parking lots available that could be recycled into mixed-use apartment buildings with ground floor retail–seems like a win for everyone except the NIMBYs. But that’s a more radical transformation than is likely to happen in this kind of a town.

  3. Good food for thought. Allow me to add my 4 cents…
    1) Sharon is more socioeconomically diverse than you think.
    2) In the 13 years I’ve lived here, I have seen more people start biking around town, but obviously that only works in the non-winter months.
    3) I would think Sharon would be a great location for Zipcar. Why hasn’t someone thought of that?
    4) The voters in this town have for many years voted against almost any attempt to “spoil” this bedroom community by adding any retail or commercial entities. Sigh…..

    • To respond to your first comment–I’m wondering what you mean by “more socioeconomically diverse than you think.” For sure, poverty in the suburbs is increasing and the unique challenges of struggling economically in car mandatory suburbs like Sharon should be recognized and discussed and dealt with in terms of public policy. But I looked at some statistics–4% of Sharon High School (5% of Sharon Middle School) students receive free or reduced fee school lunch. In contrast, 17% of Stoughton High Students do, and 21% of Norwood High. (I found the stats from propublica: http://tinyurl.com/SharonHighFreeLunch.) School lunch isn’t a perfect measure, because it completely ignores older adults who may be struggling, and it also may over-count because Sharon has a METCO program that may contribute. And I wouldn’t want to minimize or ignore the important experiences of that 4%, but 4% is an awfully small number. Just wondering–what’s your vision of diversity, and where do you see Sharon’s diversity (esp socioeconomic diversity)?

  4. Pingback: Co-Housing, Millenials, Retirees, and the Importance of Flexible Housing | Itinerant Urbanist

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