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?