The typical reaction to such measures, reliably amplified by the press, is to attack them as draconian impositions of the citizens’ right to travel when and how they want, a putative “war on the automobile.” But only one in five families in Bogotá owned a car. What hostilities were the automobile—its traffic, its noise, its propensity to kill and harm residents—itself committing? Peñalosa’s actions could more accurately be framed as a more just reallocation of public space. It is striking that even in places where car owners constitute a minority of households, like Manhattan, very minor readjustments in street design (typically restoring some balance based on the streets’ actual users) seem to combustively spawn such vitriol. The media, interviewing “experts” like the taxi driver stuck in traffic (who cannot see far beyond his own windshield), typically take a narrow view. But what would one expect of outlets whose typical coverage of transportation has been limited to flying helicopters over crowded highways?
Defining “happiness,” as Montgomery admits, is a thorny proposition. If people really are happier living in small towns (as some studies, open to questions of selection bias, among other issues, quoted by Montgomery suggest), why do so many of us —judging by real-estate values—want to live in New York City? In one of the book’s most fascinating sections, Montgomery considers the idea of trust an essential component to happiness. Social scientists like Robert Sampson, using psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous “lost letter” experiment (what are the chances that a stamped, addressed envelope dropped somewhere will be mailed by a stranger?), have found that letters in cities like Chicago are more likely to be returned in neighborhoods where various indices of social—and not merely economic—capital are highest. The question Montgomery confronts is: “Can we build—or rebuild—city spaces in ways that enable more trust among both familiars and strangers?”
Some of it is simple maintenance: In studies in which subjects looked at pictures contrasting a neighborhood of broken pavement and unkempt lawns versus one featuring good sidewalks and cared-for lawns, and then played experimental games involving the exchange of money, people were more trusting with fellow players who were said to live in the neighborhood with good sidewalks. Simple attention to design matters as well. The Danish architect Jan Gehl, studying behavior on a pedestrianized street in Copenhagen, noticed that benches that faced the street, with all its bustling human traffic, got 10 times more use than those that faced away, a sort of testament in furniture to our urge to connect.
In a visit to Disneyland with the neuroeconomist Paul Zak, Montgomery notes that when he dropped his wallet on purpose (echoing Milgram), he got it back instantly, every time. Yes, he notes, “people go there to be happy,” but the environment too was powerfully at work: people walking down human-scaled and legible streets, with a lot of things and other people to see (ensuring novelty and security), evoking a curious kind of déjà vu.
But how did we get to the point where Disney’s Main Street seems so nostalgic? How did we get to those far-flung, commute-intensive California exurbs that Montgomery visits, where neighbors do not know each other and real-estate companies spraypaint green the lawns of foreclosed homes to entice buyers? He notes that “sprawl fulfills Americans’ preferences for privacy, mobility, and detachment,” but he argues that this did not happen “naturally”; rather, “it was designed” by decades of government policies and zoning decisions—no apartments above shops, parking lots around every shop, not even sidewalks allowed—that virtually guarantee sprawl. But did that design not merely reflect the larger public preference, or did it represent antidemocratic hijacking by a select few?
The definitive answer is not here. But perhaps the real answer lies, again, as much in our psychology as it does in economics or land-use policy. “Although it is true that most of us say we would prefer a walkable community to one that forces us to drive long distances,” Montgomery notes, “most of us also want to live in a detached home with plenty of privacy and space.” In the same way that online algorithms take our initial preferences for things like news sources, and then, via the so-called “filter bubble,” soon exclude any other information in a self-reinforcing feedback loop, perhaps zoning was just an attempt to meet this conflicted vision of how people want to live; over time, those ambiguous living preferences just got further exaggerated, to the point where it was hard to find a way back. Montgomery quotes an architect working on an effort to bring back, through design, the small town of Smyrna, GA. “The style was an attempt to tie Smyrna into a past that people wish they had.”