Opinion

The future is so much more housebound than we expected

Americans of the future were supposed to race around everywhere. What happened?

Futurists of a century ago were distinctly optimistic. They envisioned a 21st century of convenience, prosperity, and speed. Everything would get bigger and shinier and faster. Flying cars, jetpacks, weekend jaunts to the moon and back, and highways — highways everywhere! Highways in the air; highways under the sea; highways on roofs; roads layered like a lasagna, so you could have pedestrians on top of slow cars on top of fast cars on top of trains.

The details differed, but the trend is evidence of an assumption that people of the future would always be out and about. Why we'd need to race around our cities at such a frenetic pace is not clear — many predictions from the same era forecast an all-robot economy in which work is no longer necessary or at least greatly reduced — but racing we would be. Maybe it's just shopping? I don't know. Whatever the reason, omnipresent highways would let us do it in record time.

The actual future, the future in which we find ourselves today, went in a very different direction. There is still plenty of work to be done. The only "robot" I own has a single skill (vacuuming) and requires regular rescue from the slightly uneven part of my kitchen cabinets. The wild new means of transportation our great-grandparents imagined for us have not materialized. Instead, we have focused our inventive energies on finding ways to stay home. The future is so much more housebound than anyone expected.

This is not all bad. Among my Amazon subscriptions are toilet paper, toothpaste, guinea pig food, trash bags, and water filters. Having this stuff delivered saves time, and it also keeps me from wandering about Target, buying pretty things I absolutely don't need. The housebound economy is also incredibly useful for people who are literally housebound. "Disabled or chronically sick people who legitimately can't leave their couches now have more ways to get the groceries they need," writes Reason's Liz Wolfe. "People who are too old to drive no longer have to fear a loss of mobility when they lose their licenses."

Nor am I sad that the 20th century's highway fixation has significantly faded, for it did not serve us well. In retrospect, it's easy to understand why car culture took hold and why urban planners reshaped our cities to suit. But too many of the results were disastrous. Freeway construction ripped through American cities — see this remarkable set of images from the University of Oklahoma's school of architecture to get a sense of the damage — without regard for much of the communities they ostensibly served.

Homes and businesses, parks and churches were demolished to make way for the almighty auto. Families, especially black Americans and other groups with relatively less wealth and political power, were displaced and their livelihoods eliminated. (This was sometimes an explicit rationale: In 1938, for instance, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace told then-President Franklin Roosevelt that urban highways would serve a second purpose of "the elimination of unsightly and unsanitary districts," reports Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law.) New construction of roads and buildings alike abandoned the traditional human scale of millennia past, even at street level, creating downtowns that empty at dusk, functioning more like white-collar factories than living places.

These decisions have consequences that still affect how our communities function today. Though futurists' fantastical highway dreams mercifully were not realized, we've built too many cities that serve cars more than people. This is a "chronic design scale flaw, and it's no harmless flaw," explains city planner Felix Landry at Strong Towns. "It poses serious fairness issues, heavily burdening folks who can't afford a car."

In that regard, the swing away from a mobility-centric future is welcome. We should not build sky highways or sea highways or roof highways or layered highways. But implicit in the highways obsession was an expectation of social connectivity and meaningful community life. We would have places to go and, crucially, people to see. Highways were always a terribly ill-suited means to that end — they razed communities rather than strengthening them — but the goal itself was a good one. Our housebound future, by contrast, is part of an unanticipated contraction and isolation of our social lives.

"For the first two thirds of the 20th century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current," wrote Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone, a seminal work on the dissolution of American social life. "Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from each other and from our communities." The housebound economy is both a natural outcome and further facilitator of that trend.

Going back to the highway mania of a century ago is not the answer. And we don't have to stop getting stuff delivered. But as we engage in our own futurism, picturing the world of 2120, we should imagine technology serving people, not only as individual drivers or couch-sitters, but as communities. Neither speeding about on highways nor sitting home while all your basic needs arrive via FedEx are the best of human life. May the city of the future be built to reflect that truth.

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