« Return to this article

Know the West

You say you want a railvolution...


In 1981, when I got my first car — a used Toyota Corolla — I took a trip out West. For a prisoner of the sprawling suburbs of St. Louis, Mo., nothing could have been sweeter than to put that sea of homes in the rearview mirror, and fill the windshield with glorious views of the wide-open Western plains and mountains.

I could have taken a train or a bus, but my car represented freedom. What if I wanted to take a back highway through the small farm towns of western Iowa, or bump down a dirt road high up in a Colorado national forest?

And so, in my trusty purple Toyota, I explored as much of the West as I could, and became an ardent fan of the open road.

Fast-forward six years. I am sitting in a train, hurtling through a tube underneath the San Francisco Bay, heading to my first real job as a cub reporter for the Bay City News Service. It’s pretty crowded, but not uncomfortable. In fact, as I read the newspaper and casually eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, I can’t help feeling a little bit smug. Above me, thousands of cars, and their cursing inhabitants, are inching along the Bay Bridge. I’ll be at work before most of them get halfway across it.

I realized then that the automobile is not necessarily synonymous with freedom and the good life. For the past six decades, however, this country has believed that it is. And so, instead of growing up, our cities have grown out — spreading out over the landscape in monocultures of single-family homes interspersed with shopping malls. This car-dependent pattern has inevitably created problems, including traffic jams and air pollution, not to mention the need for lots of public dollars to keep expanding and maintaining the network of roads.

But fortunately, there’s a silver lining: As writer Allen Best notes in this issue’s cover story, things have gotten so bad that the leaders of some Western towns and cities have begun to embrace new ideas. Actually, those ideas are old ones whose time has come again. The notion that people should be able to live close to where they work and shop was widely taken for granted in the pre-car era — even here in the West. Now that concept has been reborn, in places like Denver and Salt Lake City, where a growing network of light-rail lines is spawning an urban renaissance.

Making the West’s towns and cities more compact and attractive is critical if we want to prevent the rest of our private lands from being devoured, and keep our precious public lands from being sold off to the highest bidders. According to the Brookings Institution, to accommodate the tens of millions of people who will add to the West’s population by 2030, we will have to construct almost seven times as many homes, factories and stores as existed here in 2000. If our only option is car-based suburbia, then the West we love will disappear under concrete and asphalt and cookie-cutter houses.

That’s why all of us — even the most ardent automobile lovers — have a stake in the grand experiment now under way in Denver.