I visited Boston this past Memorial Day weekend with some friends. Boston is called “The Walking City.” As we drove through the downtown, that title’s accuracy was immediately apparent. People were out walking everywhere, not only in the historical districts but throughout the city in many different neighborhoods. The sidewalks were packed with foot traffic. Some locals told me that many Bostonians don’t have cars. In fact, the couple we stayed with didn’t own one.
Since McLuhan’s Understanding Media was fresh in my head, I filtered my Boston experience through the book’s perspective. (That’s when you know it’s a good book!) McLuhan argues that technology changes the proportions by which we live our lives. This argument helped me understand why Boston is indeed a walking city.
Boston is one of the oldest cities in the country. Harvard was established in 1636, which means that Boston was already a place on the map. In 1636, most people used one means of transportation: their feet. Indeed I was told that many of the roads in Boston were simply paved cattle paths. That’s why GPS is so unreliable there. There is no street grid.
The US pushed westward as transportation developed faster and faster transportation. Trains, cars, and airplanes all came into mass use as the US moved west. Thus, further west, you see cities and towns developing differently, with different proportions, from those in the east.
Chicago was a major water port and train center in its developing days. For this reason there are some 5 to 8 major rail lines fanning out from Union and Ogilvie Stations. This transportation changed the proportions we lived by. We need no longer travel by foot or horse, but by rail. Man could go farther in the same amount of time. Over time, these railways have allowed the Chicago suburbs to expand farther and farther west. People now live some 40 miles west or north of Chicago but take the commuter train in every morning. This was unthinkable for a city like Boston during its development. The proportions changed in the 200 years between Boston’s birth and Chicago’s.
Likewise the proportions have changed farther west in cities like Scottsdale, Arizona where the car is the primary means of transportation. That city’s layout and traffic patterns probably reflect the car’s primary usage. It’s known for its sprawling exurbs, catering to the proportions we live by with cars replacing our feet.
And now, with air travel, many states in the Midwest have been dubbed “flyover states” by those who travel between New York and LA. The patterns continue to change as our transportation technology changes.