Travel to the Center – Then and Now

Listen to the Story

There was a time when cities were smaller places. People lived close to one another and the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and the established resident and the newcomer all saw much of each other each day.

And then, in the last century or so, at least in the industrialized world, all of that began to change. People began to move out from the central city and live at some distance from each other.

And why did people move out from the central city? In a few words, because they could.

For most of human history people lived in what have come to be called “walking cities.” In those cities, people walked to work, walked to church, and walked to market. Even the wealthiest and most powerful of people walked as well when they were in town.

But a little more than 100 years ago all of that began to change in Columbus and across America as electrified streetcars came to the fore. They were fast, and convenient. They were breezily cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And they were inexpensive – very inexpensive. A person could travel across town in less than thirty minutes for only a few cents. So people began to do just that.

“Streetcar suburbs” began to emerge on all sides of every American city. Most of them were two to three miles out from the central city and a traveler could reach his business or a downtown theatre, shop or restaurant in thirty minutes or so.

By the 1920′s, the automobile had begun to replace the streetcar as the most desirable sort of transportation. Now the thirty minute journey to work could be made from Clintonville, or Bexley, or the Hilltop or Marion Village.

After World War II, the national interstate highway system changed the way we lived once again. Now new subdivisions in former farm fields in Reynoldsburg, or Worthington or West Jefferson or Obetz were only thirty minutes away from the place one worked.

As all of this happened the hearts of America’s cities began to beat more and more slowly. We have tried all sorts of ways to save the city. We have torn down parts of the city with programs called “Urban Renewal” and saved whole neighborhoods with historic preservation. We have built suburban shopping malls in the downtown and whole “new communities” in cornfields in the suburbs.

But one thing that has not changed is what has come to be called the “thirty minute rule.” Some people will gladly – and sometimes not so gladly – drive one, two or three hours to get to work. Other people will move if they have to travel more than five minutes to get to their jobs. But many people, much of the time, prefer a thirty minute journey to work. This takes them far enough out to find relatively inexpensive peace and privacy and places them still within easy range of their work.

And why is thirty minutes the preferred time? Because anyone who has lived near a city knows that when the snow sweeps in or an accident blocks the highway, that thirty minutes will become three hours or even more.

Some people have argued that freeways and suburbs have hurt the central city – And in their own way they are quite right. Others argue that the central cities are dead and will never return. And in this they are quite wrong.

More than 2000 years ago people built a forty foot mound at Mound and High for the same reason people almost two hundred years ago began a capital city in the same place – because it was at the center of things.

And it still is.

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