Rib Mountain Drive is a booming strip of big-box retail stores, but it is an absolute and unabating nightmare for someone attempting to traverse it on foot or bicycle.
This is not exactly breaking news. Anyone who has been to Best Buy or Super Walmart — or, basically, to any one of a million suburban big-box corridors across the country — will have noticed that they are built for cars and only cars.
I made the huge mistake last week of trying to walk less than a quarter of a mile there, from the place where I was getting my car fixed to Starbucks. For reference, it’s about the distance between downtown Wausau’s The 400 Block and the YMCA.
I walked in the mud alongside the street, through a parking lot, through the tall grass down a steep hill. At no point did I encounter a decent stretch of sidewalk. No bikes or bike lanes. No public transportation (none comes to Rib Mountain). No other pedestrians.
Of course no one walks. It would be insane to try to walk.
Rib Mountain is far from alone in this type of design. Most people do have cars, and besides that, isn’t this basic layout — massive stores, massive parking lots, no realistic possibility of travel by anything except car — what consumers have proven they want?
Not really. Decisions made by municipalities — things such as zoning, permitting, incentives — have a huge impact on how business districts are shaped. But sure. Why argue? The successful developments along the Rib Mountain Drive corridor speak for themselves.
But what has worked for businesses in the past might not always work in the future. According to data from the federal Transportation Department, the total number of vehicle miles driven in the U.S., adjusted for population growth, peaked in June 2005 and has fallen by almost 9 percent since then. The recession fueled a big drop — but it’s not the whole story. Even as overall economic activity started to pick up last year, driving continued to decline.
Two main reasons for this: Americans ages 55 years old and older tend to drive less, so the aging of the baby boom generation is clearly having an impact. But the other thing having a big impact is that the younger generations are driving a whole lot less.
“Between 2001 and 2009, the average yearly number of miles driven by 16- to 34-year-olds dropped a staggering 23 percent,” said one write-up of the report.
If that pattern holds at all, then all those sprawly, automobile-centric big-box corridors will become an awful lot less successful as that generation (my generation, by the way) becomes the majority of shoppers.
Marathon County last week held a press conference to publicize 622 new signs that will help bicyclists navigate 105 miles of bike-friendly routes throughout the region. There are routes that run alongside Highway 51 for essentially the entire length of Rib Mountain. (See them at www.bicyclewausau.org.) They completely bypass Rib Mountain’s business district, though. There’s nowhere for bikers to ride there, and therefore no reason for them to stop and spend money there.
If I were someone whose job was to think about Rib Mountain’s long-term future, those maps, when coupled with the massive drop in the amount of time Americans spend in cars, would terrify me.
No doubt the many fine establishments of Rib Mountain Drive will continue to do brisk business for years to come. But the shift away from driving is real, if gradual. And it’s not a future that suburban shopping corridors are set up to handle.
Hey, here’s an idea: a streetcar. It could run from the bottom of the Snake Bridge down to South Mountain Drive. Park at Barnes & Noble and hop the streetcar down to Texas Roadhouse.
Or, wait, better idea. Stay with me: a monorail!
Too much? Then how about this crazy, revolutionary idea: a decent sidewalk. Somewhere. At least one.
Robert Mentzer is opinion editor for Daily Herald Media. Follow him on Twitter as @robertmentzer; contact him at email@example.com or 715-845-0604.