People Should Just Give Up on North America

“People should just give up on North America. You should not have to spend your life groveling for basic things like safe streets. Your advocacy and energy would go much farther in a better city, too. This is not doomerism, it’s just reality.”

That’s a recent tweet from the X/formerly Twitter account known as ‘Not Just Bikes.’ If you’re unfamiliar, Not Just Bikes is the name of a popular YouTube channel that produces videos related to urban planning with an emphasis on comparing Amsterdam and other Northern European cities to that of North America. As you may have gathered from the Tweet, the videos generally lavish praise on the pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in Europe and disparage North America’s sprawled, auto-dependent cities.

Not Just Bikes subsequently deleted the tweet after receiving some backlash. But if you’ve ever watched any of his videos, the sentiment in the tweet shouldn’t come as a surprise. His channel’s sole focus, apparently, is to make those who want more pedestrian-oriented and livable cities in North America as miserable as possible by pervasively pointing out how much better Amsterdam is than any North American city. His videos rarely, if ever, inform us about positive changes.

The above tweet was brought to my attention by The Nth Review’s YouTube video titled “Urban Planning YouTube has a Huge Problem.” The premise of the video is that many urbanist YouTube creators spend enormous amounts of time telling us about problems and very little time providing real world explanations of how average people can constructively impact their community’s development and design.

 It’s an excellent point. If you aren’t informing people about actively participating, which could simply mean voting or contacting your representatives, then is it meaningful content or just rage bait? Sure, awareness of planning and design issues is important. But not much will change if people are left depressed because influencers either don’t include any actions a viewer could take or fixate on critiquing and complaining while offering few glimpses of progress.   

While other YouTube and content creators in the urban planning sphere are less blunt about their feelings towards North American cities, the focus on negativity is just as abundant. For many years urbanist Twitter has seemed like a race to see who can critique and complain the most. Anyone who has watched any of the popular content related to urban planning in American cities has probably, more often than not, walked away feeling discouraged and angry. A large focus point of these channels relates to historically bad policy decisions and new policies that just aren’t perfect enough.

Take for instance, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act signed by President Biden in 2022. This bill was the largest investment in overall infrastructure in decades and the largest investment in passenger rail infrastructure since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago. It includes, among many other projects, funding to help finish high speed rail in California and Florida, upgrades to the Northeast Corridor, money to study high speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte, and money to reestablish passenger rail between Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Savannah. Will this immediately put the U.S. on par with peer countries such as Germany, France, and Japan? No. But it’s a transformational investment and far more than certain other presidential administrations would devote to passenger rail.

 You would think that content creators who constantly complain about the passenger rail infrastructure in the U.S. would spend significant amounts of time discussing the passage of the very thing they’ve been saying we need. Of all the YouTube channels I regularly watch, I can count only one that devoted an entire episode to this achievement. Those who do mention the newly funded projects often spend most of their time explaining why the design or project isn’t perfect. Granted, I don’t consume every video from every urban planning YouTube creator, but the lack of and type of coverage is pretty glaring.

Not Just Bikes and other urban planning content creators are hardly the only ideological entities in this negativity space. There appears to be a thriving society of media made up of traditional television and content creators peddling despair and criticism. This is nothing new, of course, but it seems to have exploded in recent years. Television news has been in on this forever. As the adage goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Below are charts of the national violent crime rate and property crime rate since 1960, which include 2023 data (source: Jeff-alytics). As one can see, both have precipitously decreased since the early 1990’s.

You would think that the American public would generally view crime as getting better. But you would be wrong. As the chart below shows, except for the latter part of the 1990’s, large majorities of Americans have indicated that crime is worse than it was the year before (source: Gallup). What accounts for this?

There’s clearly some partisanship going on here, but it could very well be that the media loves to tell us about crime. As the Washington Post explained in a recent article, the largest owner of local television stations in the country (which is owned by a devout conservative) blatantly focuses a disproportionate amount of time to crime in cities. Here’s another article showing that Fox News devotes far more coverage of crime than competing networks even as crime is falling. How many people know that during the recent Covid-era uptick in crime, which has now largely subsided, crime rose equally in cities and in rural areas? Probably very few. It’s hard to gain context when ideological entities spend a disproportionate amount of time not just on crime in general, but crime in particular places. All of this could account for why Americans consistently think crime is worsening when it isn’t and believe crime is worse in other parts of the country than in their own communities.

This isn’t to say that networks shouldn’t cover crime and creators shouldn’t offer criticism of urban planning in American communities. They absolutely should. But, if these entities are serious and sincere about covering a topic then they need to provide more context, which means informing us when positive changes have occurred. Otherwise, we should be left thinking that the entire point of the medium, whether it be local news or a YouTube channel, is not to inform us or help solve problems, but simply to make us angry and scared (i.e., generate clicks). This is particularly true of many, but not all, partisan entities that have extreme biases. Sadley, we know that there’s big money in making people angry and sad – just ask Facebook. So we know this isn’t going away anytime soon. But if we really want to solve societal problems, we should demand better and more accurate coverage.

While American cities have a long way to go in rehabilitating communities to focus more on people instead of cars, it helps to recognize the positive changes we’ve accomplished. For instance, hundreds of counties and cities across the country have scrapped or pared down zoning laws that prohibit anything more than single family houses and have reduced or eliminated minimum parking requirements. There are countless other transit and urban in-fill projects around the country. The aforementioned infrastructure law that devotes billions to passenger rail also devotes money to tearing down urban freeways that not only were explicitly constructed to segregate communities, but that funnel tons of pollution to surrounding neighborhoods. Here in Atlanta, the city has updated policies to protect trees, expand bike lanes, reduce minimum parking requirements, and ban right turns on red in certain areas. Years ago, MARTA enacted policy to replace parking lots with multifamily housing. Last I checked, these are all good policies.

But are they absolutely perfect policies that will result in America turning into Amsterdam overnight, as Not Just Bikes demands? Of course not. But Amsterdam is far from the only measure of success and I’m sure Amsterdam has a long list of its own problems. When commentators demand absolute perfection with every action and ignore or obsess over critiquing every imperfect policy, it breeds apathy and anger, which are two emotions that make problem-solving a challenge. Highlighting positive changes not only accurately represents reality but helps keep society motivated towards maintaining and improving upon success. I don’t expect television news to change much, but I hope content creators will devote more time in emphasizing progress and less time demanding perfection. If the bar is always perfection, then people will be perpetually angry and depressed, which isn’t good for any of us.

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