The Chainlink

Officials in several countries are getting the message: Cities are about people, not cars.

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

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Well said.

Hi Bob!   I normally enjoy your posts.  But what a pipe dream you're pushing in this post.  Denver is several years into a very expensive program to expand transit, and reduce car traffic...and so far, car traffic has actually INCREASED!  And the new transit is running empty most of the time.

The NYTimes article you linked, is just as ridiculous.  Read some of the comments.  Here's one about a European's view of Chicago; gotta admit she has a point:

...I moved to the US from Europe and it’s amazing how people here just don’t see it. Chicagoans think the lakefront is beautiful, whilst all I see is an ugly, stinky highway (US41) which only leaves a tiny sliver of beachfront and a carcinogenic and noisy trail for runners and bicyclists with exhaust fumes from the cars and trucks right next to it. Walking through the city takes ages as every block there’s a traffic light. Sidewalks are too small, yet there’s parallel parking everywhere of which the profits go 100% to a private company and removal incurs penalties. There’s engine noise and smelly air everywhere. If you’d think it would be an issue in the mayoral race, you’d be wrong. Nobody cares.

I totally agree with the observations in the comment you quoted (at least for parts of the city and lakefront) as it relates to the current state of affairs, but disagree with what I think your slant is. Right now, we live in a place largely designed around and ruled by the auto, but why should we succumb to this status quo? Perhaps you disagree that it would be better for everyone if we had less cars, and more efficient public transit and more cyclists. Regardless, I do not think describing what the current state of the city is in rebuttal to others' suggestions for change is very logical.

Miles of standstill traffic on LSD, comprised of cars mostly occupied by one person, spewing fine particulates and noise into what might be an otherwise beautiful park grinds my gears every morning I ride by it. I am therefore going to support the people, plans, etc. taking action to remedy that situation. I would tell that European-to-Chicago transplant that it is not true that "nobody" cares. Clearly there are at least a few of us on this site that do and there needs to be more. Editorials in major newspapers providing such a perspective and backing it up with research can't hurt.

I love the sentiment.  But the issue is not just bad people driving too much.

In many European cities, and increasingly in the US, the city centers, which are walkable and bikeable, or at least moving in that direction, are expensive places to live.  Less affluent people, who are needed to work in the city, usually must commute from a distant suburb.  Often driving is the only way.  Making driving even slower than it already is, or more expensive, can be regressive.  If you are affluent and fortunate enough to live in central Paris, you don't need a car, and you may not care about the cost and hassle of driving to work there from a less affluent suburb.  OTOH, if you are not so wealthy and fortunate, you may be a Yellow Vest.

In order to be successful, the movement to improve quality of life by keeping cars out of cities needs to take into account economic equity.

Thanks for sharing this Bob! I'm noticing more and more people speaking out or writing about this disconnect. And especially in NYC, where critics have argued that congestion pricing, for example, is a regressive tax on the poor... Despite the fact that most poor people in NYC do not own cars!

I'd love to see our cities and towns built denser and more walk-able. Here's my "pipe dream": if all the cities and towns instituted road diets and prioritized walk-able neighborhoods, then none would be left behind and there'd be no pressure to push low-income residents out.

Well Filka, it is not a pipe dream; it is reality Sweden!  The Swedish 'cradle-to-grave' social security system has been building well-designed public housing in such configurations for many years...and each dense new town or settlement is surrounded by completely natural wooded landscapes, with lighted bike and ski trails leading off into the wilderness.  Each town contains shops, restaurants, theaters, schools, etc...all within walking distance of surrounding mid-rise apartment buildings.  And always served by modern transit, so getting into the nearby major city for work, pleasure or culture is fast and convenient.

As a result, there are many Swedes that don't own cars.  And those that do, don't drive as much as Americans, what with Swedish gasoline costing $9/gallon or more!  Other European countries have similar, but not as advanced geographic and social systems as Sweden.  So no wonder most Europeans chuckle and express disbelief when they read that American pedestrians are 'striking back!'  By European standards, we have a long way to go.

Interesting that when people rant and rail about the evils of "socialism" they very rarely bother to mention Sweden and Scandinavia in general...

Interesting that when people rant and rail about the good of "socialism" they very rarely bother to mention the high cost of taxes necessary to pay for all these entitlement programs.  

If you pay enough attention, you notice that they do (and it's not a rant when you're talking about a good!) We pay these costs one way or another - the difference is in paying them as an explicit tax or as an implicit tax. 

Hi Bob.  I meant to mention that the reason gas costs over $9/gallon is TAXES.   Car drivers are paying for Swedish socialistic lifestyles...through the nose!!

If the Illinois would only impose HALF those taxes on gas sold here, the state would be able to eliminate its unfunded pension liabiliies, and return Illinois' credit rating to AAA.  And David P's excellent point about explicit/implicit taxes would resolve nicely.

I wonder if Jerry Brown would consider a term in Springfield, now that he's jacked up California's gas taxes as Governor, put the state deeply in the black, and then retired?  Ten years ago, when he took office, California's financial picture was even worse than Illinois.

i'd gladly pay those taxes if i never had to worry about paying for healthcare again, to name one example.

Beware of the label "entitlement." it's only been put out there by sly pols to stir up resentments.


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