Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cars and People

Source: New York Times

By Greg

As you have probably heard by now, in New York City, part of Times Square is now pedestrian-only. According to the New York Times’s “Wheels” blog, the impact on traffic during the weekend and during rush hour has been just fine (“how would such a change in the heart of Manhattan affect weekday rush hour? / Not too much, actually.”) The Big Apple has defied the notion that pedestrian zones only work in Europe, and created a wonderful space for people in the heart of America’s largest city.

Meanwhile, the New York Times also recently profiled Vauban, the “car free” suburb of Freiburg, Germany. Seventy percent of the town’s families do not own cars, and cars are not allowed on most streets. I remember when I lived in the city of Regensburg, Germany, cars were practically not allowed anywhere in the old city. Vauban gets attention because it was designed deliberately as a car-free community, but plenty of European cities have significant car-free cores. I was recently in Galway, Ireland where there is a smaller, but still bustling car-free downtown area.

In the U.S., most Americans are still very attached to their cars. A dialogue hosted by the Times makes this point abundantly clear. This dialogue featured some major urbanist voices, such as Chris Leinberger and Witold Rybczynski. However, I was more interested in the readers’ comments. Some readers explained their success living car-free. Others explained how miserable it was trying to live carless. There are the typical car-loving commentators, for whom cars represent freedom. Then there are those who argue the utter impossibility of shopping, transporting a child or “a large sick dog” without use of a car.

I wrote previously about the notion of freedom of mobility. We rely on enormous government funding to build and maintain our road and highway network. We currently lack sufficient funding to keep it maintained. Studies show that oftentimes adding roadway capacity worsens congestion. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on our highways on a daily basis (or so my radio tells me), and a breakdown can entirely throw off one’s scheduled arrival. Not to mention the costs of owning a car, insurance, parking…

The fact is, a car only represents freedom for people who can afford its enormous costs, where there is an extensive and well maintained road network, and where there is no more than minor congestion. Otherwise, cars represent entrapment. It traps people who need a car to make every little errand, who sit for hours in traffic each day, who spend more money on transportation than dwelling, who are children, seniors, or the disabled and cannot drive.

Likewise, freedom without a car only occurs in places that are walkable, bikeable, and that have decent mass transit. The difference is that the latter scenario is much more cost effective, equitable, and healthy. As many people have written about, the American love of the car is cultural and nostalgic more than it is based in the contemporary reality of auto mobility and our nation’s fiscal ability to maintain our transportation systems.

In Germany my friends and neighbors walked to the grocery store, bought their fresh groceries, then walked home with them. In high school, when I did a summer exchange in Germany, I took the public bus forty minutes to school each day. It ran frequently. On the weekends there were special buses that took teenagers, like myself, to and from the nightclubs. I lived in a town of fewer than 8,000 people, but I had total freedom of mobility!

Much of this kind of thinking will require a cultural change. Nine out of ten Americans own a car, and people like myself who don’t own one may still feel like social outcasts in much of the U.S. However, I think we are at the beginning of a shift in cultural values. Foremost is President Obama’s commitment to high-speed rail. However, at the grassroots level I am seeing a shift, too. American cities are really trying to design spaces for the pedestrian, and value bikes and walkers on their streets. In the suburbs I am also seeing a shift to a more pedestrian-oriented mindset.

However, as we build more for the pedestrian, there is an important education component that has to go along with this shift. Last week in Philadelphia a father and son were badly injured by a car that hit them while they were in a well-marked, well-signed crosswalk in broad daylight. In cities like Philadelphia that have historically valued the automobile, drivers are less aware or respectful of the law.

So, in closing, for all of you Pennsylvanians out there, the law says that drivers must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, whether it is at an intersection or not. That means drivers must stop when they see a pedestrian crossing.

In any case, I do not want to end on that negative note. How about this: It’s a beautiful day, go out and take a walk or a nice bike ride!

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