I’m not saying that citibike is necessarily the thing. But, it’s something…
I’m no urban planning expert, and there may well be logistical, economic, or sociological aspects I’m failing to consider, but on the surface, some elements of this recent Guardian piece sound awfully compelling, as it argues that reorganizing our cities around people, not cars, could produce much “happier” urban spaces.
Like most cities, Bogotá had been left deeply wounded by the 20th century’s dual urban legacy: first, the city had been gradually reoriented around cars. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatised. This reorganisation was both unfair – only one in five families even owned a car – and cruel: urban residents had been denied the opportunity to enjoy the city’s simplest daily pleasures: walking on convivial streets, sitting around in public. And playing: children had largely disappeared from Bogotá’s streets, not because of the fear of gunfire or abduction, but because the streets had been rendered dangerous by sheer speed. Peñalosa’s first and most defining act as mayor was to declare war: not on crime or drugs or poverty, but on cars.
In the third year of his term, Peñalosa challenged Bogotáns to participate in an experiment. As of dawn on 24 February 2000, cars were banned from streets for the day. It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned. People told pollsters that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.
The most dynamic economies of the 20th century produced the most miserable cities of all, … I’m talking about the US Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, cities totally dominated by cars.
– from “The secrets of the world’s happiest cities,” by Charles Montgomery. The Guardian, Nov 1 2013.
The article then goes on to talk about the sociological, psychological, and physiological effects of driving, and especially of commuting. “For a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love,” Montgomery writes, adding that while driving one’s own vehicle rather than being reliant on an unreliable public transport system creates a very real sense of power and freedom, this positive feeling is utterly neutralized by the urban driving experience. “We all know old mobility,” he quotes an economist saying all the way back in 1969. “It’s you sitting in your car, stuck in traffic. It’s you driving around for hours, searching for a parking spot.” Certainly doesn’t sound like freedom and power and happiness to me. And, I love that he identifies this as “old.” One of the recurring themes in my study of Modern Japan has been the understanding that many of our ideas about what is “modern” are actually decades old. “Modern architecture,” centered around stark, minimalist, functionalism, around steel-reinforced concrete with a minimum of ornamentation, is old. And so, too, is the ideal of “a car in every garage” which birthed the national highway system, the road trip, and the modern commute as we know it. Think about it. What world, what era, are those ideas from? What images do they conjure? Those are ideas of the 1950s-60s. And it’s time we put them, and our obsession with the automobile, behind us, and moved forward, towards a happier, more enjoyable way of life.
“City” by Zhang Kangiun, seen at Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF), 2008.
I certainly don’t presume to have all the answers – or even some of the most basic, first-step, answers – as to how to move forward. But, I know from my experiences living in New York, Honolulu, Kyoto, and now in Goleta CA that a community organized around highways, strip malls, and office parks is not a happy place to live. Sure, you can just hop in your car and drive to Downtown Santa Barbara, but, personally, I’d rather ride my bike through the streets of Kyoto, walk the streets of Manhattan, or take the subway/train across Tokyo or London, rather than deal with sitting in traffic, paying for gas, looking for a parking space… I know full well that all of this is quite complicated, and there are counterarguments. There are reasons that people like cars, and there are reasons that people like suburbs, where they can have their own beautiful house, a whole house, far away from the bothers of the city (or, indeed, away from anyone else at all, your own little bubble world), and I appreciate that. But… as Montgomery’s article concludes, “By spending resources and designing cities in a way that values everyone’s experience, we can make cities that help us all get stronger, more resilient, more connected, more active and more free. We just have to decide who our cities are for.” Are our cities going to be organized around people? Or around cars? Around having friendly streets to walk along, filled with quaint shops and cafés, which together form a community to which we belong? Or around unfriendly streets, flanked by dead zones, to drive through, to drive past, on our way somewhere else?
“Pause: Reconnect” by Honolulu-based artist Sarah Adams. Is this what we like our everyday world to look like, to feel like?
When I first got to Honolulu, well, I cannot say that I properly remember exactly what I thought, or how I felt, but I very quickly grew to hate cars, strongly and profoundly. My 15 minute walk to school involved crossing several multi-lane avenues, and passing over a freeway. The walk signals took forever, as the lights cycled through the reds and greens and turn signals and no-turn signals for each lane of traffic, with safe times for pedestrians to cross added in seemingly only as an afterthought. And this was in the middle of the city. I tried riding a bike to & from school once, but it was frankly terrifying, having to navigate being amidst such heavy traffic, and I never did so again. Over the course of the three years I lived there, I knew, or knew of, numerous people who were hit by cars, buses, or trucks, nearly every one of them a hit-and-run. Some were lucky they weren’t killed. Some were not so lucky.
And then I came to Santa Barbara. There are a lot more bike lanes here, and so far as I am aware, I have not yet heard of anyone getting in any serious car accidents. Thank god. But, beyond the few square blocks of walkable streets of Isla Vista, packed with cafés and restaurants catering to the undergrad crowd, there is positively nothing around here but strip malls, office parks, large empty spaces of scrubby brown grasses (I actually saw a pair of condors once, it’s so dry and desolate around here), the freeway, and the airport. Is this what most of the rest of the country is like? Is this what it means to live in America?
I’ve never been to the Netherlands, or Scandinavia; I’ve never seen for myself what it’s like there, and I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of advocating explicitly that we need to look specifically towards a European model. But, we can make our cities, and our quality of life within them, better. We just have to believe that it’s possible, and we have to want it.