Thursday, May 16, 2013

Give it back to people!

Reading the title you may think I am becoming a communist, but I can assure you that I am not calling for robbing the rich. However, there is one thing I would like to give back to people - the public space in downtowns.

In December 2012 I spent 2 weeks in Europe and I visited the city of Meissen (Germany). Walking through the downtown, I immediately noticed how walking and cycling-friendly that place was - something that reminded me some of the Italian cities (e.g. Siena) I visited during my trip to Tuscany in 2009. There is a simple explanation. Both Meissen and Siena are old cities with historical downtowns. These downtowns date back to Medieval times and were built with narrow street surrounding a central plaza (market square). And obviously, they were not designed with cars in mind.
Narrow street in an Italian town.

A street in Meissen.

American cities are much, much younger and lack historical downtowns. They were built in places where vast space was easily accessible and usually were developed along one main artery. All these conditions led to the current shape of American cities - they spread for miles and are full of cars. With all the space available, most people live in houses away from downtowns, yet many companies are located in city centers. This forces people to travel tens, even hundreds of miles a day to/from their work places. And obviously, that travel is done by car. Since if you don't have a car, you can't move around enormous suburbs of American cities efficiently, the downtowns are being designed with cars in mind as well. Public transportation is lacking and seemingly no alternatives exist.

Many today's cities face this problem, not only in United States. Cities erode. They lack human tissue, they evolve into cars' paradises. The main reason of congestion in downtowns is the effect of scale. Cars usually carry just a single person but requrie a substantial amount of space. As a result, public space gets converted into parkings, new lanes, ramps to highways, etc. People are pushed away and cities become unfriendly to pedestrians.
A well-known picture showing space needed by vehicles to transport 60 people. Amount of space cars require is astounding compared with a bus or bicycles.

But as long as cars are the focus point of transportation in cities, the situation will not change. Cars are simply too attractive to be abandoned. Here is why:
  1. They are an extension of our privacy ("I am in my own space in my car").
  2. They are a status symbol to many of us ("Do I look poorer if I don't drive my car?").
  3. City streets can be a dangerous place ("I feel safer inside my own car").
  4. Public transportation is inefficient and unreliable ("I move around faster by driving. Why should I take the subway?").
  5. Cities are too spread out ("I can't get there any other way than by driving"). I see this myself on daily basis.
  6. Public space is pedestrian-unfriendly ("I can't walk there. There is neither  foot bridge nor crosswalk!"). A common problem in many American cities as I mentioned before.
Clearly, if we want our cities to become more liveable, another approach is needed. Solutions exist:
  1. Public transport must be much more attractive: available, inexpensive (perhaps even free - as in Estonia), on time, reliable, efficient.
  2. Public space in cities must be attractive for both citizens and tourists: parks, pedestrian-only streets with cafes, galleries, stores and not difficult to cross multilane streets with only banks and offices.
  3. "Soft" transportation must be promoted: bicycling, walking.
If you read through this short list carefully, you will realize that this means two things: we have to "take away" the cars form people (Aha, that communist thing again!) and give them other transportation options. Closing the streets to car traffic is the first thing to do. Whenever I walk on Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay or the Hanover Street in North End, I wish they were pedestrian-only. Fortunately, things do move slowly in the right direction. Re-routing the I-93 highway underground brought the entire Boston's downtown closer to the waterfront and made it more accesible to cyclists and pedestrians, even though it is still dominated by cars. But closing the streets only is not enough. Current drivers need an alternative, otherwise they will have few reasons to abandon their cars. A well-planned public transportation system is a must and this is something that most American cities lack the most. I remember that when living in Berlin (the one in Germany) I'd never had a feeling of needing a car, even though I lived in the very center of the city but had to commute to work just outside of its border - about 26km or 16mi. This is a distance comparable with driving from downtown of Boston to Burlington, MA (one of Boston's suburbs). In Berlin, this was an easy task. Hop on the S-Bahn (fast commuter rail) then switch to bus for the last few kilometers or use your bicycle that you can take on the train with you. In Boston, it is far harder to accomplish with the same efficiency. Not only Boston's "T" (the subway) is slower, less frequent and less reliable than its German counterpart, but also it ends in Cambridge - many miles away from Burlington. You would have to either bike for many miles or rely on bus (again: slower and less frequent). But since a picture is worth thousand words let's take a look at tranportation maps (these don's include bus lines):
Berlin's transportation system map...

and the same for Boston.

Interestingly, both cities (when counting Boston as a metro area with surrounding suburbs) have a similar land area and population, yet Berlin's public transport system is clearly more developed. It doesn't mean that we should build an underground subway system in every American city. In fact, sometimes such a system may be a bad thing. That is - when it's poorly designed. First of all, it must not be running in the middle of nowhere (such as in Cleveland where subway runs around the downtown and not through it). It must be accessible (unlike at some station in New York where not only cyclists but even childrens' strollers can't get to the trains - I've tried this myself). It must not be planned underground without reorganizing the space above. Otherwise, the subway system does not serve pedestrians, but drivers. It forces people underground as a way to take them off the streets and leave more space for cars (extra lanes, parking spaces). As a result, traffic congestion is not reduced and no space for people gets created. Streetcars and buses on their own designated lanes can be a good alternative as they force public space to be restructured with people in mind.

All this is called a balanced development. We need this balance in our cities. Right now the scale is tipped on the car's end.

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