Monday, April 16, 2012

The Potential for Human-Scaled Cities

On another errand, having crossed
two "speedways" to get there
The city I live in is a pretty good example of a situation many Americans face today: remnants of earlier livability rendered islands by moats of mechanized tyranny. Let me explain what I mean.

Many neighborhoods in our town were built prior to the complete dominance of automobiles. That meant that streets were essentially there to serve residences (of various descriptions), offices, churches, parks, shops, etc., rather than to provide high-speed throughways for cars. Over time, though, the auto-as-victor approach to thinking about towns and cities meant much beefier sorts of streets—looking like mini-freeways at times—were punched through the heart of towns and neighborhoods in order to “move traffic” through. Just about every street needed to present its speed-conscious credentials. These mock-major streets increasingly functioned as a sort of moat, making foot and cycle traffic seem much less desirable. The message that remained was simple: drive.

And drive we do. For distances that make no real sense when viewed from the safety of a map, we drive to places that should be easy walks or bikes. When experienced at the street level, though, it makes sense. The visual, auditory, and experiential cues all encourage one to choose the quiet, comfort, and safety of a car rather than the inconvenience and obvious second-class-citizen condition of a non-driver for these short hops. This, in turn, feeds many forms of social, physical, and (I would say) spiritual illness in our nation.

Cycling in our town can be quite pleasant in some neighborhoods—those still functioning on the human scale. But navigating the downtown core, for instance, is pretty tricky. It is instantly evident that, in spite of some sharrows, the downtown streets are mostly speedways designed for a false sense of efficiency (I drive these streets as well, and they are often quite clogged, in spite of the Indy 500 one-way grid treatment). I have learned a few tricks here and there, and developed some cunning ways to avoid the worst, but the message is still clear: drive.

Now, in our part of the world driving is often a far more enjoyable thing to do during the long rainy months (though I am quite surprised just how many enjoyable, dry days as a cyclist one actually can get here in the winter), but neighborhoods and downtowns designed with cycling and pedestrian concerns in mind are much more than “multi-modal” transportation tools: they are about reversing the many ill effects of that mechanical tyranny I spoke of earlier.

When I visit towns or cities that have put multi-modal transport in the mix, I note how much more human, enjoyable, attractive, and just plain interesting they are. I note that people form more of a personal relationship with their town, their neighborhood. When the emphasis moves from “just driving through it to get where you want” to “caring about it because it is part of your life,” everything changes. The pace, the level of attractiveness, the commitment to maintaining it—it all starts to matter. There are already pieces of this picture in our town, but what is missing, it seems to me, is "the bigger picture" of a basic commitment to putting the scale back to the person, not the car.

Cycling is not the solution to all of life’s ills. Some bike blogs get a little carried away with this. But, cycling is part of a much larger cultural renaissance, wherein people begin to matter more than machines and the anonymous culture of indifference that produces those machines. This is something I find hopeful, and one more reason to keep riding, noticing, and helping move the conversation towards a livability both old and new.

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