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Monday, January 03, 2005

Walking, Biking, and Driving: Part 1

I have 128,827 miles on my car as of today. It’s been about a week since I drove last which means I haven’t driven this year. I plan to document every trip I take in my car this year, every one. That isn’t likely to be a lot of trips. I once drove an entire year without exceeding the miles necessary to go over the recommended mileage for a single oil change. I’m sure that over the course of a year a lot of people use their jet skis more than I use my car. I find driving tedious and stressful.

For the most part I see our roads as rivers of death and destruction that pedestrians must cross at their peril. Even the sidewalks of our cities are cluttered with the requirements of the automobile. Parking notices, traffic signs, and parking meters crowd the already crowded walkways. Bike paths are few or nonexistent. We have one bike path in down town Seattle on 2nd Avenue which is a one way going south. To get back up north you’re on your own.

Since the advent of the automobile our cities have been built to cater to the needs of that particular inanimate object. All you ever here about is traffic flow. People flow, that’s something that is rarely discussed. We just left the century of the automobile and if we learned one thing it should be that we need another solution to personal transportation.

In 2003, the last year for which statistics were available, 38,252 Americans died in automobile related accidents and 1,925,000 people were injured. That’s like a September 11th tragedy every month of the year yet we rarely hear a public outcry against the tens of thousands of deaths caused by automobiles. We seem to think that 38,252 deaths is simply part of the transportation model we have created and that is that.

Not only do I not drive very often, when I do drive it is not in a very intense driving environment. I either drive around town where speeds rarely go above 40 mph or I drive on uncongested highways. When I do find myself driving on a crowded freeway all I can do is wonder about how people are able to do it every day. On some stretches of highway drivers are probably in graver peril than our soldiers in Iraq.

Although I must admit that I have a morbid fear of dying in an automobile accident, my main concern is the advantages of a pedestrian lifestyle. Cars take us out of contact with other humans. The other day I was in my car waiting for a family to vacate a parking spot near my apartment. The husband and wife seemed self-conscious of how slowly they were strapping down their two kids in the car seats before they could allow me my spot. I wanted to assure them that I was in no hurry, but trapped inside my steel box all I could do was smile and nod my head like an idiot.

Drivers don’t have many options for interacting with anyone else outside of their vehicle. Their communication with others is limited to honking the horn or giving someone the finger. On foot or on my bike I have the freedom to talk to other pedestrians. I can compliment the ugly pug the old woman in my neighborhood takes for a walk every evening. I can give directions to a lost tourist. In my neighborhood I often find myself explaining the intricacies of the parking situation to visitors to the Seattle Center.

There are alternatives to the way we now build cities. I came across a Dutch concept the other day that I would like to introduce to anyone who hasn’t heard of it. Woonerf translates as “living street” and refers to an urban design in which cars and pedestrians cohabit the same streets. There are no traffic signs or posted speed limits, drivers simply understand that they must share the road with pedestrians, and even children playing in the streets. Drivers voluntarily lower their speeds to around 15 kph.

These are in strictly residential areas but I have also written about the Parisian “quartiers tranquilles” which are entire neighborhoods that have excluded all but essential automobile traffic. These tranquil zones are now bustling shopping districts that have become major attractions for local residents, other Parisians, and tourists like me.

In the coming year I will think a lot more about personal transportation and how this relates to lifestyle. Most Americans don’t think much about transportation beyond what kind of car they will buy. For most Americans the automobile is their sole source of transportation. I think it’s time we all start, at the very least, to think of alternatives.


How about walking? Talk about a cheap solution. There are about a million ways to encourage people to walk more. Something as simple as a crosswalk may sound like a stupid thing to write about, unless you live in an urban environment and a crosswalk serves to calm drivers and reassure pedestrians. At an intersection in my neighborhood planters filled with flowers choke the traffic lanes slightly, make the crosswalk more visible over parked cars, as well as make the street look more like a place where pedestrians are welcomed—not a bad return on a couple hundred dollar investment.

Only on the internet can you get from here, to here, to this article in Wired.

How to Build a Better Intersection:
Chaos = Cooperation

1. Remove signs: The architecture of the road - not signs and signals - dictates traffic flow.
2. Install art: The height of the fountain indicates how congested the intersection is.
3. Share the spotlight: Lights illuminate not only the roadbed, but also the pedestrian areas.
4. Do it in the road: Cafés extend to the edge of the street, further emphasizing the idea of shared space.
5. See eye to eye: Right-of-way is negotiated by human interaction, rather than commonly ignored signs.
6. Eliminate curbs: Instead of a raised curb, sidewalks are denoted by texture and color.

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