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Sunday, May 03, 2009

City Life

"First life, then spaces, then buildings—the other way around never works." – Urban Architect Jan Gehl

“How best to build our cities?” This is quite possibly the most important question a society can ask yet few communities even bother to raise the issue. From what I have seen of many cities, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of city planning at all. Cities are simply pushed along by commerce with local governments too feeble or completely unwilling to demand that growth be managed in a sensible way. The prevailing philosophy seems to be that what is good for the strip mall is good for the residents.

Copenhagen reduces by 3% its parking spaces and streets every year. Amsterdam has had a similar program over the past ten years which has drastically reduced automobile traffic in its historic canal district. As Mr. Gehl points out in the video, reducing roads simply gives citizens the incentive to travel by means other than the personal automobile. More often than not, the roads we are building aren’t vital to development; they simply provide what is known as induced traffic. If you build the roads the cars will come. If you provide safe places to ride bikes more people will choose this means of transportation which is infinitely healthier and more sustainable than the automobile.

A full third of the residents of Copenhagen effect their inter-city transportation by bicycle. Valencia is way behind Copenhagen with only 1.6% of people here electing to use bikes to travel around town. Most people in Valencia feel that it is dangerous to ride a bike here. There is quite a good network of bike trails around Valencia and to outlying areas. The problem, as I see it, is that pedestrians and cyclists are not respected in the urban model. The automobile in Valencia is little more than a terrorist weapon with drivers bullying pedestrians and cyclists at every intersection and on every thoroughfare. Valencia has vastly improved its bike path network in just the few years that I have lived here. Just today there was quite a traffic jam along the bike path which leads to the beaches south of town. More people are discovering this trail that is just a little over two years old.

Valencia is working towards their future in many ways. There is a new metro line being built that will go from the city center, pass through my neighborhood of Ruzafa, and then service the port area at Nazareth. Even with what I think is a pretty solid public transportation system, only 12.3% of Valencianos use it. These statistics are for the entire community of Valencia so I’m sure that city rates are much higher than this 12.3% but still probably nowhere near the numbers that Madrid boasts in this department.

Why should cities fund public transportation and bicycle paths? A lot of American conservatives would argue that we should let the free market decide. The glorious “free market” that we hear so much about. If public transportation and bike paths are so vital then the private sector would provide this service on a for profit basis. Of course, this is a childish argument because government subsidizes the auto industry to an astonishing degree at the expense of just about every other alternative. The same goes for the airlines. Parking is also heavily subsidized by local governments and most suburban businesses provide parking to accommodate traffic models for the peak days of the year with the lots going fallow for the rest of the time. Road construction projects require staggering amounts of capital outlay. If an American city were to spend 1/1000 of what they spend on roads to develop a bike path system, it would put Copenhagen to shame.

Why are cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen so far ahead on the issues of mass transit and bikes? I was talking to someone here in Valencia about why people here don’t use public transportation or ride bicycles. I said that it was from lack of education. Immediately after I said it (in Spanish) I realized that I didn’t mean lack of education (which can be interpreted as being rude in Spanish). What I meant to say is that Valencia lacks the public relations apparatus to sell the idea of bikes to their citizens. I think that what Valencia needs is a way to portray bike riding as somehow glamorous. As is the case in much of the United States, the perception of public transportation is that it is for people who can’t afford their own car. Could there be a bigger sin in America than not owning a car? We often say that you are what you drive.

At a time when we should be extremely concerned not only about energy use but the regimes that we are financing by our heavy dependence on foreign crude, America’s oil use increased 17% between 1990 and 2000. That increase only serves to illustrate how little concern we have for our future. Besides stemming the tide of militant Islamists funded by our petro dollars, planning for the future can also be something as basic as providing pedestrians a place to sit down, as Mr. Gehl mentions in the video. I think that it is like setting up an ambush: first you have to lure people out of their homes and cars, and then you can sell them on the bigger ideas of what it means to live in a vibrant city.

I think a big problem for many people is that they just don’t know what they are missing by living in a city with a lot of life. They are only familiar with their lives of relative isolation in which they go from their private home to their private car, without really taking their fellow citizens into account. If you haven’t already noticed, automobiles seem to bring out the absolute worst in just about everyone. I am always amazed at how aggressive drivers can be even in the confines of a parking lot. Many drivers act out in aggressive manners they wouldn’t dream of walking down the street. It’s like their car becomes their evil alter-ego. Walking, biking, and mass transit forces people to be a lot more civilized towards one another. It has a calming effect.