Cars, Culture, Concrete, and Convenience
A Question and a Comment

Question,
by Richard Risemberg

In some forums, I have been accused of proposing changes in policy and infrastructure that would make driving inconevenient. I have generally answered that I was not trying to make driving less convenient, but bicycling more so. Still, the nature of the accusation, with its implication that driving convenience is the primary design element in modern urban planning--and it quite evidently is--rankled. The pebble I want to toss at this hornet's nest is this: Why NOT make driving inconvenient?

After all, we have just spent the last seventy years wrenching our entire civic infrastructure into a radically different form solely to make driving convenient, and look what it's done to our society and the earth itself. As the railroad robber-barons of the last century knew, control of transport is control of power, and the auto-dependency of our culture has more effects than just pollution, congestion, and social alienation. The desperation of our government to extract every last possible drop of oil from the earth--for the "convenience" of drivers--has led them frantically to subsidize the petroleum extraction, refining, and distribution industries (which, despite decades of antitrust legislation, remain vertically integrated) at huge expense to both the public treasury and the public lands; these industries then use their wealth to influence government decisions on public policy and to support infrastructure designs that reinforce automobile dependency. Also, the real estate speculation crowd is dependent on auto-based designs to maintain its profit margins: you can't buy outlying properties cheap and sell them high if you can't get free roads and cheap gas to support the driving they require. If neighborhood-based cities are difficult to pull off, it's not because the public doesn't want them--the few designs that have been built usually sell out immediately, according to a spate of recent articles in the LA Times--but because zoning laws have been designed to encourage, and usually to require, designs that can only accommodate automobile transport. This, as much as such machinations as the infamous National City Lines scandal (which resulted in the dismantling of 1500 urban rail systems a few decades ago), helped bring about our current design dependency on personal automobile transport. And this, as much as television or any other factor, has brought about the decline of civility in public life, and often of any public life at all.

In effect, making driving convenient makes public life inconvenient, and often impossible. There are vast tracts of our American urban and suburban acreage--possibly comprising the majority of such spaces--where, aside from some scattered and inadequate parks, the ONLY public space that exists is in the streets, and the ONLY way in which anyone can participate in it is in a car, a mobile isolation cell. The bicycle is possible but not probable in most of America: city traffic scares too many people, and suburban distances discourage all but a minority within a minority of long-distance bike commuters. And as for walking, well, you can't even walk around the block comfortably: many suburbs don't have sidewalks. (Why spend money on something that doesn't support the convenience of driving?) All space except the streets is private; even areas where strangers do mingle are private--malls, shopping centers--with restrictions on freedom of speech as well as types of behavior enforced by guards who are in the pay of corporations, not public entities; and where the primary behavior to be encouraged is the parting of you from your money, and not normal social intercourse. In fact, many malls have enacted rules against "hanging out," which is an unprofitable activity--except to human souls. Though there are certainly other factors involved, this elimination of public space has been in part brought about by, and wholly facilitated by, our current dependence on driving. In other words, people interact with each other only as traffic--traffic on the roads, or commercial traffic in the malls--and never experience civic life at all! If you wonder why our cities are strewn with trash as if no one cares about them, if you wonder why, in suburbs that are sold on the concept of open space, no one goes outside, if you wonder why you don't know your neighbor's name, if you wonder why "there is no there there," it's because we have eliminated almost all public space everywhere except the streets--which are themselves withheld from all but drivers in their little cells.

It need not be so. Many recent experiments worldwide in making driving inconvenient or impossible for the sake of public space have proven not only popular but profitable--our best local example here in LA is the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, a pedestrian mall that is always busy and whose merchants are happily raking in the dough, even though the closest you can park to it is a whole block away. (But the bus stops right by it and there are numerous bike racks.) It has worked so well that the city is preparing to expand the auto- free zone. And numerous articles in the Business Section of the Times lately describe how traditional auto-centered enclosed malls are losing customers to reconstructed Main Streets such as Pasadena's Old Town, and a few have been what they call "demalled": opened up to the sidwalks with pedestrian entraces, turning their faces toward the neighborhoods again. Examples you can read about in The Bike People include the Groningen city center in Holland and the Promenade De La Commune in Montreal; additionally, Nick Dodd and David Rudlin's report from England, includes an analysis on the results of intentionally creating congestion for managing traffic. A half-hour with a decent search engine could probably find you more.

In a properly designed city, driving would be inconvenient (though not impossible); it would also be unnecessary for most chores and pleasures. In a radically designed city, you might not have auto traffic at all--aside from emergency and possibly delivery vehicles--in neighborhoods, though you might have car pools at the edges of car free zones, to be used when public transport, bicycles, or just plain walking were not practicable. (This would also be cheaper for the individual than maintaining a car every day for the occasional use a properly designed city would necessitate.) In the first case, people who were emotionally committed to driving (or physically disabled) could still drive at some inconvenience, but driving as a principle would not be supported at the expense of everything else.

We have spent the last seventy years making driving convenient and life inconvenient. Well, as I've said before, what has been built can be unbuilt, and something new put in its place. Baron Haussman did it to Paris in the last century, and the San Andreas Fault did it to San Francisco in this one; in each case what was put in place was a lovely, human-centered city that people travel to from less-fortunate places to enjoy. It is lucky for them (and for us as visitors) that they were rebuilt before the ascendancy of policies devoted to the convenience of drivers, or they might well look like Los Angeles or Phoenix. But why should they be the only lucky ones? If we begin, little by little, making driving less convenient, eventually we will get around to making human life more convenient--and we might at last put the civility back into civilization.

Richard Risemberg

 

Comment,
by Wade Eide

I wish that more of us North Americans had as keen a sensitivity to the importance of the public domain as Richard Risemberg does. The decline of the public domain, to the profit of the private, has become such a characteristic of the modern condition that few of our fellow citizens even appreciate the distinction between the two.

The reasons for this are complicated and varied. Certainly modernist planning dogma favouring the spatial separation of functions and the monofunctionalism of the street have been instrumental in the loss of civic life and civic space. The interests of those who benefit from the enormous consumerist economy--of which the automobile suburb is the keystone--have also had the effect of weakening public infrastructure, if not public institutions. Production in this economy depends on private consumption. Public expenditures on infrastructure, massive though they may be, have been predominately on things, such as freeways, that benefit suburban tract development.

However, while these issues have to do with cycling insofar as planning practices since the 1950's have tended to turn urban streets into mini-freeways, our wringing of hands over the evils of consumerism or of car culture will do little to advance the interests of cyclists. That is not to say that advocating a less wasteful, more ecological culture is not a worthy activity, nor that reducing our dependence on the automobile as a means of mass transit is not something that we should work towards. Obviously, cycling is the most ecological form of public transportation, but cycling on one hand, and the eco-economy on the other, must be treated as separate topics. Let's keep our eye on the ball. We are professionals and amateurs (in the original, noble sense of the word) who are interested in street and road design that is good for cyclists.

I find it both ironic and disturbing that many cyclists, certainly the anti-automobile activists disguised as bicycle advocates, fail to recognise that the sort of things they seem to favour--segregated bike paths or on-street bike lanes--tend more to benefit drivers than they do cyclists. It just so happens that the very architecture of the street that truly benefits cyclists--smooth surfaces, normal intersections, etc.--benefits drivers of automobiles as well. Streets with potholes or streets designed like freeways are no more interesting nor pleasant to drive on than they are to ride on.

As for inconveniencing drivers of motorised vehicles, I believe that it is not in our interests as cyclists ever to consider the deliberate inconveniencing of drivers as a design criterion. Attempts to do so will almost invariably backfire. (Some of the "bizarreries" of traffic calming come to mind.)

One of the other ironies in this debate is that the measures taken by the traffic engineers to increase fluidity of movement--such as cutting down shade trees and widening carriageways--have not succeeded in achieving the goal of easy automobile access to and from the city. Those redesigned streets are invariably filled to beyond capacity almost as soon as they are opened. They are not only visually less interesting and less comfortable for all who use them, but they increase the overall automobile congestion in the city.

It seems quite evident to me, based on what I see here in my own city and in all the other North American cities that I have lived in or visited, that using an automobile as a normal means of transit is already pretty inconvenient. While measures to increase fluidity have not made cycling any more pleasant, they have not really made driving easier either. No need to design inconvenience into the system; it's already there. The use of a car for the pleasures of the promenade is deeply anchored in North American popular culture (e.g., cruising down Main Street). That may be fun, but its use to get to and from work is generally not. On the other hand, the great secret that we as cyclists share is that the use of the bike is fun. Both for the promenade and to get to work.

Our role as architects, planners, and concerned citizens is in part to ensure that the street be convenient for use in the public transportation network by pedestrians and vehicles--bicycles included, of course. Nevertheless, we must also strive to ensure that cities allow and encourage the other equally important functions of the street: strolling, playing, window shopping, socializing, demonstrating, doing business, etc. These are functions that are vital to the public domain, which, in turn is vital to a democratic society.

Wade Eide