Sunday, January 6, 2013

A case for walking

Urban planner Jeff Speck has written a new book called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy yet but here is a capsule review from the site Brain Pickings. Here is an interview with him from the blog DC.Streets.

Speck's views are nothing new, he is channelling the work of Jane Jacobs who wrote the groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in the early sixties. In Speck's words:
We’ve known for three decades how to make livable cities — after forgetting for four — yet we’ve somehow not been able to pull it off. Jane Jacobs, who wrote in 1960, won over the planners by 1980. But the planners have yet to win over the city.
Jacobs' startling idea was that cities as they had been built for millennia actually worked, and that two generations of "progressive" urban planning led to lifeless, boring cities. As Speck points out today, Jacobs' work turned out to be prophetic; fifty years after the publication of her book, people are finding old fashioned, big, congested, walkable cities very attractive places in which to live. In contrast, newer cities emphasizing open space and convenience built around the automobile are falling into disfavor. Yet we continue to build them.

Speck's argument is that while planners today do accept Jacobs' work, they continue to answer the demand to design cities to be the servant of the automobile rather than the other way around. The typical response in this country to complaints about bad traffic is to build more roads. And the inevitable result of more road construction is this: more people getting into their cars creating even more congestion. The solution to more congestion is, guess what, more roads.

Now take Chicago. Anyone who has lived here for a while, knows that driving in this city has progressively become more and more of a hassle in recent years. Congestion on the roads has gotten much worse not to mention that parking, especially in the Loop has become prohibitively expensive. When I drive I admit myself to cursing the bad condition of the roads, the seemingly endless construction delays, and the ridiculously expensive parking. Conventional wisdom might say this is a bad thing; the hassle factor keeps people away from the city. Adding traffic lanes to ease congestion and building more parking lots in the Loop would certainly reduce at least some of that hassle.

But not so fast. It is not necessary to drive in Chicago. This is one of the very few places to live in the United States where owning a car is not a prerequisite. True our public transportation system leaves much to be desired, but it is a functional system just the same that is light years ahead of those of most other cities in this country. What's more, there are transportation alternatives in Chicago that go beyond public transportation. Chicago remains a very walkable city and day by day strives to become more bike friendly.

Reducing the number of cars on the road seems to be the most reasonable solution to our traffic congestion problems. Other big cities around the world have recognized this and have proposed charging drivers a fee for the privilege of driving in their central business districts. Chicago seems to be doing it inadvertently. Bad planning and budget restraints have resulted in the crumbling infrastructure of our highways. Former mayor Richard M. Daley's sale of parking meter revenue to a private concern has come under a great deal of scrutiny, not the least of which is the fact that the company that now owns the right to charge us to park on the city's streets has continually raised their parking fees. "Unfair" cry the critics, including myself at times. But in reality, these cases of what seem to be bad policy, may in fact be working in our favor. If people insist on driving downtown, which they certainly continue to do, they must pay a price in both time and money. Those who don't care to pay that price, find a plethora of alternatives to get around town, including walking.

Building cities around the automobile creates an endless cycle of road construction, increased automobile usage, and congestion. Building cities around the pedestrian creates another cycle: as more people walk around the city, more amenities for them are created. The more amenities, the more vibrant and interesting the city becomes, which attracts more people. Speck's conclusion is that generalists such as mayors, who have a vision the direction the city should take are better to be in charge of urban planning rather than specialists like public works commissioners, who are more concerned with solving specific problems, such as traffic congestion.

Not surprisingly, Jeff Speck cites New York, San Francisco and Chicago as examples of vibrant, walkable cities in the U.S. that have a bright future. Whether by design or just dumb luck, we end up ahead in the long run by making driving less attractive.

In case you're interested, here's an interactive map of the United States that describes state by state how people commute to work. Not too many surprises.

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