April, 2009 – To compliment my previous essay about public transportation in Buenos Aires, I’ve attached this New York Times article about a carless suburb in Germany. The classic suburban imagery cultivated in the second half of the twentieth century is proving to be an unsustainable model for human growth and needs to evolve to become more compatible with our changing demands for energy and growth.
For urban planners in the developed world, one of the biggest tasks in the 21st century will be reshaping and redesigning the suburbs to make them healthier places to live. This means redefining the role of the automobile in our societies.
In the U.S we view the street as a place primarily for cars rather than a space for the act of transport. This relegates bikes and buses to second-class citizenry of the road where they have to fight for their rights to the space. If we want to create more sustainable systems of transportation in cities, we will have to recondition how we view the street.
We pour a lot of resources into maintaining our complex highway systems, but what about giving some attention to supporting a healthy bike network? Urban planners talk about green corridors that allow people to move between green spaces so that there’s a connected network of green zones within a city or a greater region. Our currently isolated biking zones could benefit from a similar corridor system. Safe and pleasant biking corridors often exist apart from each other rather than pieces within a larger and more comprehensive biking network. If we can begin thinking about our streets as a shared space for transportation rather than a space for the personal automobile, we can transform the culture of movement within the urban environment.
Buenos Aires might not be the most welcoming city for pedal pushers but at least there is a more fluid partnership between buses, cars and motorcycles – a vehicular democracy, not a car dictatorship. Moving about the city is easy by public transportation and it actually feels liberating to relinquish the responsibilities of a car.
Last Wednesday I made the mistake of the taking the A line subte during rush hour. The A line is the third oldest subway line in all of the Americas so to preserve its historical legacy, the interior of the cars are still wooden with manual doors and windows. The subway was packed and incredibly hot with only a slight underground breeze to cool the crammed space full of sweaty commuters. The situation wasn’t pleasant by any means but I couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.
Public transportation has its obvious discomforts and overall limitations but through the combination of systemic reforms in transport, local innovations like car-share programs, bike networks, and design innovations that facilitate easier movement, we can find liberation without personal vehicles.
The car has been traditionally viewed as a symbol of freedom and independence yet it can also be viewed as a symbol of restriction, addiction and limitation. From the personal expenses of monthly payments, maintenance costs and fuel prices to the larger systematic issues like environmental sustainability, energy consumption and a general hindrance to smart growth, personal automobiles are becoming one of our biggest burdens rather than one of our finest inventions.
As we redevelop and redefine our cities and suburbs for the 21st century, it will be interesting to monitor the evolutionary role that the automobile will hold within our societies. Since the beginning of its inception just over one hundred years ago, the car has evolved from a luxury item for the rich and a symbol of the future, to a common stable of ordinary life, and now to an unhealthy habit in need of a cure.
The Germans living in the community from the attached article have reinvented the role of the automobile in their lives and in their communities. I think it’s time we begin re-imagining the role of the automobile in our global cities.