Friday, July 15, 2011

It's about being pro-walking, not anti-car: a manifesto

The New York Times recently published an article about European cities' efforts to become more pedestrian-friendly under the headline "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy". Needless to say it was written from a driver's perspective and therefore misses the point: all the policies described in the article are primarily intended to make walking easier, not to make driving harder. Take a look at some of the measures the article mentions. These include:
-closing streets to cars, i.e. pedestrianizing streets
-creating space for bicycles
-congestion fees
-limits on CO2 emissions
-parking maximums
-replacing pedestrian tunnels with surface crosswalks
-signal prioritization for trams and buses
-speed limits low enough that cars and pedestrians can mix freely on the same street space

Of all these measures, only one- parking maximums- serves the sole purpose of restricting driving, and it's actually the only one I would oppose. Of the others, pedestrianizing streets, adding bike lanes, and lowering speed limits all increase space available to pedestrians and reduce the safety threat that cars pose them. Limits of CO2 emissions is not anti-car per se, since its purpose is to slow global warming (something you'd think the liberal NYT would sympathize with) and people can drive electric cars instead. Pedestrian tunnels and signal prioritization are simply a matter of choosing which mode you'd prefer to promote: if you want more people to walk you should adjust signals to make walking more convenient. Finally, congestion pricing actually helps many drivers, because it encourages those who have an alternative to driving into urban centers to not drive, freeing up road space for those who really do need to drive (and are therefore more willing to pay).
In other words, what the article describes isn't the beginning of a war on cars, but rather the end of the war on walking. Many transit/ pedestrian/ bicycle activists do actually want a "war on cars" that includes regulations and urban design with no goal other than making driving difficult or impossible. To me, such a strategy misses the point and makes the pro-transit/ walking agenda even harder to promote. There's nothing wrong with cars in and of themselves; it's the negative effects of cars and policies that support driving that are the problem. If drivers drive safely in a car that does not harm the environment (or if they compensate for the damage they cause, e.g. through a pollution or greenhouse gas tax), and pay for the space their car takes up and the cost of the government services necessary to make driving possible (traffic police, road maintenance), then I have no problem with driving. For the record I think mass transit should also pay for itself, as is the case in many Asian cities and once was the case in New York. Transt/ ped advocacy in the US needs all the help it can get; taking an extreme anti-car position will only drive away potential allies and convince the general public that we're extremists or elitist. On the other hand, policies that are focused on making biking and walking easier will have wider appeal and will not give the impression that walking advocates simply have an irrational hatred of cars. The same goes for transit advocacy: it should not just be a matter of more subsidies for transit, but also making transit more efficient and user-friendly. If people realize that transit can be high-quality without massive subsidies it's more likely to find widespread support.