Corridors of Crap

January 16, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Speaking at a Congress on the New Urbanism, the Republican mayor of a southern city put up a slide of his town’s main drag. It was the usual strip, an ugly jumble of big-box stores, gas stations, parking lots, fast food feed lots, etc. Announcing the slide, the mayor said, “I call this our ‘corridor of crap.’”

I spent Christmas with friends in Reno, a town that brought the mayor’s slide and appellation to mind. In Reno, every street is a corridor of crap. A few handsome neighborhoods of pre-war homes survive, but every commercial street is a strip, America’s contribution to the trashing of the built environment. That is true, of course, of many American towns and cities. Reno is not unique, except for its emphasis on gambling, which is God’s tax on stupidity.

But Reno does have a plan to do something about its ugliness. It hopes to build a streetcar line on one of its worst corridors of crap, Virginia Avenue.

Streetcars have many virtues, sung by this Center, our Moving Minds book and transit experts around the world. Over 60 streetcar projects are now underway in the U.S. But Reno’s plan points to a highly important virtue most advocates have missed. Streetcars are one of the very few – – perhaps the only? – – cures for corridors of crap.

It is widely recognized that streetcars bring new development to the corridors they serve. But their function as cures for corridors of crap comes from the kind of development they bring. After all, strips also represent development.

Streetcars bring the same kind of development they brought during the first trolley era. Then, we built handsome towns and cities. Buildings were not all the same style, but they were styles that worked together. Urban planners talk about densities, walkability, etc., which is all fine. But what I am talking about is something more: aesthetics. Streetcar-based development usually ends up looking pretty good, at least if the Modernist architects can be kept out of it.

Aesthetics matter. A corridor of crap is what it is because that is what it looks like. It is important to a town or city whether it looks handsome or ugly. Walking through Boston is a far more pleasant experience than walking through, say, Phoenix. The difference is that one looks good and other doesn’t.

Liberals and libertarians alike attempt to forbid any discussion of aesthetics, dismissing it merely as a matter of “personal taste,” where one “opinion” is as valid as another. Conservatives know better. There is an objective canon of urban aesthetics, one that traces back to classical Greece. Certain proportions work, others don’t. Some elements harmonize, other clash. Palladio had it right, Frank Gehy had it wrong. The “architects” of strips and the buildings that fill have nothing at all. No thought whatsoever is given to aesthetics, not even the thought Modernists put into intentionally violating the canon.

So to streetcars’ other virtues, we need to add one that is particularly conservative: streetcars can cure corridors of crap. They can re-make a Virginia Avenue or its numberless equivalents across the country into a street people want to look at instead of away from. That brings economic benefit, but from a conservative standpoint, those are secondary. The primary benefit is that something ugly is transformed into something that can be and often is visually pleasing. If I am to love my country, my country should be lovely.

There is, of course, no guarantee that running a streetcar line down a corridor of crap will transform it into a beautiful boulevard. But nothing else offers nearly so much potential for doing so. The plain fact is, cities need streetcars. Just compare your city today with what it looked like during the first trolley era. Who wouldn’t go back if they could.

Mainstreaming Bicycles

January 3, 2011 by · 39 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Contrary to what most people think, the revolution in personal mobility did not begin with the automobile.  It started about two decades before Henry Ford’s first Model T, and it was based on a combination of the electric railway and the safety bicycle.

Electric streetcars and interurbans brought affordable, fast and frequent rail service to and between cities  –  –  every American city or town with more than 5000 people had at least one streetcar line.  The interurbans also tied towns and the countryside to the cities.  The safety bicycle  –  –  a bicycle with equal-sized wheels that was easy to mount  –  –  was the first bicycle women and less athletic men could ride.  It provided greatly enhanced local mobility compared to walking.  Together, electric railways and safety bicycles offered the middle and working classes the level of mobility previously reserved to those wealthy enough to afford a carriage.

Ford’s Model T short-circuited that revolution in personal mobility.  Had Ford been required to build and maintain the highways his cars ran on, the outcome would probably have been different.  But the government took over that job, while the privately owned electric railways were taxed and regulated out of existence.

Cars also drove out bicycles, to the point where they became toys for children.  In part, this was because driving a car takes less physical effort than riding a bike.  America did not become a nation of walruses because we like to exercise.  But cars also drove out bikes (and pedestrians) for a more basic reason.  In a collision between a bicycle and an automobile, the car gets its paint scratched but the cyclist is dead.

A verse from a delightful Edwardian collection, Wretched Rhymes for Heartless Homes, provides contemporary evidence:

I ran over a tripper in my De Dion Bouton
Knocked him flatter than a kipper
Aussi mort qu’un mouton.
What a bother trippers are
Now I must repaint the car.

Cycling has made a significant comeback.  But the incompatibility of cars and bicycles remains a major obstacle.  It may be the primary reason most middle class, middle age people, even those who cycle for recreation, are reluctant to see the bicycle as an alternative to the car.  Bike trails and lanes are of course a help, but there aren’t many of them and most are oriented toward recreation, not commerce (There are exceptions, of course.  Boulder and Denver, Colorado come to mind).

Is there a way we could make streets, at least some of them, safe enough for bicycles so that ordinary people, not just the young and adventuresome, might ride them?  Here’s an idea.  We have had gasoline supply crises, both local and national, in the past, and we are likely to have more in the future.  A supply crisis means the filling stations have no gas to sell.  To prepare better for such situations, DOT could require all metropolitan areas over a certain size to develop a plan which would designate a grid of streets “Bicycles Only” during the gas shortage.  Only local residents and businesses would be exempt.   The grid should be dense enough to permit bicycle access to most points in the city.

Then to test the grid and make people aware of it before a crisis, the plan could be put into effect on some holidays.  Think of it as a type of civil defense drill.  Once people who do not normally cycle on streets do so while the plan is in effect, they may become comfortable with it.  Potentially, they might press their politicians for a better urban cycling network that would always be available, not just in drills or fuel crises.

I ran this idea past Joline Molitoris of Ohio DOT shortly after Columbus had experienced a local fuel crisis, and she loved it.  She said she would have used her bicycle for many trips if she had known she could ride safe from cars.  I suspect many other people would have the same reaction.

Conservatives are believers in Murphy’s Law.  If something can go wrong, it will.  Prudence, the highest conservative political virtue (see Russell Kirk’s book The Politics of Prudence), suggest we plan now for fuel supply crises that are almost certain to come.   The approach I have suggested would cost little.  Especially where transit vehicles will carry bicycles, it would create, in an emergency, at least some small facsimile of that earlier revolution in personal mobility.  For people who can’t drive because they can’t get gas, some mobility is likely to be better than none.