New Urbs

Why Walkability Matters

Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock

The ability—and perhaps, to some extent, the desire—to walk is largely disappearing from America, says Antonia Malchik. In an Aeon Magazine piece, she considers the ways we’ve undermined walking through modern urban planning, and through our obsession with cars:

For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.

It is true that if you’re watching the Super Bowl, say, it’s the car commercials that are stuffed with patriotism and references to good ole “Murica.” On a larger scale, the car (regardless of its size or make) seems to reference the ideals of individualism, autonomy, and privacy that many Americans hold dear. It’s a piece of privately-owned property that you can bring with you, wherever you go.

In a sense, Malchik’s piece makes me wonder whether the decline in home and/or property ownership has only made the car more important to Americans: because at least traditionally, it’s the home that we would associate with these feelings of pride and autonomy. But fewer Americans own property—and of those who do, fewer regard such ownership with the same sort of long-term allegiance. Owning a home is often a commercial endeavor, a rung on the ladder to bigger dreams and more square footage elsewhere. Thus, cars often help us express our sense of autonomy and personality in a way home ownership may have in the past.

Yet in the decline of walking—and correspondingly, in the decline of walkability—there are certain elements of community and culture that we may lose. Because despite its inefficiency or tediousness, walking provides several goods that the car cannot.

First, walking helps to cultivate community. Driving is an isolated mode of travel: it separates us physically from those around us, be they drivers, walkers, or bikers. Driving also promotes a desire for speed and efficiency: it spurs us to get somewhere fast, rather than urging us to enjoy the journey. When we drive, we usually have the end destination fixed in our minds. When we walk, we have time to stop, linger, and notice—perhaps even to say hello to passersby. Walking encourages us to take part in the fabric of the place we inhabit: it forces us to pay attention, and to acknowledge the others surrounding us. We have to share the sidewalk. We have to stop for cars or bikers, for strollers and dog walkers. It forces attention, and correspondingly, can foster relationships.

Second, walking provides space for the carless. There are many who either cannot afford an automobile, or who are more comfortable walking. For some, it may be a matter of principle: they believe biking and walking, taking public transportation when necessary, are healthier for them and better overall for the environment. For others, driving may be impossible due to health or financial reasons. I know a woman with brain cancer who is not allowed to drive—but she’ll often still try to walk to church or the grocery store when she cannot get a ride. Having safe sidewalks and intersections provides her an essential means of transportation.

Such services not only offer space for the carless—they also foster a safer environment overall. A society with walkers is a slower-paced society. Some view this as a bad thing—they prefer being able to get from point A to point B with the greatest amount of speed possible. But speed and efficiency often curb community closeness—and they can be lethal for the carless, who are left with no choice but to cross busy intersections or navigate narrow sidewalks alongside highways. Providing space for walkers encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention. It forces them to be present, and conscientious, of those around them.

Correspondingly, walking should teach mindfulness to pedestrians, in how and where they walk. It should force them to pay attention to their environment and teach them to be prudent. (Though the walker’s prudent decisions are often impeded or negated by the space they are given, and/or by drivers’ carelessness. The burden of responsibility is on the driver—owner as they are of the faster, heavier, more isolated vehicle—to be aware of their surroundings.) Thus we see that walking and walkability can teach prudence and responsibility, to both drivers and walkers. It encourages both to be mindful of the other, and fosters an environment in which speed is secondary to safety, efficiency to wellbeing.

Finally, walking is important because it breaks down insular barriers that keep us from knowing and appreciating our place, our moment. Matthew Crawford spends a lot of time talking about this in his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head:

… The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating idea seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. … The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating.

… Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them.

The more we insulate ourselves from those around us, the less safety and community we are able to enjoy. Crawford points out that cars weren’t always this way—but it is largely what they have become, through modern automobile engineering. The question, thus, is whether we should hold up driving as an emblem of American individuality and expression, or whether we should, cognizant of cars’ limits and dangers, also make room in our society—and on our roads—for the walker, who also embodies important American ideals: those of neighborliness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility (to name a few).

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

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New Urbs Returns from Dallas

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Welcome back.

A couple weeks ago, we were privileged to attend the 23rd Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas, as the first year of our New Urbanism Initiative reached its culmination. TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz and I were in attendance for the full week of festivities, attending panels and events around Dallas. Now that video for most of the sessions are available, commentary and reflection will be forthcoming.

We were also very fortunate to have the opportunity to host a panel on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives,” in which the TAC crew was joined by New Urbanism icon and founding father Andrés Duany and Strong Towns president and New Urbs regular Charles Marohn for a fascinating discussion about the intersection of conservatives and new urbanist thinking. That video is now available below:

Just before going on stage, we had a dynamic discussion with Chuck Marohn on his podcast (which I linked to previously), describing the arc of the New Urbs project and our hopes for the future of conservatives and cities (or in Schwarz’s case, his natural conservative pessimism).

And after our panel wrapped up, we moved to D Magazine’s offices, where Wick Allison held court on the devastation Dallas wreaked upon its own downtown by building highways straight through them, as well as the work that he and the Coalition for a New Dallas are doing to reverse that damage and recover their city from the well-meaning follies of corporate titans and central planners. We are still waiting for the pictures to come back, but expect a post on that soon.

Yesterday, Robert Steuteville of the essential New Urbanist publication Better Cities & Towns (which I understand will transform into a new CNU publication this year), was kind enough to profile our panel, and the work that we have been doing here, in a post titled, “A New Right Hook for New Urbanism.”

Steuteville relates,

For nearly a year, The American Conservative, a right-leaning national magazine, has been running well-written, informed, and positive online articles on the New Urbanism. Two of its editors joined a panel discussion at CNU in Dallas titled “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

This is newsworthy for two reasons:

1) No national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted this much coverage to New Urbanism.

2) Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

One thing I am very confident about is that there is indeed a new generation of conservatives moving into the urbanism discussion, and that the right’s future includes a strong population of city dwellers and walkable neighborhood lovers.

Stay tuned for the next year of New Urbs, as we have a lot of exciting plans underway. And keep coming back.


The New Urbs-Strong Towns Conversation

Greetings, all. New Urbs is now back from Dallas after the Congress for the New Urbanism, and we have a lot of exciting things that will be coming out of it, both in the next week and hopefully over the next year. While I gather the rest of our coverage, I wanted to thank Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns, a name that should be familiar to New Urbs regulars, for having myself and Ben Schwarz on his podcast.

I listened to the episode on my flight home, and think it turned out great. We talk about The American Conservative, what makes us such a unique publication, New Urbs and the New Urbanism, as well as really digging into the connections between conservatives and urbanism. I hope you listen to it, and then go on to subscribe to the podcast, it really is one of my favorites.

Strong Towns Podcast – Jonathan Coppage and Benjamin Schwarz at CNU 23

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New Urbs Goes to Dallas

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The American Conservative and our modest project here at New Urbs are hitting the road next week, and will be joining the Congress for the New Urbanism in Dallas for its 23rd annual convention of panels, events, and good urbanism appreciation.

I’ll be bringing you coverage and highlights of CNU23 throughout the week (so stay tuned), but for now I’d like to highlight events that The American Conservative itself is very pleased to be holding.

Friday will be official New Urbs day down in Dallas, as we will be hosting a panel from 3:45-5:00 on “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives”:

Community building, placemaking, traditional neighborhood design. Good urbanism should hold a deep appeal across the political spectrum, but too often gets roadblocked by unproductive stereotypes. The American Conservative magazine joins CNU co-founder Andres Duany and Strong Town’s Chuck Marohn in a discussion on how to bridge the urbanism divide and how to engage community-oriented conservatives at the local and national levels.

If you will be attending CNU, please come and join our discussion. TAC national editor Benjamin Schwarz and I will be joined by frequent New Urbs contributor (read his new article from the print magazine here) and StrongTowns president Chuck Marohn, along with one of New Urbanism’s true icons, architect and NU pioneer Andres Duany, for a fast-paced, free-flowing conversation about overcoming the conservatism-good urbanism divide.

Each panelist has a unique background working at the intersection of politics and placemaking, and I, personally, am extremely excited to learn from Andres and Chuck’s wisdom and experiences.
After the panel, for any readers in the Dallas area who won’t be attending the Congress (and for those who are!), New Urbs will be hosting an evening reception from 5:00 to 7:00 at D Magazine’s gorgeous downtown offices, overlooking the cityscape from the 21st floor as the sun starts to set.

Amid the Texas BBQ appetizers and beer and wine from Dallas’s own Sonny Bunch’s Smokehouse, Benjamin Schwarz will sit down for a brief conversation with a man who should be very familiar to long-time TAC readers, Wick Allison. In addition to being the chairman of our board now, formerly our president, Allison is the chairman and publisher of D Magazine and a driving force between the Coalition for a New Dallas, a PAC formed to champion the revitalization of Dallas’s downtown neighborhoods and the necessary tear-out of I-395.

Ben will ask Wick about how he has sold Dallas conservatives on Jane Jacobs, and how a former publisher of National Review came to see the essential connections between conservatism and good urbanism.

If you are anywhere near the area, please come out and join us, for the food, drink, and conversation. TAC‘s editorial and leadership team will be out in force, so it’s a great opportunity to get to meet the people behind the scenes of this peculiar project of a magazine. 

And please, please, register at this page to tell us that you are coming, so we will be sure to have enough food and drink for all.

Finally, if you are around CNU, look for Ben Schwarz and I the rest of the week as well (rumor has it that TAC executive editor Maisie Allison may even grace the Congress with her presence on Wednesday); we hope to meet as many people as possible at CNU. My e-mail is jcoppage[at], feel free to reach out.

I hope to see many New Urbs and TAC readers soon!

Register for the Friday reception here.

Reception2 Invitation

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Why Shared Space Scares

Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad
Drachten, Netherlands Fietsberaad

Can shared space work in the United States?

Surely not, was the response of many to my recent article describing the movement seeking to de-engineer and re-design our streets. For some reason this is the objection that immediately emerges everywhere the idea of shared space is raised: the British think ‘that may work for those upstanding Dutch, but not for us,’ Americans think ‘that may work for those nice Brits, but not us.’ Even in-country, you will often hear, ‘that may work in a small town, but not Jersey,’ ‘not Boston,’ ‘not where I’m from, have you seen these crazy people?’

I’m still sufficiently traumatized from my past experiences on Boston’s roads that I’ll bracket Beantown for the time being, but this is a very understandable, even desirable reaction. For shared space, the idea that pedestrians, bikes, cars all have equal claim to the street and should navigate the common space socially rather than hewing to the dictates of century-old traffic engineering, is intentionally scary.

Hans Monderman, the father of the shared space movement, made his name with the 2001 redesign of the Dutch town of Drachten’s town square. A town of 45,000, Monderman saw accidents fall from eight annually to one, yet was pleased to hear “that residents, despite the measurable increase in safety, perceived the place to be more dangerous. This was music to Monderman’s ears. If they had not felt less secure, he said, he ‘would have changed it immediately.'”

The rapidly growing English town of Ashford recently implemented a shared space design, so that “Without street signs, pavements, road markings or traffic lights, Ashford’s Elwick Square is confusing. Pedestrians cross from all angles, and some cars stop at the sides, while others make U-turns even though there is no roundabout.” The Financial Times reported, “In the three years before the scheme opened in November 2008, there were 17 accidents involving injury on this stretch of ring road. Since its creation, there have been just four.”

The FT also interviewed “Rebecca Skinner, a cleaner who crosses the road every day,” who said, “‘It looks nice, but I don’t feel safe at all. What makes drivers stop is making eye contact, but they might not be looking at you.'”

Ms. Skinner’s reaction is what every Monderman acolyte dreams of hearing. Under the influence of Prof. John Adams of University College, London, shared space designers recognize the influence of a “risk compensation effect,” whereby the comfort provided by a network of signs and lights relaxes the natural alertness one would carry into an environment shared with 2,000 pound steel machines. The discomfort induced by the alien shared space environment helps keep a pedestrian’s head on a swivel, and encourages active negotiation of the space, with eye contact and hand waving.

Now a few scattered projects are bringing shared space back to American shores. Chicago is implementing a near-shared space design on a four-block stretch in Uptown, with no sidewalks, stoplights, or crosswalks, and minimal signage, and FastCoExist notes that “shared streets exist in Seattle, Washington and Buffalo, New York.” It quotes Seattle Parks and Rec project manager Patrick Donoue as declaring, “Naysayers said, ‘People are going to get hit’ … Well, it just hasn’t happened.” Bombastic British car presenter Jeremy Clarkson declared about the Ashford scheme before it was built, “Someone is going to die, you idiots.”

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Hans Monderman’s shared space heir, told me in an interview that he sees shared spaces working across the world, extending to Latin America, because the principles involved deal in human nature, not the particular hospitality customs of a few bike-happy Euro cultures. Such a claim can be overstated, but it is important to recognize that “shared spaces” were not a branded innovation but the almost unanimous state of the street across the world until the engineering interventions that accompanied the ascendancy of the car.

If we have been sharing spaces from the beginning of organized human settlements, then we may very well find latent hard-wiring ready to ease our transition in ways deeper and more complex than a traffic engineer could imagine. As Prof. John Adams says, “Road safety is not rocket science—it is much more complicated!”

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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New Article on Shared Space & American Streets

From the newest print edition of the magazine, my look at the history of American street engineering, and why Hans Monderman’s shared space movement is a reform that conservatives should be able to embrace.

The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Read the full article here:

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When Fascists Tried to Remake Ethiopia

Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.
Picture of Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirt youth in 1935 in Rome.

When Mussolini’s army invaded and ultimately occupied Ethiopia, the Italian fascists did more than expand Italy’s African empire; in their eyes, they obtained an opportunity to build a capital from scratch.

As Rixt Woudstra details at Failed Architecture,

The idea of Ethiopia as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—was omnipresent in the writings of architects and urban planners occupied with the designs of the colonial capital between 1936 and 1939, who considered the country devoid of any structures of architectural significance. Contrary to the fascination of Libyan whitewashed courtyard house – their simplicity, colours and volumes perfectly in tune with modern taste – the round houses of the Ethiopians were regarded by Italian architects as irrational and unhygienic.

Modernist architecture’s obsession with rationality and supreme planning looked askance at a city even as relatively new as Addis Ababa for not proceeding out of the geometries and ideals en vogue in Europe. Within months of the Ethiopian capital’s conquest, no less an architect than Le Corbusier, one of the icons and pioneers of modernism, composed a sketch to accompany a letter he sent to Mussolini instructing “how a city for the modern times is born,” and offering his services as a midwife.

Woudstra writes,

Le Corbusier’s sketch shows Addis Ababa literally as a tabula rasa: the rigorously superimposed plan cleared the land of all signs of humanity and centuries of urban culture. In his letter, Le Corbusier described his drawing perfectly by writing that he was attracted by ‘…models so severe, that one might think the colony was a space without time, and therefore, without history, and without any particular geographical meaning.’ Further in his letter he added: ‘…the city is direct dominion; the city becomes the city of government, in which the Palace of the Governor must stand overall…’

Not for nothing, as Matthew Robare recently noted here, did Theodore Dalrymple compare Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, saying “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.” Le Corbusier had found himself frustrated by the long-standing architectural patterns of Europe, whose age and complexity resisted his cutting pen. As Woudstra notes, the Addis Ababa proposal was completely in line with Corbusier’s ideal city, theorized independently of tradition or conditions. Corbusier’s plan for Paris, for example, razed the city of its low complexities in order to produce this:

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

Plan Voisin for Paris, 1922-1925. photo: Fondation Le Corbusier

As Robare explained the other week, these grand rational plannings have not died with their blackshirted allies. China’s construction of cities out of whole cloth may sometimes be painted with green sustainability, but they neither have the human appeal nor the natural sustainability of an incrementally grown, walkable city.

Addis Ababa was spared a Corbusier-inspired revamp by a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging and rapid British troop movements that eventually freed the capital from fascist control. The grand colonialism would proceed apace, however, back in the very Western countries that had previously so frustrated Corbusier and his followers.

After World War II, both the United States and Britain turned over much of their own cities to the hands of experts and engineers who, channeling the Corbusierian vision, would level working-class neighborhoods in order to build large, modern towers in the name of urban renewal. The social devastation that process wreaked upon the already economically disadvantaged is explored in painstaking detail in TAC National Editor Benjamin Schwarz’s cover story in our latest issue. The organic neighborhoods, slums though they often were, were dynamic social environments. The tower blocks atomized and individualized the families and communities they replaced.

The ugly philosophies of central planning and Corbusierian modernism have not been defeated, but as Justin Shubow explained at Forbes, the architectural profession it has been fueling is now nearly exhausted. When an architect’s response to a Katrina rebuilding contract is to assemble experiments with artistically “damaged” roofs, one would hope that the absurdity of the architectural profession has brought it close to the bursting point.

Unlike Addis Ababa, however, we will not have British tanks to save us from Corbusier. We will have to demand buildings at a human scale, and refuse to let the professional guilds defend 50 years of failure.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


China Greenwashes Le Corbusier

Tianjin Eco-city
Tianjin Eco-city

Around a wastewater reservoir on the outskirts of China’s fourth largest city, Tianjin, tower blocks built to one of the most stringent green building codes in the world rise in “eco-cells” bound by broad roads while, in strips of green space around the Yincheng Reservoir, wind farms have been planted.

This is Tianjin Eco-city, a joint venture of China and Singapore, and designed to be “A thriving city which socially harmonious, environmentally-friendly and resource efficient—a model of sustainable development.” According to MIT Technology Review, $6.5 billion has been invested by the two governments as of 2012.

Unfortunately, as both a city and as a model of sustainable development, Tianjin Eco-city has all the hallmarks of failure. One doesn’t even need to read the articles about how difficult it’s been to convince people to move there, or the inconveniences they face when they do, to see why. A glance through the image gallery reveals everything: grandiose buildings on huge setbacks, wide roads clearly designed for speed, green space—not parks—forming buffers on sidewalks and highway medians and all overseen by the aforementioned apartment towers.

It’s Le Corbusier with solar panels. That sort of city, built from scratch and at such a scale to crush the human life out of a city, designed around the car at highway speeds and the misguided belief that mere open space (inevitably converted into parking sooner or later) was better than any place could be, comprises the heart of decades of urban failure in the West. It was the guiding ideology behind the planning of the infamous “projects”—St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and the depressing march of cheerless gray building after cheerless gray building through the Bronx—and the basic design’s hostility to human life is one of the reasons they’re remembered for poverty, drugs, violence and social collapse and not the visionary and progressive examples of architecture, housing policy and urban planning they were hailed as.

For Le Corbusier and his followers, the goal was not to work within a living tradition or build upon what had come before, but to completely obliterate the past. In a city or neighborhood he designed, there would be nothing left to remind anyone of what had gone before. The street itself would be abolished and everyone would live and work in gigantic, identical, concrete towers. It’s unclear if there was room in his utopia for churches or even farms and factories.

Not for nothing has Theodore Dalrymple compared Le Corbusier to Pol Pot, “he wanted to start from Year Zero: Before me, nothing; After me, everything.”

Being built around a polluted reservoir, Tianjin Eco-city is less disruptive than American projects that “renewed” whole neighborhoods at a time. Nevertheless, in being built from scratch it will suffer from many similar problems. It’s unclear how many people have moved in yet. While planned for 350,000 residents, MIT Technology Review reports a population of 20,000; The Guardian reports 6,000 and the BBC 12,000. Renting in new construction is more expensive than existing and while the government has been offering subsidized rent and kindergarten, apartments are still empty. For those who have moved in, the eco-city lacks both conveniences and amenities, so residents must drive to work, shop or do anything else.

The master-plan talks about promoting walking, cycling and public transit, but there does not appear to be a transit connection to central Tianjin, about 20 miles away. The references to driving alternatives in the Master Plan all talk about trips within the city. In any event, the wide, multi-lane roads and lack of anywhere within the eco-city to walk to will just encourage driving.

There are other things about the design that sound good but appear to be little more than an old Corbusier plan greenwashed for this century. While the eco-city may have a green building code, that doesn’t account for much. Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council has written several times about the ways planners focus on LEED certification over things like walkability. This even affects the Environmental Protection Agency, as when they moved a regional headquarters from a fairly transit- and walking friendly part of downtown Kansas City, KS to a car-dependent, sprawling suburb.

According to the Environmental Building News, “…for an average office building in the United States, calculations … show that commuting by office workers accounts for 30 percent more energy than the building itself uses.”

As Jeff Speck put it in Walkable City, “all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood.” Moreover, a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that “building reuse almost always has fewer environmental impacts than new construction,” according to Time.

All these findings are consistent with the features of a traditional city, built over time, as opposed to Le Corbusier’s Year Zero.

China certainly needs sustainable cities. Even apart from the impacts on climate change—and China is the source of one-third of greenhouse gas emissions—the air and water pollution are already at levels usually deemed unsafe by Western governments. In the north, the average life expectancy has declined by 5.5 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Environmental damage has cost the People’s Republic about 3.5 percent of the GDP, according to Bloomberg, which has averaged 10 percent a year for a decade. Green issues may also affect the country’s stability: there were 50,000 protests on environmental issues in 2012, according to Grist.

Tianjin’s environment would be better served by the insertion of the eco-city’s technologies and techniques into the existing urban fabric, combined with the renovation of existing buildings. The Chinese have at least 4,000 years of urban history to draw on, as well as very good regional examples, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.

China can do better. It must do better.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston and also writes about urbanism and history.

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Bike Highways Aren’t Any Better for City Streets

Original proposal for Blackfriars junction
Original proposal for Blackfriars junction

It is perhaps the most iconic moment in urbanism: Robert Moses, the greatest power broker and central planner the American city had ever seen, squaring off against Jane Jacobs, the champion of the city’s community and author of the greatest book on urbanism ever written, over whether Jacobs’s beloved neighborhood of Greenwich Village would have one of Moses’s favored highways carved through it.

Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

The notion of a bicycle-only superhighway has been revived in places like Copenhagen and the Netherlands in recent years, but Mayor Boris Johnson has just announced plans to build bring a record-breaking bike highway right through central London. Johnson has proposed nearly 20 miles of segregated bike lanes that, instead of being guarded by loosely spaced networks of thin plastic poles, would have their own dedicated curbs.

Bicyclists are generally strongly in favor of dedicated lanes, with the more protection the better, as they the ones who fare by far the worst in collisions with cars. However, the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

One of the original designers of Los Angeles’s traffic and street patterns, Miller McClintock, instructed the public in the 1920s that “The old common law rule that every person,, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” The traffic engineers who constructed city streets, particularly after the advent of “forgiving highways” thinking in the 1960s, believed firmly in segregating out every mode of travel that they could, protecting pedestrians from cars, and cars from pedestrians. The old, dynamic, civic street that had survived in one form or another in every city in the world from the time of the Sumerians would be largely snuffed out.

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry this auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out. Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous. As I wrote a few months back,

For wide, straight roads with large buffers, any visual obstacles swept aside, naturally signal safety and the absence of surprises to a driver. It’s why highways function so well in transporting vehicles large distances at great speed: drivers don’t have to worry about children chasing a ball out from behind a tree, or parked car. They are roads for dumb drivers, which is why roadtrips are particularly well suited to listening to books on tape, or the radio, or just pondering in peace. Dumb roads let us divert our attention productively while almost unconsciously following the cues of the road.

City and suburban streets are so radically different in use and purpose from highways as to deserve their very different names. Children just might run out into the street, because they live around the corner. A shopper just might walk out from behind a parked car, because there’s a storefront by the sidewalk. … To design a peopled street like a dumb road is to tell drivers to speed up and space out.

City streets are not safe, they are dynamic. To design streets that tell their users a different story can lull them into a false, dangerous sense of complacency. Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest. It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Five Ways Uber Changes the City

For all the commentary about Uber’s disruptive effect on the taxi business, it has has other remarkable consequences. It is opening up American cities by solving one of the biggest problems for residents: finding cheap, easy, and reliable transportation in out of the way places. Expensive, rare, and undependable taxis are being supplanted by easy, fast, reliable Uber cars coming into lightly trafficked suburbs and even into high crime ghettos. A caller knows immediately how far away his ride is located. No more calling back to taxi companies asking where the taxi is and when it will finally arrive.

In Washington, D.C., the consequences are tremendous. Already, apartment buildings that used to have waiting lists for parking spaces now have empty spaces. Many downtown buildings in Washington have some 20 percent less income from parking than before Uber and convenient short-term car rentals came about.

The system works with one’s smartphone, showing immediately how far away a car is and how many minutes it will take to arrive. Then one can track the approaching car on an electronic map on the phone’s screen. There is a permanent digital record of which driver is coming and which member has called from what location. Drivers don’t carry any cash and all the cost, tipping is included, is billed to the member’s monthly credit card statement. Driver and passenger calls to find each other are computer scrambled so that neither can later find and call the person involved except through the company. Primarily this protects passengers from any driver later possessing their private telephone numbers. Passengers are asked to rate their driver after each trip, and drivers likewise rate passengers. The process gradually eliminates obnoxious or incompetent drivers and passengers. Uber cars cost some 75 percent as much as taxis and don’t charge for extra passengers.

The negatives with Uber are concerns for safety (see below) and the proper screening of drivers. Most customers use UberX which consists of private car owners. They depend almost entirely on GPS navigation and often don’t know the best city routes. I would question sending young children alone with them. They should really be compared to chauffeurs to whom one must explain the best routes to take. The higher-class Uber Black car has more professional, knowledgeable drivers, but costs nearly twice as much.

The Many Consequences

First of all, the abundance of young millennials and empty nesters moving into the city do not even need to own a car. The savings in parking, insurance, and car payments is hundreds of dollars, say about $700 a month after tax earnings. A detailed study in Los Angeles came up with exact numbers for car ownership compared to Uber. For weekends convenient car rentals are also available by the hour or by the day from companies such as Zipcar and Car2Go. Uber’s main competitor is the much small company, Lyft, which offers similar service.

Secondly and most significantly, whole new areas which were once semi-slums or far away from offices and downtowns have been opened up to “urban homesteaders” and “gentrification.” Uber is accelerating the return of middle classes to city life. Low-cost housing is being gobbled up all over the city in out of the way places which Uber cars are able to service and locate, thanks to their satellite navigation systems.

Thirdly, popular inner-city restaurants and bars are now within easy access for suburbanites, which makes for more abundance, variation, and sales tax collection, benefitting full-time residents. Several persons can share a car (without taxi like surcharges) into the city with no worries or costs associated with finding parking spaces. They can then be assured of finding a car late at night to take them home. And they have no worries about one extra drink or fear of police dragnets looking for DUI’s, when a single such arrest can cost thousands of dollars in fines or lawyers or higher insurance rates or even damage their careers for the rest of their lives.

Fourthly, parents can arrange for late-night rides for their teenagers from parties without a fear of their drinking and driving. More parents are using the service to deliver and pick up young children from after-school activities. Likewise, aged parents can be driven to homes and doctors’ appointments. It’s all about low cost, reliability, and tracking the drivers. Parents can even see on their smartphone map screens where the car is located as it drives.

Fifthly, residents of poor sections of town (providing they have a credit card) can call for cars in parts of cities with scarce public transportation or almost non-existent taxi service. Sharing cuts the cost of commutes to work. Drivers need not carry any cash and so are much less subject to being robbed.

Uber drivers use their own cars, which are required to be late models, clean, and with air conditioning running in hot weather. They don’t talk on their phones when carrying passengers. They earn 80 percent of the fares. Drivers I’ve spoken to tell me they earn a hundred dollars and then quit for the day. Drivers can work part- or full-time, day or night as they wish. Rates are adjusted automatically (called surge pricing) when there is heavy demand or bad weather, indeed they can double or triple, but that means that rides are always available at a price. If the member does not want to pay the higher price he or she can simply wait out the situation and then call back. There is no extra charge for additional passengers, so passengers can easily share costs which brings down the price considerably for a group of commuters, for example.

Uber also offers a limousine service called Black Cars, at about double the price. They are larger, more luxurious models, often stocked with the daily newspaper and bottles of water, and usually can take more passengers. Uber must also reduce traffic congestion in big cities as fewer residents must drive around looking for parking spaces or use their cars for short distances.

Safety is the big issue for Uber and its detractors. Search for Uber and crime to find links. The company’s website explains its procedures in recruiting drivers, however its fast growth has raised questions about the security checks. Some cities plan to impose their own requirements, but the suspicion is that they might try to shut down the service instead. There have been many charges and some arrests after complaints. Some of the accusations are true, while others are exaggerated by its enemies or competitors trying to have the service shut down. Municipal background checks on drivers, various tightening up measures, and all sorts of ideas to guarantee safety are being debated and sometimes incorporated into the system. With millions of potential customers there will always be some crime issues. However, the tracking possibilities of modern technology will make crimes harder to commit and easier to trace when they do occur. There does seem sufficient security because more and more parents are using the service to deliver and pick up their children from after-school activities. The company carries liability insurance on all its drivers.

Uber may be just a forerunner of other sharing services that will break the power of big city protected monopolies. Taxis are the most affected, and already the price of taxi medallions in New York City have declined by some 20 percent from their preposterous values of nearly a million dollars each. The cozy collusion of City Hall politicians and taxi owners to maintain scarcity is under attack all over America. Smart phones and Uber-type services are bringing mobility and lower costs to millions of Americans who previously could not find or afford such transportation.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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