yesterday irked some. Was it
another sign of catering to
car use convenience?
(Photo © J. Maus)
An article published in the New York Times Science/Environment section Sunday points out something that many U.S. bike insiders and advocates have known for a long time: The reason European cities (and in the case of the article, Zurich) succeed in transportation policy and outcomes is because they’re not afraid to challenge car dominance head on.
Or, in the parlance of Mr. Copenhagenize Mikael Colville-Andersen, while we’re busy “ignoring the bull,” in Europe they simply grab it by the horns and wrestle it into submission.
The opening paragraph says it all (emphasis mine):
While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
As do the final two:
“With politicians and most citizens still largely behind them, Zurich’s planners continue their traffic-taming quest, shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red with the goal that pedestrians wait no more than 20 seconds to cross.
“We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy,” said Pio Marzolini, a city official. “When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car.“
It’s a fascinating article that shows very clearly that in the U.S. we let politics and fear of unsettling the status quo rule our policies — even in cities like Portland where our leaders are well aware of how they do things in Europe.
Here in the states, to even suggest a plan or project that will inconvenience automobile traffic is considered heresy.
Consider some recent examples:
- On N. Willamette, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) wanted to use the space of an almost unused section of on-street residential parking to improve bike access. But after a private meeting with adjacent residents revealed “key concerns” about losing the parking, PBOT backed off and decided to “explore other options.”
- In the East Burnside Couch Couplet project which was completed last fall, in order to fit bike lanes on Couch, City Hall decided to narrow the sidewalk by five feet — just so on-street parking could be maintained.
- NE Holladay Street in the Lloyd District has long been identified as having excellent potential to become a key, east-west non-motorized corridor. However, PBOT took the carfree option off the table before the formal process for the project even began. The reason? Concerns from commercial property owners that they would object to any limitation in motor vehicle access (or in the words of PBOT, Holladay serves an “important circulation function”).
- In a big recent announcement about the West Burnside Couch Couplet project, Mayor Adams listed four points to make his case that Burnside is broken: two of them listed convenient auto access as a problem.
This isn’t to suggest that PBOT lets automobiles run amok in their policies and plans. For an American city, we are doing O.K.. But the Times article makes it clear that we only taking baby steps on an issue that deserves great strides.
And in case you’re wondering, this NY Times article is old news to our local civic leaders and bike policy insiders. They’ve been studying Europe’s approach for many years. In October 2009, Portland hosted a panel of Europeans transportation policy experts who made these points crystal clear.
At that panel discussion (which boasted a who’s-who crowd of U.S. bike advocates and planners), someone asked Hans Voerknecht, the International Coordinator for Fietsberaad what wish for from Congress. Here’s Voerknecht’s reply:
“Change dramatically the way of parking. Allow no more parking in the streets 1/2 mile from homes and businesses so you remove all the short trips and people will know they don’t have the car in front of their door… I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve heard Americans even use a car to post a letter around the corner. If you had to walk a 1/2 mile to get your car you wouldn’t do that anymore.”
In perhaps the most telling (and relevant) exchange from that panel, Portland’s City Traffic Engineer Rob Burchfield asked the panelists about making car use expensive and inconvenient.
“There’s very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile,” said Burchfield, “We’re concerned that our goals for reaching higher mode split will be difficult to reach because of our inability to put price disincentives on car use. Is that a valid concern? How is it that you’ve come to have that political will?”
Geert-Pieter Wagenmakers, the senior advisor for the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce replied,
“While in Beaverton I saw all of these enormous rooms for all these cars… even a parking garage for cars! I asked, are you subsidizing this? If so, it’s socialism. You’re subsidizing a parking lot… and that’s out of the mouth of somebody from the business community.”
And Mr. Voerknecht added this,
“If you would ask the Dutch public, ‘Would you rather pay less tax on your cars and pay less tax on your fuel,’ everybody would say ‘Oh yes!’ But the thing is we don’t ask them! You shouldn’t ask all the time, ‘Do you want to spend money?’ Of course they say no. The thing is, if people are so narrow-minded, you need politicians… Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”
What works in Europe doesn’t always work in the U.S.. Our cultural differences must be taken into account. However the fact remains; American leaders know the right things to do to re-make our transportation systems and they often don’t do them because of fears (unfounded or not) of upsetting the car-centric status quo.
The question is, should we grab the bull’s horns and wrestle it to the ground? Or approach it timidly, try to befriend it, and then hope it doesn’t trample us?
— Read the NY Times article here.
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I suppose the big argument would be that this country was built on the automobile and the “freedom” that it gives to anyone who can afford it. And I’m sure everyone was tickled pink back in the 50’s when all the superhighways were built. I could also talk all day about how lazy and entitled Americans have become. “I want my own huge parking space no more than 3 steps from my home, office, etc.”
I think the best solution is to raise the price of gas to $10/gallon (I forget what it costs in Europe) and introduce one doozy of a gas tax. That’s the only way you’ll see less people driving and parking and Jill and Joe FourWheelDrive can complain all they want about it. Too bad for them.
“…this country was built on the automobile…” Nick V
The U.S. has been built around the automobile. for decades, the U.S. economy thrived on the resulting infrastructure until reaching the point of diminishing returns…having produced so much inefficient infrastructure that has now become prohibitively expensive to maintain.
Infrastructure in the U.S. that’s often not simply balanced in favor of automobile use, but…overwhelmingly…balanced in favor of automobile use has in many busy cities, made walking across the street to go to the grocery store a miserable experience.
I really admire the substance of Colville-Anderson’s mention about Zurich: “… planners continue their traffic-taming quest, shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red with the goal that pedestrians wait no more than 20 seconds to cross. …”.
For comparison, out in Beaverton to get to Beaverton Town Square, how long do we wait on foot to cross Canyon Rd at the crosswalk light? I’ll time it…guessing for now…during business hours, probably at least a couple minutes. And the volume, flow, and noxious effects of motor vehicle traffic on non-motor vehicle users of this typical American suburban thoroughfare is something like that of an invasion of heavy artillery.
Nick, just wait until those costs are passed on to you as a consumer. You might have a different opinion at that point.
“What works in Europe doesn’t always work in the U.S.. Our cultural differences must be taken into account.”
And those cultural differences play a HUGE role in the kinds of laws our elected officials are willing to enact on our behalf. Those Cultural differences– everything from the me-first, fiercely independent, pulling-up-by-one’s-bootstraps American psyche to our historic love of/need for wide open spaces to our ridiculously lax attitudes about private gun ownership — all play a role in why we’ve developed our cities and suburbs the way we have over the last 100 years.
Cultural differences such as these die very, very hard (if at all) and must be taken into account when discussing transportation policy. Playing them down in the hopes that people will simply wake up and change one day is neither realistic nor productive.
Indeed, and it’s not just cultural differences but the different economic systems those cultural factors result in. In Germany the top 1% of wage earners take home 10% of the total income; in the U.S. the top 1% take home more than 20%. In Sweden fewer than 5% of children live below the poverty line; in Mult. County more than 15% do (and more than 35% of children of color). Europeans live longer, are healthier, and have better health outcomes when they get sick than Americans, despite the U.S. spending 22% more (as a % of GDP) on health care than any other nation in the world. As long as we continue to embrace an economic system that rewards the few at the expense of the many, there’s simply no incentive to remake our transportation network. A fundamental problem of capitalism is how to keep producing surplus product to keep generating surplus value — private automobiles and the attendant expenses of owning & operating them are great devices for that. We will keep financing them and creating conditions that favor them until either all the raw materials we need for them are depleted (unlikely, given the lengths the oil industry is going to to extract fuel from any conceivable place we allow — tar sands, anyone?) or until we remake our economic system closer to European models.
as a person who grew up in the 50s and 60s, i will disagree that what people are identifying here as “cultural” elements are anything but ephemeral. this is a whole different place from what it was then, and it will be a whole different place in another ten or twenty years. the question is what are you going to do to step in and shape the change.
It’s important to highlight the motive for such policies: to improve the community, not to punish drivers. Cars have it easy in our cities now because of favoritism, hefty subsidies, and unwillingness to assess vehicle users for the actual impact on the community.
Rather than saying, ‘how can we make things tough for cars,’ the principle should be, ‘what’s best for the people of the community, our health, commerce, etc.’
When we decide to truly share the road (not just its use, but its design and the allocation of resources), things will be better for people who want to walk across the street or bike down to the local shop/restaurant/park… and tougher for people who want to consume big chunks of public space (and air) to lug a couple of tons of steel and glass around with them.
And again, it’s not about punishing drivers… though it won’t be fun giving up all the special privileges.
It is somewhat ironic then that the timing of Portland traffic lights downtown is great for bikers and cars (about 11.5 mph), but with pedestrians pretty much at average walking speed(3.1 mph) hit a red light in almost all of the core of downtown.
Not true! Walk against the traffic lights in downtown and you’ll have walk signs pretty much all the way around.
remember many large european cities physically don’t have space for cars since they were built ages ago, whereas almost all american cities have been built with vehicles in mind
of course europe now has its share of suburban communities too
One of the big problems in this country, and good luck changing it, is that vehicles are so much more than mere transportation devices. Sadly, Madison Avenue has thoroughly convinced us that you are what you drive. Any proposed restriction of vehicles threatens people’s very self image and the image they want to project – this may be doubly important here relative to Europe because of the typical physique in both locations – a self-fulfiling loop for sure. But WALK? Or ride either, are you crazy, that’s not the way I want people to see me. It isn’t about the distance.
again, what you are talking about was created entirely by advertising the consumerist culture. if something completely opposite was drummed into your hear through the television every day, you would see a different result.
I thought it was interesting that the NYT article framed these changes in Europe as burdens being placed on car travel.
I wonder if there was a similar article published in 1949 about all the new burdens cities were placing on pedestrian (and bicycle? I’m not sure) travel in order to encourage automobile usage.
I think there were articles like that, just slightly earlier, nearer to the streetcar era. Streetcars ran down the middle of streets, so it was assumed that the street was a place into which you could just walk out without too much danger. That had to change when cars came along.
This book has a lot to say about that era, and the process of handing the roads over to cars:
My puny attention span couldn’t make it through the book, but I found this interview with the author (on a show called “The Sustainability Segment” on Seattle’s KEXP) really enlightening:
i second that book. it is a fantastic read and anyone interested enough to read this blog post would love it to understand how the role of the street changed for the most part overnight from a bike/ped/streetcar public space to automobile-only throughfares. it explains so much about automobiles and street use.
“Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”
Um, actually democracy is about doing the will of the people. Choosing the best men and women to make the wisest decisions is called a republic, and is also not without its detractors.
Fair, but no North American or European country is a direct democracy.
Last I checked, the United States is considered a democratic republic or a.k.a. representative democracy: so same difference as what the quote said.
For anyone curious about this stuff, I’ve found wikipedia to be pretty helpful.
“the thing is, if people are so narrow-minded, you need politicians… Democracy is not about doing the will of the people; it’s about choosing the best men and women out of the people who make the wisest decisions.”
Wow. Why is this guy being taken seriously again?
I agree that we need to reduce how much we’ve prioritized car use over other modes, and for MANY years (decades, actually) I have supported exactly what Nick V suggests: tax the HECK out of fuel … and use the proceeds (1) to fund mass transit, cycling and pedestrian facilties, and (2) assist the poor who are disproportionately clobbered by expensive fuel.
But to suggest forcing people to walk 1/2 mile to get to their car?! Maybe that works in central Amsterdam where most amenities are located within walking distance. But that’s not true in most of America, not even in most of cycling/walking-friendly SE Portland.
Suggesting that all parents walk 1/2 mile home from their car with a week’s worth of groceries — AND THEIR YOUNG CHILDREN in tow — is beyond absurd. Even *I* would fight such a proposal tooth and nail.
I live in what passes for a walkable community in TX, where the nearest grocery store is 3/4 of a mile away, with a major chain discount store 1 mile away, and a discount food and drug (not meat or produce) just over a half mile. When I first went car-free back in 1995 only the convenience store 3/4 mile away was open, the other 2 stores didn’t open for 8 and 13 years respectively. A half mile walk with a weeks worth of groceries is doable, but stupid. Much better to get the day’s fresh produce for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch than to try to get a week’s worth all at once plus you can get by with a much smaller refrigerator…
What Voerknecht’s said, was:
“Change dramatically the way of parking. Allow no more parking in the streets 1/2 mile from homes and businesses so you remove all the short trips and people will know they don’t have the car in front of their door …”
No more parking in the streets, 1/2 mile from homes and businesses? That’s not going to do a heck of a lot of good in places where the model for parking accommodation used, is acres and acres of off-street parking lots. Going the next step by flat out removing the surface parking lots without supplying transportation infrastructure to compensate for the resulting lost accessibility to the businesses, would put the businesses out of business.
Allan and pdxbiker,
I think the point Hans was trying to make is that elected leaders should lead and do what they know is right based on what they know the majority of those who elected them want them to do — instead of what too often happens here in the U.S. … which is listening to a loud and vocal minority and being afraid to upset powerful interest groups.
my hearing of Hans’ comments was that “will of the people” means the angry, vocal mob.
Sure, and for what it’s worth I agree with the sentiment. However, to go out of one’s way to redefine a term almost it’s 180 degree opposite for little more than poetic flourish, I think, needs called out.
Seriously, poetic flourish today is Orwellian propaganda tomorrow.
I appreciate you trying to spin the man’s comments for the better, but it’s simply not possible. He uses very clear language.
it’s not attempt to “spin” anything pdxbiker… I’m just trying to add some context and make the broader point of the story instead of just focusing on Hans’ words.
I’m surprised not to hear more criticism of this article’s tone. While I was pleased to read about the innovations taking place in Zurich and Munich, etc., and I share many of Jonathan’s frustrations about why such ideas are not even being attempted here, I also thought the NYT writer took a very disappointing tone that aligned with the “war on cars” rhetoric one sees in local press here and elsewhere. Did anyone else find this surprisingly amateurish for the paper of record?
There is already a very strong backlash against “The ani-car agenda” as active transportation has been called. It will likely take a new generation of Americans to generate a new way of thinking.
We can’t shove our agenda down people’s throats, no matter how well intentioned we are. We are the trickle that will eventually lead to the flood.
> It will likely take a new generation of Americans to generate a new way of thinking. … We can’t shove our agenda down people’s throats…
Isn’t shoving agendas down society’s throat what corporate lobbyists are paid to do? (So surely, it is technically possible.)
That said, I think we (active transportation activists) have better arguments that actually serve the majority, so we will need neither a new generation of Americans nor any kind of throat shoving to implement our plans.
I don’t actually think cultural differences should be that much of a problem here.
I grew up in a small city / big town in the north of England, with extremely limited public transport and very few ways of getting out of town if you didn’t drive. My friends lived all over, and outside of, town. As soon as we could, we learned to drive and got little runabout cars.
Now I live in London, fortunately only four miles from where I work, and that yearning for independent travel rather than having to rely on public transport translates into using a bike. Yes it’s frighteneing sometimes, but no more so than having a car that is still aimed at by buses and trucks – because that’s what big things do here, it’s not personal – and wondering why you keep paying for insurance and fuel.
Cultural differences are things like senses of humour and food preferences; everyone can choose to try a different form of transport and decide whether or not it made their life easier / more fun / less fraught for time.
Funny, I was just thinking this morning in light of all the whining about how “cyclists don’t pay their fair share”, that convenience is part of what auto drivers are paying for with their sacred “gas taxes”. Motorists complain about all the expenses of driving and how “cyclists” are freeloaders on “their” system of roads, but rarely do they stop to consider all they are actually getting for their money: wide roads (wide enough for a couple lanes of cars to move and one or two other lanes to just sit there [parked]); necessarily heavy-duty road-beds to accommodate the heavy trucks (and even the ubiquitous SUVs) that need to use them; high-speed, exclusive-use freeways that only motorists can use (and clog); AND the convenience of door-to-door, protected-from-the-elements, stereophonic, latte-accommodating, other-people-excluding, private transportation. There is a reason that air-fare costs more than train-fare, limo rides cost more than cab rides, cab rides cost more than bus rides, and driving a car costs more than walking or riding a bike. Part of the increased expense of one mode over another is the level of convenience involved. Public transit users, pedestrians, and cyclists pay some of the cost of their mode of transport in time and sweat; that is their choice. The drive-everywhere motorist chooses to spend more money for the convenience of a climate-controlled, door-to-door easy chair.
It’s not only about level of convenience, but also about class divisions.
When the automobile was new, only the rich could afford it. That exclusivity became one of the selling features of the first cars. Eventually, production costs came down and cars became available to more strata of society — because automakers decided that quantity meant more profits than the selling of exclusivity.
Air travel is not so much different today. How many people can REALLY afford to travel somewhere by airplane? I sure can’t, and I’d bet that there are quite a few others reading this blog in the same boat — even if some don’t want to admit it. Once again, exclusivity and a desire to “move up” are part of the package deal, as it is with limos and luxury cabs (versus yellow cabs), and so too with the class divisions between those who primarily rely on cars, transit or bicycles.
Change the class incentive and perhaps you might change the paradigm. But don’t sugarcoat the change as “something that’s good for the community”, because on a very deep subconscious level most car-dependent commuters simply aren’t buying it — even if they don’t know that.
Actually, air travel is usually cheaper in comparison to driving the same trip. Compare AAA’s estimate of driving costs at $.40-.50 per mile. Airfare is very often below $.20 per mile.
It’s simply long distance travel that is unaffordable for many.
Not discounting the class envy aspect of travel mode; my point was only to think about everything that drivers get for their money (I was actually thinking more about the complainers who say that “bikes” are freeloaders). Part of what you get when paying for car-worthy streets is the convenience of traveling to your destination quickly and with minimal physical effort. Sure, you might also be paying for status, but that’s more in the price of your car to begin with, not in operational or infrastructure costs. Similarly, when flying, part of what one is paying for is the convenience of arriving 4 days sooner than you would if you drove. Part of what you get when you spring for a cab over a bus is door-to-door service–convenient.
Now, if we took the European approach and started drastically reducing the convenience of driving, it wouldn’t be quite as much of a bang for one’s buck as driving in the U.S. currently is. Then we would have to talk about the cost of driving as paying for the harm done to society, rather than paying for the ease and convenience of getting somewhere lickety-split while taking all the comforts of home with you. Most drivers view their driving as an essential aspect of their productivity, which makes the world go ’round; I don’t think they are yet willing to see themselves as destroyers of the very civilization they think they need cars to help build.
“There’s very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile.” He got that part right, but he didn’t discuss the issue of whose perspectives are upheld with such a lack of political will. I’ll say it again. 18% of Multnomah Co. households did not own a car in the 2000 Census. I don’t suspect Burchfield (the speaker above) knows that, nor do many others who should. I think the arguments for favoring other non-car modes, for tilting the playing field back again, could easily be justified on demographics alone, but someone has to know the statistics at the very minimum. 1 in 6 households is nothing to sniff at.
As for retiming traffic lights:
In Portland, we retimed our traffic lights in the last five years as part of an offset arrangement for PGE’s Boardman coal fired power plant. By speeding up the average car speed on streets like SE 39th (as it was then still called) PGE got points to credit against its carbon emissions from the smokestacks of its Boardman plant. You tell me if pedestrians who I still maintain have to wait longer to cross SE Cesar E. Chavez and Hawthorne Blvd. now were consulted about that arrangement.
From the article:
That made me think again of this story from the other day: http://bikeportland.org/2011/06/22/bike-traffic-in-portland-on-the-first-day-of-summer-photos-55300 …and of this image in particular:
Even though the guy’s talking about people on foot and the image is of people on bikes, the comparison still applies. What do you get for consuming so much less of the valuable resource that is the public right-of-way? Squeezed.
I think the visualization of what it would look like to see the people without their cars would be powerful. Similar to this visualization of what captured car exhaust would look like:
You/we/one could also simply lead by example, instead of arguing about political will in City Government:
Monday, April 20, 2009 (SF Chronicle)
Berkeley mayor gives up his car for the bus
Carolyn Jones, Chronicle Staff Writer
Some mayors tool around in Priuses and hybrid Civics. But Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has taken green transit a step further.
No more cars for him, at all.
The 71-year-old mayor is trading in his 2001 Volvo for an AC Transit pass and a sturdy pair of walking shoes.
“I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint to the absolute minimum,” he said. “I figure, if I really want to go someplace I can just rent a car.”
Bates’ long farewell to the Volvo began about a year ago, when he started walking to work as a way to lose weight and stay in shape. The 18-minute trek from his home in South Berkeley to City Hall was so invigorating he started walking everywhere he could – to Berkeley Bowl, the BART station, city council meetings.
He even bought a pedometer to tally his footsteps. His goal: 10,000 steps a day, which he has achieved nearly every day since the tabulations began May 10, 2008. Since then he’s walked 4,908,970 steps, according to the daily log he enters in his computer.
The Bates household is not entirely automobile-free. His wife, State Sen. Loni Hancock, owns a Toyota Camry hybrid, which she uses to commute to Sacramento. Hancock and the Camry are at the Capitol four days a week, however, leaving Bates with nothing but his TransLink card and his Rockports.
Bates’ decision to set the Volvo free was not easy. Like most Americans, he has a deep passion for the open road, quick acceleration and a good sound system. He has fond memories of cruising in the Volvo down Highway 1, Beethoven on the CD player, sunroof wide open.
“A car represents freedom,” he said. “For a long time I kept thinking, how would I really feel about getting rid of it? Finally I just came to the conclusion that keeping the car was ridiculous. It was just depreciating in my driveway.”
Many Bay Area mayors are taking a greener approach to transportation. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom rides in a hybrid police car for city business, and on weekends he drives his all-electric Tesla Roadster.
He also rides Muni incognito, disguised in a baseball cap, and walks when he can, said his spokesman Nathan Ballard.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed both drive hybrids. Reed traded in his Explorer for a Prius two years ago, and McLaughlin drives a city-owned Honda hybrid.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums is chauffeured in a Lincoln Town Car, according to press reports. A 2009 Town Car gets 19 miles to the gallon, according to Edmunds auto guide.
Bates hopes other Berkeley residents follow his lead. The city has ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next 40 years, and this week the city council is slated to approve a 145-page Climate Action Plan.
To encourage residents to drive less, the plan calls for more bike paths, shuttles and car-shares, increased parking rates and improved bus and rail service. Mayors and their wheels
— Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates: AC Transit, BART, Amtrak.
— San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom: Chauffeured in a hybrid police car on city business, drives his own all-electric Tesla on the weekends. Makes occasional incognito excursions on Muni.
— Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin: Honda Civic hybrid.
— Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums: Chauffeured in a Lincoln Town Car.
Regarding cultural differences, I think they have to be taken into account to some degree. Because I get the sense that Europeans are slightly more OK with shared sacrifice for the greater good, whereas a lot of those sacrifices might strike many Americans as too much of an assault on individual rights and self-determination.
But simple common sense should transcend borders. (Not saying it does, but it should.) And it just makes sense that Europeans, who have been living in close proximity for much longer than Americans, might have a thing or two to teach us on the subject of how to make density pleasant and livable, now that we’re starting to see the downsides of sprawl, and the upsides of things like 20-minute neighborhoods.
Approaches to improve livability can be phrased in ways that better suit Americans’ sense of individual liberty. For instance: I can get in my car and drive almost anywhere – across the country if I feel like it – in the utmost comfort and with a real sense of safety and security. That’s a form of freedom. By comparison, I wouldn’t experience anywhere near that sense of security just riding my bike to, say, Beaverton. That lack of a sense of security and safety constrains my freedom to get around when I’m on a bike. Improving bikeability in this case could be presented as an all-American, chest-thumping fight for justice and liberty.
…Except for the zero-sum mentality we seem to have that increasing bikeability will decrease driveability. I actually think this is not true, as increasing actual cycling ought to also increase driveability because it should reduce congestion–but the majority does not agree. Any attempt to argue for increased bike access seems to be met with an attitude that people are “trying to force me out of my car”, thereby removing freedom. Un-American.
Gosh, I just moved here from Indiana. Now I’ve got to move to Europe!
Many of the comments reference the lack of a real gas tax in the country as one of the forces that would drive more people out of their cars. We have this sort of tax, but it is hidden because an outright tax is impossible politically speaking. The CAFE legislation forces car companies to expend ever larger amounts of money to deliver cars that get very high MPG while delivering the high levels of safety to which new-car buyers are now accustomed. That combination does not come cheap! As car prices climb to pay for all the whiz-bang technology that will enable the high mileage, Americans can probably expect pressure on their wages and on their job to continue as we compete with the entire globe. I expect a cultural shift could happen more quickly than one might expect – one car households were very common and they could become common again given the circumstances 🙂
“The CAFE legislation forces car companies to expend ever larger amounts of money to deliver cars that get very high MPG while delivering the high levels of safety to which new-car buyers are now accustomed.”
Oh, please. US new car fleet mpg was higher twenty years ago than it is today. Car companies aren’t trying to produce high mpg cars now and they weren’t then. The absence of any serious gas tax has not helped, but pretending that we are taxed indirectly through the CAFE standards is a joke. I invite you to produce evidence to support that statement.
America was founded on the downtrodden from Europe. If Europe is so great, why did we have to go over and kick Germany’s ass? I’ve never driven a car from France, Spain, England, or Italy, and I’m not pompous enough to drive one from Germany. When has Europe gone to bat for anyone else? Europeans have funny accents. My cousin’s husband is from England and doesn’t brush his teeth. The only thing I know about Europe is that Lucky Charms cereal is the best. Europeans don’t like jews and the only place the jews could flee to during WWII was China. Yes, pre-communist CHINA! There’s something stinky about Europe. My aunt and her family live in Sweden, but I don’t consider that Europe because it’s always snowing. If you don’t like my juvenile attitude than you must hate Amerika!!!
I agree with Mr Burchfield comment that, “There’s very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile”. The recent release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve seems like good evidence to support his statement.
great piece! the last bit about democracy and that we elect leaders to make the decisions people would not necessarily normally do on their own reminded me of Williams and our transportation leaders quest to reach a public consensus there.
Bravo, Jonathan. Beth’s right that we have to take these know nothing attitudes into account. But actually, many of the European countries where these policies were instituted were just as car-centric as the US after WWII. Planners there fought the same attitudes and often faced similar infrastructural obstacles. (Copenhagen, for example, has the third biggest sprawl in Europe.) It’s not that Europeans were all that more enlightened than Americans. The difference is, in a few places (not all), planners and politicians acted boldly (spurred by the oil shocks of the ’70s), and found that within a few months or years, almost everyone adjusted to the new reality. The same thing happened with bike corrals and light rail here, Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives in NYC, and so on.
Now, many European cities that used to be clogged with cars boast lively, walkable, commercially thriving and much more livable inner cities than they did two generations ago. That’s one reason American tourists love to visit them. Now, as this story suggests, the countries and cities that were slower to adopt are scrambling to follow the bold leaders.
Yes, we do have to account for loudmouths and political exploiters and antagonistic mass media and some infrastructure differences, but ultimately, the record shows that people everywhere adjust if the plan makes sense.
Another important point: if you take something away, like free socialized car storage, you may have to make compensating changes. Wagenmakers’ Chamber of Commerce supported market pricing parking in return for the building of parking garages linked to mass transit on the city fringes, thereby preserving access to their businesses and clearing the commuter-generated gridlock that was impeding commerce. Does Portland have enough enlightened business leaders to do the same? Or do we have to wait till the gridlock got as bad as it did in Amsterdam, and Manhattan? Maybe so…
The longer we keep distorting financial reality and easing market pressure by approving taxpayer subsidized car centric planning, like the socialized sprawl of the current CRC, welfare street parking, etc, the harder it will be to pursue more economically efficient and environmentally sustainable alternatives. Ultimately, we’ll have to wind up doing the right thing, but misspending billions before we get there.
Andrew put the questions well in the comment above. The next task is to figure out how to empower and incentivize our political leaders (and thereby planners) to take the steps they know are best. Portland leaders like Mayor Adams and Rob Burchfield have studied this stuff in detail, and they know what’s right and what works, but they need visible public support to counter the loud minority’s inflammatory headlines, clueless columnists, and other willfully ignorant voices, in public meetings, letters to the city and to editors, rallies, marches, etc. That can come from business leaders, political candidates, advocacy organizations … and BP readers.
Just got back from Copenhagen. There may indeed be a profound cultural difference. But it has to do not so much with intellectual attitudes as with how one relates to his or her own body. To a visitor, Danes seem made of sterner stuff: no slouching, no obesity (that I could see), no ill fitting clothes, old people riding bikes proudly, people who needed them using canes, but no “walkers” or “scooters”. For Americans to get to where the Danes are physically would require a complete revision not only of how we see our own bodies. but how we care for them, how we live in them. Such a radical change has happened only once in the last hundred years or so in the US: the decline of the number of smokers in the general population.
The interstate highway system, the space race, etc., were more or less decided upon in this country undemocratically. The objection to the loss of car use here comes not because decisions mandating it are “undemocratic”–after all a majority of people want the US out of Afghanistan, we are still there, and yet protest is muted–but because the American body is threatened. There is nothing more intimate than one’s own relation to his or her body, and in this respect foreigners (such as the Danes) really are alien.
Last time I checked we lived in America not Europe. I have lived in Europe and specifically in Zurich, Switzerland. And yes it makes sense their b/c it is densely populated. The majority of people live in apartments or row houses and so public transportation makes sense. I enjoyed very much while living there. This plan may work in densely popluated areas of the US (the East Coast and LA) but not in the West. On top of that Americans have a love affair with the automobile and the freedom it gives us to travel where ever and when ever we want.
I would just like to clarify that Metro and The Intertwine Alliance organized and hosted the October 2009 Transatlantic Active Transportation Workshop. The City of Portland, along with other cities in the region, were great partners on the project.
“The question is, should we grab the bull’s horns and wrestle it to the ground? ”
Make gas expensive, higher car taxes, and road taxes. Start planning with the idea of NO CARS instead of planning AROUND cars. And so on and so on.
And reallocate the money from a cancelled CRC to bury I-5, while we’re at it.
> “There’s very little political will to disincentivize the use of the automobile,” said Burchfield, “We’re concerned that our goals for reaching higher mode split will be difficult to reach because of our inability to put price disincentives on car use. Is that a valid concern? How is it that you’ve come to have that political will?”
Isn’t it pointless to have political will if the politicians are politically spineless?