Back from New York, and now off to Saskatoon (there’s a contrast) to make a presentation to “RoadMap 2020” – as Saskatoon engages in some visioning of its future. 

I was interviewed for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix a few weeks ago, and the writer, Paul Hanley, did a great  job condensing my thoughts.  Here are the two columns he wrote – and I hope I do as good a job conveying these ideas to the public in Saskatoon as he already has.

Remembering when cars took over our cities

 By Paul Hanley, The StarPhoenix
 
Automobiles so dominate the urban landscape it’s hard to imagine it any other way. But cars didn’t always rule the road, and their dominance was not achieved without a fight.

Until the 1920s and 1930s, city streets were the domain of pedestrians, trolley buses, horse-drawn wagons, bicycles and kids at play. Cars and trucks were an emerging form of transportation, just one component of street traffic.

“In the 1920s,” says urban planner Gordon Price, “it was still unclear whether the public would accept private vehicles. There was a lot of carnage from traffic accidents and civic leaders were dubious about the large amount of space cars needed. Many thought curb parking should not be allowed.”

Referencing Peter Norton’s book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Price points out that to accommodate automobiles, the city required not only a physical change but also a social one: Before the city could be reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places motorists belonged.

Before the 1930s, children were free to play in the street and people could cross wherever they wanted. By the 1930s, motordom managed to convince people that the pedestrian, not the car, was the interloper and had to be restricted. The pejorative “jay walker” was introduced and public safety programs “educated” pedestrians to use signals and crosswalks.

They convinced the public the automobile should be accepted as the dominant user of the street, says Price.

Transportation engineers were instrumental in bringing this about. In 1942, the engineers consolidated motordom’s standards and codes in the Transportation Planning Handbook, a kind of transport bible that created common professional standards.

“They introduced two powerful weapons: Safety and liability,” says Price. “If you don’t go along with professional standards for safety — which completely favoured automobiles — then your community would be liable for accidents.

“After the war, bylaws were put in place to ensure a big surplus of parking, which begins to shape urban form. By the 1950s, every city and town was built according to the standards of motordom. The standards were not imposed, but gratefully accepted by the public. This was the era of cheap oil and life was as good as it had ever been. Automobile technology, standards, codes, money, oil, urban design, highway infrastructure: Everything favoured the seamless use of automobiles.”

As cars became the norm, cities sprawled and other ways of getting around become inconvenient. New neighbourhoods eliminated sidewalks. Public transit became a social service for students, the elderly, the poor; riding the bus became low-status. Besides, service was infrequent and often you couldn’t get where you wanted to go.

The success of motordom is now so complete people can’t imagine a city not dominated by cars. However, cracks are developing. The spectres of peak oil and climate change have entered public consciousness. Traffic congestion is increasingly problematic. And by and large, people do not actually like an urban form that consists of congested arteries, strip malls and parking lots.

We hanker for an urban form typical of the pre-automobile city, like the cities we visit on holiday, the old cores of European cities and towns, walkable, human places where the vitality has not been sucked out by cars. The problem is, we no longer have any idea how to design cities where cars do not dominate.

Price’s solution is not to eliminate cars. It is to increase transportation choices. More on that in next week’s column. In the meantime, take in his fascinating presentation on April 2.

 

Part 2

Plop someone down on Eighth Street East or Circle Drive North and they could be in any city in North America. The mishmash of non-descript strip malls, chain stores, parking lots and congestion is far from appealing.

We don’t really like our car-dominated cities. We prefer places that are dense, lively and walkable — the places we tend to go to on vacation, such as the old centres of European cities, with interesting buildings, narrow streets, squares and public art. But because we have made our cities barely navigable without cars, we have no idea how to remake them in a more pleasing form.

Urban planner Gordon Price, in town this week to speak at the Road Map 2020 Forum (www.roadmap2020.ca) on Reimagining Motordom, thinks there is a solution: Increase transportation options and densify cities.

Price suggests five options. The first, oddly enough, is to accept the fact that cars are our first transportation choice. No point in trying to force people out of their cars, says Price. That would be political suicide for any government. But while it is unrealistic to challenge the automobile head-on, increasing modal choice can be a popular idea.

Price’s second option is increasing access to cars on a per-trip basis. What that means is more taxis, car sharing (i.e. very short-term car rentals to run errands) or carpooling (by, for example, using online social networks to get more passengers in every car.)

The third option is better transit service of all kinds: Buses, LRTs, shuttles. Frequency of service is the key to higher ridership. Basically, riders shouldn’t need a schedule. A maximum seven-minute wait is ideal. Price points out that Vancouver’s SkyTrains have waits down to 90 seconds and ridership is booming.

Another key to successful public transit is to reduce the walking distance to stops to less than a half mile. Anything over that and people will drive if they have a car.

The fourth option is cycling of all kinds: Pedal, electric, motor. Fifth is walking. Having several transportation choices makes these latter options more workable; if it’s too cold or rainy, pedestrians or cyclists can easily hop on a bus, hire a taxi or take their car.

Price believes that with measures in place to make options two to five attractive, private automobiles will ultimately drop out of first place without using measures like taxation or regulation to “punish” drivers.

The trick to making non-automobile modes of transport work is higher population density. If we continue to allow our cities to sprawl, there will never be enough density to make walking, cycling and transit a realistic alternative.

Mayor Don Atchison’s plan to have 10,000 people living in Saskatoon’s downtown is the right idea. More aggressive in-fill measures are needed to get population densities throughout the city up to a level where “walkable retail” is a realistic alternative to big box malls on the edge of town.

Sticking with the status quo, a city increasingly spread out and dominated by cars, makes people “fat and vulnerable,” says Price. Obesity, including childhood obesity, has become a huge problem: It is so difficult to get anywhere without driving that we stop exercising. This undermines health and contributes to high medical costs.

In a community dominated by cars, congestion inevitably becomes an ever-greater problem. Heavy traffic makes our communities less resilient: The more we use cars, the less easy it is to get where we want to go because of congestion.

Resilience is also threatened as our demand for oil increases. Motordom is predicated on a never-ending supply of relatively cheap oil, but the cost of supplying a non-renewable resource like oil eventually rises with demand. The low-cost oil gets used up and the remaining resource is more difficult and therefore costly to extract. It also takes ever more energy to produce oil.

This in turn results in more pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, again undermining our social and ecological resilience. The solution is to redesign motordom. This is best done by taming the automobile and reclaiming the street for a wider variety of users.

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