Once upon a time, cities reached only as far as people could walk and horses could ride. In the early days of New York City, Washington Square Park was for the rich while Washington Heights was the country, far out of town. Slowly, the arrival of railroads changed that perspective.
At first, in the late 1880s, the elevated lines allowed folks to commute to downtown from 14th Street and beyond. By the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the subways started to open up even more frontiers. The Upper East and West Sides were no longer 90-minute elevated rides away from downtown. Instead, they were 25-minute subway rides away. As the subway expanded, the neighborhoods filled with people sprang up all over town. The jobs were concentrated in certain areas in Manhattan, but one could live a life by walking around the area near subway stops.
Cars, of course, changed the city landscape as well. Now, even the areas with no subway access weren’t that far away, and the suburbs become the idealized American Dream: two cars, a garage and a backyard. Those living in Westchester and Long Island and New Jersey could make it into the city. Slowly, the city had to accomodate cars. Highways tore apart neighborhoods, and sidewalk widths decreased to make room for parking. Urban population decreased.
Today, the pendulum has seemingly swung back the other way. Urban life is more desirable than ever, and more of the U.S. population than ever before resides in cities. Still, the battle goes on between cars and pedestrians. The livable streets crowd say that cars are a drain on urban resources. They take up space and cause pollution and congestion. Our investment priorities should be in mass transit in order to free up road space for vital trips and discourage auto use. Others say the car is a personal choice and one that should not be taken away from Americans. Where I fall on this divide is obvious.
Over the weekend, The Times looked at the new focus on pedestrians in cities except they do so through the lens of Europe. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote:
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.
Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter…
While some American cities — notably San Francisco, which has “pedestrianized” parts of Market Street — have made similar efforts, they are still the exception in the United States, where it has been difficult to get people to imagine a life where cars are not entrenched, [Stanford’s Lee] Schipper said.
I found this article to be a strange one because of the way it almost fetishizes “pedestrianization.” Those kooky Europeans in Zurich where 90 percent of elected officials ride public transit might be deprioritizing cars, but that’s just a European thing, says the article. In fact, Rosenthal seems to miss a major component of congestion alleviation efforts: It’s all about economics.
As cars sit in traffic, they impact the environment around them. I waste time inching across Canal Street or up 6th Ave., and time, as we know, is money. Meanwhile, my car isn’t operating at optimal speeds, and I have to spend more on gas while my emissions increase. Furthermore, constant overuse leads to disrepair, and the money invested in roads could be better utilized by promoting vibrant urban life. It’s more than just about the crazy ideas.
Ultimately, road development has been driving American transportation policy for six decades, and that likely won’t slow down. We can’t get high-speed rail off the ground, and transit agencies throughout the country struggle for money. Until Americans embrace city life and recognize what that means for our transportation policies, efforts at curtailing car use in dense urban environments not initially designed for cars will be met with skepticism. It’s too European for us.