Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Is that the best you've got?

So, this one's not necessarily about rail. In my mind, though, anything that involves getting people out of their cars includes rail almost by default, if only subconsciously. The urban planning mantra these days seems to be "modal choice, modal choice, modal choice," so a discussion limited only to rail would be less relevant to our transportation reality. Speaking of repetitive mantras, our plan for creating less auto-centric streets seems to be pretty formulaic as well - I imagine it goes something like "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." It's catchy, don't you think? If not original, at least it's rhythmic.
With that in mind, let's talk about the former Bogota mayor's visit to the glorious city of San Francisco. The Columbian politician, Enrique Penalosa, is well known for his improvement of Bogota's streets, particularly in his efforts to improve those streets for pedestrians and cyclists. He banned sidewalk parking, widened streets, restricted automobiles from the streets on certain days, created a network of bike lanes and a rapid bus line. Sound familiar? "Widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets." Simple rules, but easy to follow. Unsurprisingly, Penalosa took a look at the SF streets and pronounced that the same could be done in the Bay.

I'm not really here to talk about San Francisco, because I think Penalosa's right in some ways. I don't think it would take too much effort on the city's part to mimic the success of Bogota, and it's not like any of Penalosa's suggestions are so wild that they could force the city's development backwards in any way. I'm also not here to talk about Penalosa, because hey, the man got the job done, didn't he? What I am here to talk about is how methodologies of incorporating green methods of transportation feel like they have lost their vigor. I feel like I've been waiting a long time for something truly extraordinary to come along, and "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" just isn't it.
I'm going to be honest - none of that would get ME out of MY car. And it's not that I don't care about the environment or our dependence on foreign oil or anything like that - hey, I work for Go Green. I care. But I also care about having a mode of transportation that is there when I need it and not a moment later. I care about maintaining the freedom of mobility that prompted me to fight for my driver's license the instant I turned 16. If the mayor builds a bike lane, I will salute him for it, and I will dutifully perform the necessary over-the-shoulder check while I converge into it before a right-hand turn - from my car. Although it may be effective to an extent, the thought of bike lanes or wider sidewalks falls short of thrilling me.

I think planners and transportation experts lack imagination. Remember what "Tomorrowland" was based on? Newfangled gadgets and flying cars and the one thing we did get - a highway system built for speed. What happened to our futuristic plans? Where are the planners that are thinking up new things - like that idea for a system of little pods that would take you straight from point A to point B? I always found that concept amusing. After all, it mimics the privacy of the automobile. I also like the concept of shared vehicles, cars that you can borrow for short periods of time. It reduces your need for a personal vehicle. And on a policy level, what if incentives could be given to employers who allow their employees to telecommute during set days during the week? Not practical for all careers, of course, but imagine how many people that would take off the road. Or employers that reduce hours for employees who do work while commuting via bus or rail. I would take BART if it meant that I could get a couple hours taken off from sitting in front of my desk (granted, I would take BART if the workers weren't going on strike, say, or if the cost of a ticket didn't make me wince.)

Yeah, there are flaws in the idealistic plans we may dream up. But where is genius if not in idealism? Have we given up trying?

Is creativity too much to ask? Am I undervaluing the work that has been done by planners today? Or am I right - has creativity and innovation gone out the window in favor of "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets"?

Enlighten me.


  1. Very well written. I fully agree with you. As an avid biker and pedestrian, I'm always for wider bike lanes (I've almost been killed on the road waaaay too may times--more than I can count on two hands), but that is taking the focus off the real problem with transportation, the lack of an affordable, non-pollutant emitting car (like hydrogen engines). This is the biggest problem in my mind. Los Angeles brown air is a case and point example of why this is absolutely necessary. Why can't city planners focus on creative ways to market cars like these?

    And also, on kind of a side note, California's streets and freeways are some of the worst in the country. When I drive from AZ to California, the differnece in roads is apparent immediately at the border. Arizona holds the 5th most populous city in the US (Phoenix) and tons of other large cities and can keep spottless roads and wide freeways from traffic jams and Los Angeles (given it is bigger) cannot even come close to doing either. Why is this? I think some major analysis and planning needs to be focused on this in the next 10 years too...

  2. Well, it's a culture thing.

    "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" is often repeated because planners everywhere are trying to change the auto culture.

    I mean, the reason why most ppl don't walk or ride their bikes is because of the inconvenience and lack of safety.

    Driver's dont respect cyclists and pedestrians enough, and developers have built everything too far apart to make it enjoyable for people to realistically utilize these mode choices.

    If I saw Penasola and he told me "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" would work to make the bay area like Bogota I'd call his bluff. Bogota works because its engrained into their culture. Density, farmers markets, public transit, etc.

    I'm just as good of a cyclist in Portland as I am in Los Angeles, but you would not find me weaving through lanes and cars in Los Angeles, because I know that drivers down here are not expecting that nor used to it. So it greatly increases my chances of getting hit. But in Portland, you'll see me ride in the left hand lane with cars or what not everyday of the week. I do urban races without street closures for fun up there.

    I mean, you can ride your bike through San Marino, or Malibu and feel much safer than riding or walking in LA. And its much more enjoyable as well.

    Most transportation planners recognize this and so they all preach the "widen sidewalks, protect bike lanes, keep cars off the streets" because they can't talk about their real plans until the culture changes.

    It's kind of like the paperless office. It was an idea around in the late 1980s and it's not until now that some departments are entirely paperless at businesses.

    So with that, I woudln't even work on improving SFO or any high density areas, but focus on the suburbs where there are more people. It can be in many instances easier to fix high density areas than sprawled areas.

    And finally, you bring up the most important part of planning, and that is plan with regard to your location and geography. America is the most unique country in the world due to the variety of cultures. And things that work in other countries will not work here. I don't think we'll ever see the end of the auto, or when people use public transit as the primary modal choice in America, but I'm positive planners will come up with something that increases intramodal options while exponentially increasing mobility.

    And the final fact is, most planners are just buzz word people who will use every chance they get to throw out words like "green" "sustainable" "tod" "smart growth" "healthy growth" "community" without ever knowing what those words mean and how to implement it.