Welcome back to Sunday Reading. Sunday Reading is now entirely unreliable. I couldn’t resist compiling these exceptional stories documenting how quickly and profoundly cities are changing. Please leave your links in the comments section.
First off, shared electric scooters are the latest transport technology to appear in our cities from out of nowhere. Michael Hayward and Oliver Lewis from Stuff report that “Hundreds of shared electric scooters proposed for Christchurch, Auckland“.
I got to see scooters in action in Los Angeles and San Francisco a month ago. A few things surprised me. There appears to be a lower barrier to use than shared bikes. They appealed to a broader audience of people including joy-riders, middle-age women, and obvious commuters linking to transit. No doubt part of the appeal is that people on scooters can use footpath space and insulate themselves from the harm of mixing with traffic (the key barrier to wide scale adoption of cycling).
This raises a bunch of issues including the how people on scooters interact with pedestrians and where scooters are eventually stored (or abandoned). Umair Irfan on Vox has a great primer on the subject here -> “Electric scooters’ sudden invasion of American cities, explained“.
What’s really interesting to me is how this new user group will add to the growing chorus of users demanding more equitable use of city space.
“Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities.”
Like shared scooters, TNCs like Uber Lyft and Zoomy came out of nowhere. They occupy the mostly unregulated environment of the city street which they continue to exploit. At some point cities will figure out what they are giving away. Henry Grabar explains the value of the kerb -> “Give the Curb Your Enthusiasm: The American city is wasting valuable real estate on parked cars“, Slate.
How and where we walk is a function of curb design—where is the curb cut, where are the parked cars, where are the trees? But so is the utility of emergency vehicles, taxis, public transportation, cycling, garbage pickup, and freight delivery. The space at the edge of the street plays a crucial role in stormwater management. It can provide desperately needed public and commercial space. Worth billions but given away for free, the curb is arguably the single most misused asset in the American city—and one that, more than any giant investment in apps, sensors, or screens, can determine the future of transportation.
The hype is warranted! -great visit to Vauban ecodistrict, Freiburg in Germany. So many kids on bikes using slow streets as public space, amazing tram frequency and 3-5 level homes covered in solar panels and plenty of vines! This is urban community design at its most impressive. pic.twitter.com/nvrKID9V3f
— Niko (@nikoelsen) September 4, 2018
In many places the current configuration and operation of city streets doesn’t work for the largest numbers of users and adjacent lane uses. Colin Browne explains it well here -> “Opinions: Our streets make us unhappy. They don’t have to“, Washington Post.
Thirty-eight percent of D.C. households don’t own cars. About 40 percent of D.C. residents drive to work. But all of that space between buildings? We devote 85 percent of it to moving and storing cars. Sidewalks account for 12 percent of transportation space, bike lanes about 1.2 percent, and the city’s four blocks of dedicated bus lanes amount to less than 0.02 percent.
We’ve given nearly nine-tenths of our transportation space to an expensive, dangerous, inefficient way to get around. That space serves less than half our population on a daily basis, and everyone else gets to argue over the leftover slivers. No wonder everyone’s grumpy.
The crazy thing about the automobile is that despite claiming a wildly disproportionate amount of public space, it’s still a slow and frustrating way to get across town. This is not because of all the buses, pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s not because the speed limit is too low or the traffic lights aren’t timed properly. It’s a feature of the machine itself. Cars take an enormous amount of space to safely move the one person inside and another enormous amount of space to store when they’re not being used, which is 95 percent of the time. If you live in Nebraska, you can maybe make that work. In a major world city such as ours, the acreage simply isn’t there.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. We can think bigger. We don’t have to sacrifice the safety and livability of our neighborhoods to prop up a wasteful and dangerous transportation system.
This is an essay from 1973 on the concept of auto mobility in cities. André Gorz, “The social ideology of the motorcar“, re-posted on Uneven Earth.
The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratized. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.
People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.
Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16-lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them, and city traffic becomes more paralyzingly congested. As long as there are cities, the problem will remain unsolved. No matter how wide and fast a superhighway is, the speed at which vehicles can come off it to enter the city cannot be greater than the average speed on the city streets. As long as the average speed in Paris is 10 to 20 kmh, depending on the time of day, no one will be able to get off the beltways and autoroutes around and into the capital at more than 10 to 20 kmh.
Finally, from the CityLab University here is a primer on induced demand. It would be great to see more of these transportation basics widely socialised and incorporated into educational contexts. Benjamin Schneider “CityLab University: Induced Demand“, CityLab.
Nearly all freeway expansions and new highways are sold to the public as a means of reducing traffic congestion. It’s a logical enough proposition, one that certainly makes plenty of sense to anyone who’s stuck in traffic: Small communities served by small roads grow bigger, and their highways need to grow with them. More lanes creates more capacity, meaning cars should be able to pass through faster. But that’s not what always happens once these projects are completed…
Initially, faster travel times (or the perception of faster travel times) encourage behavioral changes among drivers. An individual may choose to take the new highway to a more distant grocery store that has cheaper prices. Trips that may have been accomplished by bike or public transportation might now be more attractive by car. More distant leisure and business opportunities might suddenly seem worth the trip. In aggregate, these choices put more cars than ever before on the newly expanded road, increasing net vehicle miles traveled (VMT) (and greenhouse gas emissions).