Monday, February 8, 2010

Should we negotiate with the automobile? Or would that be appeasement?

Via the weekly WAMPO update comes a link to a recent study that I had seen a couple of weeks ago and had wanted to link to and then, as I am wont to do, forgot about it. Now that it's appeared again, I'd like to link to it and make a connection between it and the recent story in the Eagle that I mentioned in Sunday's post.

The Alliance for Biking and Walking has just completed a benchmarking report (the Quick Facts Sheet is here) that shows that, nationwide, 9.6% of all trips in this country are made either on foot or by bike (those numbers are of course higher in urban areas), yet transportation funding for bike/ped infrastructure accounts for only 1.2% of federal funding--and it may just be that that funding disparity partly explains why cyclists and pedestrians account for 13.1% of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. The fact that WAMPO sees fit to forward this along is, I think, further confirmation that it sees such things as important and seeks to encourage the area's municipalities to give some thought to these issues.

Randal O'Toole's recent visit to town and critique of Wichita's apparent direction in favor of making downtown more walkable is worth taking another look at, especially his comment that (quoting from the article here) "'pedestrian-friendly' development — a cornerstone of Wichita's downtown effort, usually means car-hostile." This of course begs a question: That there is something to be gained in keeping downtown "pedestrian-hostile," some greater good that is worth continued occasional-yet-increasing cyclist and pedestrian deaths, seeing as the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians increased by 42% between 2000 and 2007 and will only continue to increase--whether or not cities and states plan accordingly for those increases.

O'Toole frames the issue in adversarial terms: cars vs. pedestrians and cyclists; the latter two, being the weaker entities, must perforce surrender space to the stronger. It's as though, in fact, that in such a framing autos are assumed to be feral creatures to be accommodated at all costs by us weaker mortals and so, if we appease them by providing them (and then stay out of) nice, wide lanes and plenty of (preferably free or at least cheap) Sudetenland-like parking lots, we will have peace in our time with them.

My analogy is, of course, absurd (I hope no one takes offense at it); but too often it is indeed true that it is the existence of cars, over and above what is better or at least preferable for making a place more livable, that has shaped the cities we live in--and, of course, our decisions about infrastructure priorities. That Mr. O'Toole apparently feels we are compelled to lie prostrate before the automobile and its needs would seem to me a surrender of liberty that, as I said in yesterday's post, I'd think he'd want to resist mightily as the good libertarian that (I assume) he is.

To frame this discussion in Us vs. Them terms is not helpful, in other words. With careful, thoughtful planning, we can easily create urban cores whose streets can accommodate both cars and people afoot and on bikes and whose land-use laws can lead to less need for cars (and lest anyone misunderstand me, not needing a car is not the same thing as being hostile toward them). Those who read the comments section for the Eagle article will find what follows familiar, for a couple of folks there already pointed this out: Complete Streets designs result in streets that can bear the same or greater amount of car traffic as conventional streets and, at the same time, apportion space for cyclists buses and pedestrians--all the while making those streets safer for everyone. The Douglas Design District sees the wisdom in executing a Complete Streets design on one of the very busiest streets in the city, as I noted last month.

Such a reasonable accommodation makes the street, again, a truly public space, and a safer one as well. If this is appeasement, then sign me up.

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