Automobile Reliance v. Urban Fabric- What’s at Stake?

On reading the post Urban automobility, a dead paradigm that we refuse to abandon.. from the blog Scientia Plus Conscientia, I was reminded of just why I, as a future planner, want to work in the planning field. His post talks about the automobile and the reliance on it overtime, and how ultimately is just unnecessary in many large or megacities. It often creates more of a hassle through traffic and road design and has lessened the social fabric and vibrancy of cities over time. Through suburbanization and a societal built-up reinforcement that the automobile is king, it has disconnected people from their place as they travel about the city in their shielded vehicles, isolated from their surroundings and other people, and thus limiting their interactions with everything around them.

To put it simply, as a planner, I am in it for the people’s interactions with their environment. I’ve always been keen on these interactions since my beginnings in anthropology and later sustainability and civic engagement studies. Seeing how people interact with their “place” and what their sense of place is and means to each person, has just always been of a huge inquiry and passion. When a city becomes dominated by the automobile, that urban fabric, the social interactions and street ballet that Jane Jacobs would refer to, becomes limited naturally so. Many people would ask: “How can a city survive without the automobile?” I’m not arguing that we need to get rid of cars altogether, especially with the point that we would need to figure out how to totally adapt the emergency services as well as long-haul deliveries of goods. But I do think that urban planners and stakeholders could really push for more public transportation methods that could decrease the primary reliance of the car. As Scientia Plus Conscientia writes:

A cleverly and densely laid system of tramways, subways and trolleybus can effectively and cleanly deal with the necessary mobility of millions of people, not to mention that people can be encouraged to walk or cycle. Taking cars out of the streets liberates the space for living and meeting, which leads to enormous positive social side-effects because people start having more opportunities to meet and knit the social mesh, something that it is often lost in modern megacities. We have some good examples of this at hand: Vauban, Freiburg (Germany), Pontevedra (Spain) or Hydra (Greece), where parts of these cities have been closed to car traffic and had then been reclaimed by people as living, playing and meeting space, positively contributing to the local social well being and democracy.

Photo credit: Metro Jacksonville

Photo credit: Metro Jacksonville

A common practice amongst planning committees is to establish a “road diet” within heavily congested cities. This usually means taking out a few roads, or reducing lane sizes on roads, in order to improve other transportation methods throughout the city and/or promote social and commercial interactions. Many international cities are developing their own ideas on how to combat against the automobile and bring the streets back to who they were built for- the people! In 7 Cities that are Starting to go Car-Free, various methods are described such as re-designing streets for pedestrians only like in Madrid, doubling bike lanes in Paris, or encouraging the building of “Green Networks” (roads designed for bikes and walking between various city parks) in Hamburg. Sometimes these initiatives begin as simple experiments, but when the city leaders and transportation or environmental analysts see their positive effects on lowering emissions, traffic, and sometimes increase social spots, they will plans and policies. Some cities are even offering incentives by not driving vehicles, while other cities are witnessing coop or share businesses growing for bicycles or smaller, low-emission cars.

I think that if planners want people from any living area to reduce their reliance on the automobile, they do need to make it easier for the people to make such changes. Incentives and positive reinforcement, just like in education and training children or pets, works great! A system of consequences can also work well, as long as they are strictly enforced, and also made publicly known to civilians. I also think that these decisions should not be made by just the planners or officials, but should actually be mostly developed by the citizens of the community. There are many companies now (this will be in a future post of mine) that work with city officials and planners to get citizen involvement in the decision-making, development and implementation processes. Often times when plans are not made by the citizens, they are not received positively and feel more like an imposition, thus reducing morale and productivity of the policy or plan. When people are engaged in the process of decision-making, there are usually greater results in pride and common goal construction, as well information and resource sharing[1]. Bright Spots is one report that I can share, but there are many other reports out there on the web. This report was found on the awesome website National League of Cities, and they also have a commentary WordPress blog CitiesSpeak. In the end, civilians, planners, and leaders all need to figure out just what they want to prioritize in their communities and just what will work for them. By continuously giving in to the car industry, and pretending that environmental or public health problems- let alone our heavy reliance on oil to power automobiles, we are just denying ourselves the chance to better our communities. Sure it may take some hard work and a bit of ingenuity and borrowing or meshing together of ideas, but isn’t that chance for healthier, livable communities worth it? I think yes.

[1] Head, B. (2007). Community Engagement: Participation On Whose Terms? Australian Journal of Political Science, 42(3), 441-454.

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