By David Burwell
Mae West famously summed up her philosophy of life in the words “too much of a good thing is wonderful!” That also appears to be our attitude towards transportation–especially our cars.
PPS has a radical idea – transportation can create great places, not destroy them.
Knowing a “good thing” when we see it, we Americans have spent almost a century heaping all our dreams of power, speed, freedom, styling, convenience and, okay, raw sex appeal, on the back of this simple machine used to go from place A to place B. There are now more cars on the road than licensed drivers. Over the last century the portion of the average household budget devoted to transportation has risen from 2% to 20%. More than 50% of land in many city centers is now devoted to streets and parking lots. Our mistress has become our master.
In the process, our public spaces–the physical element of our public realm–got squashed. This is a bad thing. Public spaces are where we live, where we greet our friends, engage in business, exchange ideas, contemplate nature, appreciate public art, take our kids out to play, recreate with our friends and family–or simply sip coffee at a sidewalk café and watch the world go by. Public spaces build the social capital that creates community. Our social capital–the very essence of community–is rapidly being depleted. How we “do” transportation is one big reason why. Saving our public spaces for people, not traffic, is a public imperative.
That’s where we–and you–come in. Project for Public Spaces has a radical idea–transportation can create great places, not destroy them. We see the vast amount of urban land dedicated to cars, traffic, and parking lots as a huge opportunity to create public spaces that serve community. Transportation can be the handmaiden of this transformation. But we must follow some simple rules. These include:
Rule One: Stop Planning for Speed
Speed kills sense of place. Cities and town centers are destinations, not raceways. Commerce needs traffic–foot traffic. You can’t buy a dress from a car. Even foot traffic speeds up in the presence of fast-moving cars. Access, not automobiles, should be the priority in city centers. Don’t ban cars, but remove the presumption in their favor. People first!
Rule Two: Start Planning for Public Outcomes
Cars were first introduced into cities as a public health measure–removing the dirt and filth of a transportation system based on raw horsepower, in the literal sense of the word. Cars also allowed us to separate people from the pollution of mills and factories, another public benefit. Great transportation, such as Grand Central Terminal, grand boulevards, cozy side streets, rail-trails, the wide sidewalks of the Champs Elysées, are transportation “improvements” that actually improve the public realm. Think public benefit, not just private convenience.
Rule Three: Think of Transportation as Public Space
Yes, the road, the parking lot, the transit terminal–these places can serve more than one mode (cars) and one purpose (movement). Sidewalks are the urban arterials of cities–make them wide, well lit, stylish and accommodating with benches, outdoor cafes and public art. Roads can be shared spaces with pedestrian refuges, bike lanes, on-street parking etc. Parking lots can become public markets on weekends. Even major urban arterials can be retrofitted to provide for dedicated bus lanes, well-designed bus stops that serve as gathering places, and multi-modal facilities for bus rapid transit or other forms of travel. Roads are places too!
Mae West was right in one sense–huge amounts of a good thing can be wonderful. It depends on what “good thing” means. Transportation–the process of going to a place–can be wonderful if we rethink the idea of transportation itself. If we remember that transportation is the journey, but community is always our goal.