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In Town, Without My Car!

Aug 07, 2009

by David Hiller, Advocacy Director Cascade Bicycle Club

Across Europe, the 22nd of September is a day when town centers close to cars and trucks, and open up for people to enjoy walking, cycling, live music, dancing, public art and children’s play areas. The event, called In Town, Without My Car!, represents a turning point in how we view the public space normally devoted to the movement and storage of private motor vehicles.

In Town, Without My Car!, Ciclovia’s and events like them allow us to question what our streets are really for, and whether we’re striking the right balance between the differing and often competing needs of street users. Should these public spaces be designed to maximize throughput of motor traffic, or should the emphasis be on creating places where people can engage in life’s activities in relative peace and quiet and safety? However brief, street closures give us a tantalizing glimpse of what our downtowns could be like with fewer cars and more people.
In Town, Without My Car! is a campaign that shares the streets-for-people philosophy of the London Mayor’s Transport Strategy – using the streets as social spaces and for public transport, walking and bicycling. It is about improving the quality of life, allowing people to come together and see how much better life can be when cars are simply withdrawn from the urban mix. The campaign’s objective is simple, to give priority to people over traffic.

Too often, town centers have been sacrificed to busy roads: the New Deal for Transport will give priority to people over traffic… We want towns and cities to be places where people want to live. The New Deal for transport will support the urban renaissance that is essential to revitalize urban living… this means people being able to go about their daily business without being intimidated by traffic… Traffic can be calmed from the outset by designing for low speeds. Sometimes new developments can be designed to be ‘car free’. (Source: A New Deal for Transport – Better For Everyone, DETR, July 1998 (all from UK Dept for Transport))

Our local version, Celebrate Seattle Summer Streets, is only in its second year, but has become a part of the fabric of the city. While fourteen events between April and September are hardly a revolution, they are a first important step toward reclaiming these valuable public spaces. Celebrate Seattle Summer Streets opens up streets to pedestrians and bicyclists, offering people a way to have fun, celebrate the spirit and personality of their neighborhood, and support local businesses. Alki Beach was a blast with thousands of visitors, and this coming weekend, on Saturday, August 8, Rainier Avenue – a busy arterial in the south end of town – will be closed in Columbia City.

The message is simple; Streets are the souls of our neighborhoods and the pathways to the region’s destinations. They are more than just car corridors; they are valuable civic spaces, resources, which must be wisely allocated.

This approach is far from new. In the early 1970’s Copenhagen inverted its planning pyramid – putting people first, followed in 1982 by Amsterdam’s policy officially giving priority to the bicycle. Similarly, in 1996 Vancouver, B.C. chose to prioritize walking, biking, transit and goods movement, while limiting single-occupancy vehicle accommodation. Ten years after implementing that policy, miles driven in Vancouver has decreased 29% – though the number of all trips increased 23%. At the same time, there was almost no increase in congestion.

This practice of putting people and places ahead of cars is called “mode priority.” Mode priority is the basic concept behind a wide range of transportation and planning reforms. It changes how we allocate road space, fund projects and commit resources. Moreover, it is the guiding doctrine that transformed car-choked cities in Europe into world leaders in mobility and livability.

Locally, Washington State’s Growth Management Act requires that cities adopt and regularly update Comprehensive Plans of Development. Under the Act cities must also identify a suitable Level of Service for public infrastructure, which must be met within a fixed period following new development. For too many communities it is convenient to default to an arbitrary Level of Service (LOS) based on vehicle delay. The infrastructure needed to meet that standard in many cases undermines or actually prevents travelling by foot or bicycle. There are alternatives, while I don’t have the room to go into them here, Multi-Modal LOS’s are rare or new, or even complicated.

Inverting the planning hierarchy or mode priority would make safe, convenient, and comfortable travel by foot the paramount priority. For our part, the Cascade Bicycle Club is working to pass legislation that will make this the official planning paradigm of the City of Seattle.

Our cities and towns need to invest billions to accommodate the 25% of trips that are less than one-mile, and the 40% that less than two-miles by the most efficient means possible – by foot or bicycle. Fortunately, the days are numbered for the outdated and inequitable investment and management strategies that fail to prioritize our rights of way for the safest and most efficient access for our most vulnerable and least impactful users. And that number might just be September 22.

2nd Image Credit: Seattle CAN