Monday, February 7, 2011

Bikes vs. Cars, A Generational Battle

culture jamming win
Image via failblog

I'm guessing just about every movement during the early stages of its gestation is considered merely a passing fad by the establishment. I suppose that once upon a time several monks in monasteries felt the reformation would pass and they could go on collecting tithes as payment for the sacred knowledge they and they alone held as to your post-mortem future. The recently emerging movement towards increased biking for enjoyment or short-commuting is not going away and city's like Dallas is doing with its Bike Plan would be wise to begin planning for it.

Furthermore, when it comes to forms of transportation within cities, competing forms can often take on an antagonistic, and occasionally violent, relationship as is detailed in Peter Norton's book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, as multiple forms compete for the same space. Either see the book or Mikael from Copenhagenize review at the above link describing the violent backlash against cars invading cities built primarily for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard drivers remark "how much they hate those damn bicyclists." When I've driven, I always sensed that every other driver was the competition and they treated me as such as well, trying to 'cut in' in front of you to beat you to the next traffic signal.

Perhaps the violence and competition really only comes from cars and their machine operators behind the wheel. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his book from last year Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us, we lose our connection to humanity when we can no longer see people's eyes as is often the case behind the wheel. Ever felt more assured as a pedestrian when crossing the street once you make eye contact?

Perhaps there is even something competitive ingrained in us through years of television glamorizing the revving of engines and the starting line as if we're leather jacketed and greased up James Dean. Of course, television for better or worse is specifically catered to the zeitgeist or else it would fail as a business model. It has to appeal to markets, which are created by shared interests by a critical mass of people. Shared interests often are generational, as population bubbles are often defined by similar shared experiences.

The lure of the open road was profoundly influential on Baby Boomers. Cars symbolized freedom. There was still plenty of land and every new road was an open road. Only later did car culture become so overwhelmingly oppressive in its dominion over modern American daily life, because the chosen solution to the issue of competing forms of transportation was to eliminate the complexity. Conflict points were reduced, by doing what else? Getting rid of every other form of transportation by hook, crook, or happy accident.

Problem solved with an eraser. Unfortunately, cities aren't simple entities. They are as complex as the millions that occupy them. Every drastic decision will have drastic consequences. Freedom became oppression. Anakin became Vader.

Then along comes the echo boom of the Millennial generation. Just now beginning to fully express itself (see: social networking). Large population bubbles shape and reshape economies and therefore cities in their interest.

During the Millennial's formative years, the first generation to truly grow up in auto-oriented suburbia, the car and their home were traps. The only escape was often dependent upon somebody else, mom or dad to drive them to soccer practice or the school bus to take them to the daily children warehouse.

But then there was the bike. Oh, how every kid loved getting a new bike on christmas! Who doesn't remember their first days learning to ride? Or then riding everywhere and anywhere your spinning little legs could take you. You were now the master of your own destiny. The bicycle = freedom for an entirely new generation and the car was associated with something else, rarely as positive.

Now that we're all grown up, we want to ride our bikes again. But where to go? Cars are bigger and faster than ever as they race between stoplights. You can't go a mile without encountering some freeway to ford. The modern American city was not built for bicycling, but we need it to be. Therefore there is another looming backlash as depicted in the graffiti above. I hate to compare with the magnitude of what is happening in Egypt right now, but messy conflict is inevitable whenever there are identifiable forces restricting personal freedom, in our case, the ability to get to where we want to go, however we want to get there. Cities are built on this foundation of choice.

This also doesn't mean that the two forms can't co-exist. Many cities are showing they can (and not just European cities but New York, Philadelphia, and Vancouver have added extensive bike lanes throughout), but there must be specific provisions, infrastructure, and safety measures to ensure they can. As they should because multiple forms of transit also shouldn't be segregated. We've seen what happens when we segregate city functions. The result is "anti-city."

Proper urban form of functional, interesting, vibrant cities necessitates this concentration of movement. But concentration of anti-pedestrian modes of traffic creates a negative, repellent force. It undermines the effort to create a concentrated hierarchy of place. There is an indirect relationship between traffic and desirability. Non "anti-cities" have a direct relationship between desirability, density, value, and traffic (or movement).

Commerce that requires a physical presence (as opposed to e-commerce) is dependent on the predictability of traffic. This creates the backbone of predictable, resilient cities. That traffic MUST be pedestrian friendly as car-only traffic repels people. Pedestrian-friendly traffic then begets more people, as people attract people. More people means a market is created and local businesses can succeed rather than trying to scrape by in a failed 1960's strip center where no one wants to spend more than the absolute necessary amount of time to get in and out.

We have to make them get along, just like it makes no sense to allow for this generational divisiveness. But it's almost inevitable as auto-centricity must make some concessions.