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Designing Cities for People

In an age where parks are sacrificed for parking lots, how can city planning benefit people — not cars?

June 28, 2007

In an age where parks are sacrificed for parking lots, how can city planning benefit people — not cars?

A few years ago, as I was being driven through Tel Aviv from my hotel to a conference center, I could not help but note the overwhelming presence of cars and parking lots.

It occurred to me that the ratio of parks to parking lots may be the best single indicator of the livability of a city. The question is whether a city is designed for people, or for cars.

Measured by that yardstick, the world’s cities are in trouble. In Mexico City, Tehran, Bangkok, Shanghai and hundreds of other cities, the quality of daily life is deteriorating. Breathing the air in some cities is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.

In the United States, the number of hours commuters spend sitting in traffic going nowhere climbs higher each year.

In response to these conditions, we are seeing the emergence of a new urbanism. One of the most remarkable modern urban transformations has occurred in Bogotá, Colombia, where Enrique Peñalosa served as mayor for three years, from 1998 onwards.

When he took office, he did not ask how life could be improved for the 30% who owned cars. Instead, he wanted to know what could be done for the 70% who did not own cars.

Peñalosa realized that a city that is a pleasant environment for children and the elderly would work for everyone. In his few years in office, he transformed the quality of urban life with his vision of a city designed for people.

Under his leadership, the city banned the parking of cars on sidewalks, created or renovated 1,200 parks, introduced a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system, built hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths and pedestrian streets, reduced rush hour traffic by 40%, planted 100,000 trees — and involved local citizens directly in the improvement of their neighborhoods.

In doing this, he created a sense of civic pride among the city’s eight million residents, making the streets of Bogotá in strife-torn Colombia safer than those in Washington, D.C.

Enrique Peñalosa observes that “high quality public pedestrian space in general and parks in particular are evidence of a true democracy at work.”

He further observes, “Parks and public space are also important to a democratic society because they are the only places where people meet as equals.

“In a city, parks are as essential to the physical and emotional health of a city as the water supply.” He notes this is not obvious from most city budgets, where parks are deemed a luxury.

By contrast, “Roads, the public space for cars, receive infinitely more resources and fewer budget cuts than parks, the public space for children. Why,” he asks, “are the public spaces for cars deemed more important than the public spaces for children?”

Now government planners everywhere are experimenting, seeking ways to design cities for people, not cars. Cars promise mobility — and they provide it in a largely rural setting. But in an urbanizing world, there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city.

After a point, as their numbers multiply, automobiles provide not mobility — but immobility. Congestion also takes a direct economic toll in rising costs in time and gasoline. And urban air pollution, often from automobiles, claims millions of lives.

Another cost of cities that are devoted to cars is a psychological one, a deprivation of contact with the natural world — an “asphalt complex.” There is a growing body of evidence that there is an innate human need for contact with nature.

Both ecologists and psychologists have been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson, have formulated the “biophilia hypothesis,” which argues that those who are deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically — and that this deprivation leads to a measurable decline in well-being.

Throughout the modern era, budget allocations for transportation in most countries — and in the United States, in particular — have been heavily biased toward the construction and maintenance of highways and streets.

Creating more livable cities and the mobility that people desire depends on re-allocating budgets to emphasize the development of rail- or bus-based public transport and bicycle support facilities.

The exciting news is that there are signs of change, daily indications of an interest in redesigning cities for people, not for cars. One encouraging trend comes from the United States.

A 2.1% annual increase in public transit ridership nationwide since 1996 indicates that people are gradually abandoning their cars for buses, subways and light rail. Rising gasoline prices are encouraging still more commuters to abandon their cars and take the bus or subway — or get on a bicycle.

When Beijing decided to promote an automobile-centered transportation system, a group of eminent scientists in China protested. They pointed out that the country does not have enough land to accommodate the automobile and to feed its people.

What is true for China is also true for India and dozens of other densely populated developing countries. Some cities are far better at planning their growth than others.

They plan transport systems that provide mobility, clean air and exercise — a sharp contrast to cities that offer congestion, unhealthy air and little opportunity for exercise. When 95% of a city’s workers depend on the automobile for commuting, as in Atlanta, Georgia, the city is in trouble.

By contrast, in Amsterdam only 40% of workers commute by car, 35% bike or walk, while 25% use public transit. Copenhagen’s commuting patterns are almost identical to Amsterdam’s.

In Paris, just under half of commuters rely on cars. Even though these European cities are older, with narrow streets, they have far less congestion than Atlanta.

Not surprisingly, car-dependent cities have more congestion and less mobility than those that offer a wider range of commuting options. The very vehicle whose great promise was personal mobility is in fact virtually immobilizing entire urban populations, making it difficult for rich and poor alike to move about.

Existing long-term transportation strategies in many developing countries assume that everyone will one day be able to own a car.

Unfortunately, given the constraints of land available for cars, not to mention those imposed by oil reserves, this is simply not realistic. These countries will provide more mobility if they support public transportation and the bicycle.