Is the “Automobile Age” coming to an end? While this might sound like wishful thinking on the part of mass-transit, bicycling and pedestrian advocates, there is increasing consensus among urban planners that cities need to adapt to the growing demand for shared roadways, walkable neighborhoods and public spaces designed for people, not cars.
From London to Lyon to Helsinki, bicyclist friendly cities are reinventing their infrastructures to accommodate an urban future envisioned as far more people-friendly and far less car-centric. As the Helsinki Times boldly predicted in 2014: “The future resident of Helsinki will not own a car.”
Such ambitious forecasts seem a long way off for U.S. cities, but here in the Capital Region, communities like Albany and Troy already have taken their first baby steps toward diversifying their transportation infrastructures to become bicyclist friendly cities, adding bike lanes and bike-share programs. In Schenectady, which already has one of the most popular sections of the Erie Canalway bike trail, the city council just passed—unanimously—a new bicycle infrastructure master plan that will add lanes and connect more of the city to the existing trail. As in many cities in the nation and around the world, there has been a seismic regional shift in recent years in the thinking of city leaders and urban planners about what kind of transportation infrastructure makes a city lively, desirable and safe.
Still, decades of designing cities primarily for automobile traffic has left a deep imprint on our collective consciousness, and not everyone embraces the changes envisioned by advocates of bike-friendly, “complete streets” urban planning. One obvious natural foe is the automobile industry, which has been accused recently of propaganda campaigns blaming bicyclists and pedestrians (“distracted walkers”) for the recent surge in traffic deaths among their numbers. But that is nothing new: A century ago, when city streets were public spaces full of pedestrians, pushcart vendors and children at play, and the automobile was vilified as the deadly intruder, the industry began a successful long-term campaign to take control of the streets and, among other things, criminalize “jaywalking.”
In a narrative carefully crafted in the 1920s by automobile manufacturers and their representatives in the emerging public-relations industry, cars—and city streets cleared of impediments to their mobility—were linked to “American” values such as progress, individualism and freedom. Pushing back against the public outcry over pedestrian casualties (and editorial cartoons showing cars driven by the Grim Reaper), the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce began offering a service to newspapers: Editors were given blank forms to fill-in details about traffic accidents. The NACC wrote the reports and sent them back to the editors, who published them as authoritative fact, perhaps unaware that the NACC had skewed the blame for the crashes toward pedestrians.
The auto industry ultimately won the 20th-century battle for control of America’s streets, and given the decades of car-centric urban design that followed, it’s no surprise that many motorists today see bike lanes, traffic-calming street redesign and the increasing number of bicyclists jockeying for road space as encroachments on their right to move through the city as rapidly as possible.
But redesigning cities to improve conditions for bicyclists can benefit everyone. Making cities more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly is not unlike improving public transit, in that everyone benefits from more choice, safer streets, fewer cars and congestion, less pollution and livelier street life; even people who still choose to drive. A follow-up blog post will highlight some of the reasons why.