Who Owns the Streets
I've seen a lot of videos on this subject, but this is by far the best.
I've seen a lot of videos on this subject, but this is by far the best.
I've got two videos for you today that might -- if you're not there yet -- just nudge you in the right direction toward radicalisation around the subject of cars.
The first video has a car fanatic make the convincing case against car dependency.
The second shows you a world where we can do better.
There's some exciting stuff happening here in Cambridge. The county council (the tier of government between municipal and national that handles Cambridge and the surrounding smaller towns) has declared that they want to build what they're calling a "sustainable travel zone" around pretty much all of Cambridge proper.
In practise, this means that within this area, if you drive your car, you'll be billed to the tune of £5/day. There are a series of exceptions of course, ranging from cabs to emergency vehicles, but on the whole most drivers in the city will have to pay this fare every day they enter (or leave) the city. And yes, this applies to people who live inside the zone.
Understandably, a lot of people are upset by this, but I think that it's a great idea that's long overdue.
I'm going to rant on this for a bit.
For nearly 70 years, most of the developed world has been asleep at the wheel (see what I did there?) when it comes to urban design to the point where private cars are seen as not just a necessity, but even a force of nature. When pedestrians are mowed down by careless drivers in this country, the conversation inevitably falls to victim blaming, asking "why weren't they wearing their government recommended high-viz jacket?" Discussions around cycling centre around the decorum of those who violate laws written for cars, while ignoring the drivers who violate those same laws with fatal consequences.
Cars kill 1.5million people every year and that's collisions alone. When you factor in the deaths from pollution and climate change, it's insane that we've entertained this pattern for so long.
On top of that, a society that privileges private cars (ie. nearly every country) necessarily excludes the poor, the disabled, the young and the old. That means that events like all candidates meetings and football games, or public parks and children's play areas place an unfair burden on people to own and be capable of operating a car or depend on having someone else drive them. People can be isolated by their partners because they simply have no way to leave the house, or feel "fenced in" by the pedestrian-hostile world outside.
The thing is, everyone knows this is terrible. 9 out of 10 drivers will agree: cars are terrible for all of the above reasons. However, when it comes to actually reducing cars on the road, everyone thinks they're an exception.
Everyone else needs to get off the road, but I have to drive my kid to school! What am I supposed to do, send her on a bike? It's not safe!
This of course comes from the self-fulfilling prophecy: we built a world so dependent on private cars that we can't interact with that world safely using any other means. You can have a development without cycle lanes or even sidewalks and no one will bat an eye, but dare to skimp on the free parking and people lose their frickin' minds.
This world our predecessors built for us sucks. Accepting that, where do we go next? To my mind, you have to start with a collective decision around what we want to become, and the rational answer to that has to be: Amsterdam.
Clean, quiet, safe streets mostly used by pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, allowing for delivery and emergency vehicles and even the occasional (very slow moving) private car. That's a world where you can safely send your kid to school on her bike, the world where an 80 year old woman can choose to live alone and still buy groceries and visit friends independently.
I don't think it's unreasonable to say that most people want this. The problem mostly seems to be around the public's unwillingness to accept that this is even possible. I want to go through some of the more common objections:
We can't do that here! The Netherlands is flat. We have hills!
There are plenty of examples of good pedestrian, cycling, and transit infrastructure being applied in cities all over the world, but like anything else, we can tailor our designs to the geography. Many towns (like Cambridge) are flat, so a heavy cycling focus makes sense. Other cities (like perhaps San Francisco) are probably better suited to biasing pedestrian and transit corridors, or subsidising e-bikes.
That's unreasonable. They had the density so it was easy for them. We're too spread out!
This sounds plausible until you realise that the Netherlands looked like this in the 1970s:
Cities change all the time. We can change ours, but we have to want it.
That's nice, but the Dutch don't do the same kind of work that I do. I need a big truck to do my job!
This is laughable to anyone who's seen a hydraulic crane truck hoisting a grand piano three storeys into the air on the Haarlemmerstraat. Nine times out of ten, small trucks do the work just fine, and for that last 10%, a work truck can always be acquired. You do not need a land rover to buy groceries.
My office is in a business park off the freeway. I have to own a car to get to my job.
This is a symptom of our failed design philosophy: the idea that everyone owns a car, so they "they can just drive" to my cheap office space. These far-away office parks don't make anyone happy. They're painful and dangerous to commute to, require expensive hardware (cars) to make the trip, and typically exist in "deserts" where you can't find food or child care, let alone nearby homes.
This model is bad for everyone and has to die. At the very least, it shouldn't be cheaper to subject people to this.
What about the suburbs & villages? Those people need cars!
Some people don't like living in a "city" like Cambridge and prefer to live further out where the land is paradoxically cheaper, but where you must own a car to go basically anywhere. That's fine, but we can't let their preferences dictate the structure of our community. If Cambridge wants to be like Amsterdam, these people need to be dissuaded from driving their cars into the city.
The £5/day charge will be applied to cars driven within a very large "sustainable travel zone" (STZ) on any weekday. The proceeds from this levy will be applied to expanding transit (frequency and routes & lowering fares) as well as improving/expanding cycle infrastructure.
In effect, this is a classic carrot/stick arrangement: you can drive your car if you want, but you're going to pay. However if you're open to alternatives, they're now faster, cheaper, and more convenient.
It's not a perfect plan. Personally, I would have favoured outright banning of cars within the zone, or at least extending the STZ to include weekends, but this is a step in the right direction.
There's a whole bunch of politics operating under the radar here that makes this all rather interesting.
Cambridge's mass transport, like all transport in the UK (excluding London) is privately held. There are a handful of bus companies managing separate routes charging exorbitant fares for notoriously unreliable service and they don't even allow transfers. It's a terrible system that's barely used and politically, no one has dared step up with a solution to fix it. Through this plan, these companies stand to benefit considerably, effectively absorbing a public subsidy for a private service that has historically not been provided well at all.
In other words, this might just be a case of politicians finding a way to soak the public for some money so that they can give it to their friends in some private companies. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time.
What's worse is that they'd be doing this with the blessing of active transport activists like Camcycle who have pinned their names and reputations to the project for support. If this is, as I suspect, a fleecing of the public purse, it could be terrible for everyone.
The plan is being executed by the Cambridgeshire County Council which is presently governed by a Labour/Lib-dem coalition. The Conservatives, who are largely elected by car-driving village dwellers will likely use this as an issue to beat their opponents in the next election.
That election is timed to happen just before the £5/day charge comes into effect, but after the public funds have been spent "bolstering transit". My inner cynic says that this is all designed to take that public money, give it to the bus companies and then fold up shop before the next election so they don't have to go through with it.
All of this is terribly disappointing, but even given the very likely chance that this is all a scam, I find myself still siding with it.
When it comes to building our cities to be clean, quiet, and safe for everyone, I'm going to support any plan that furthers that goal. If the alternative is letting a bunch of carbrains turn around and kill it ensuring that nothing gets better, I'll back any plan that gets us even a little bit closer to a better home.
I went on two rather big trips over the past few months, and with the exception of my recounting of Auschwitz, I haven't written about either yet. I'll start with Poland, and if I have time tonight or tomorrow, I'll try to fit Greece in here too.
For 2013, DjangoCon was held in Warsaw, Poland, and for the first time in my life, I was working for company willing to fund the trip. I bookended the conference with a few vacation days, and squeaked out a little over a week of time to explore the most Eastern place in Europe I've been able to see so far.
To say Warsaw is beautiful would be a little too generous, but it's not nearly as ugly as I had expected. World War II saw nearly 85% of the city demolished, and then the Soviets took over, littering the landscape with those 60s/70s era square, concrete monstrosities. Like most things communist, the architecture is efficient, and ugly as hell. Despite this though, Warsaw has managed to renew itself in this post-communist era. Big people-friendly parks with fountains dot the landscape, surrounding the historical landmarks around the city. There's an epic building at the centre of everything called "The Centre for Science and Culture" -- a gift from the Soviets to the people of Warsaw. It's an interesting to comprehend the communist view of society: what was exalted, what was suppressed.
The suburbs of Warsaw are pretty depressing. The Soviet architecture is unrelenting, and unlike the core, there hasn't been a lot of money invested here. Wide roads with no sidewalks frame collections of square concrete towers entrenched in overgrown and unmanicured grass. Sidewalks, where they exist are cracked and unmaintained, and graffiti is everywhere. Still, while I don't paint a very pretty picture, the area I was in felt quite safe: playgrounds and families with children, people walking their dogs or just sitting enjoying the sound of kids playing. While it's immediately apparent that there isn't much money here, the people seem content, even happy.
Polish is a rough language. I know I've bitched about Greek here, but let me tell you Polish is no picnic either. I managed to learn how to pronounce key words like "please", "thank you", "yes" and "no", but outside of that, I found it really difficult even to get the sound of the words to process in my brain. Thankfully, I had my phone doing a lot of the heavy lifting, using Google Translate like a boss everywhere I go. I even had it talk for me in a few tight situations. For the most part the older generation speaks no English at all, while the younger crowd, like people their age all over the world, is working hard at learning. Hollywood movies are subtitled and not dubbed as they are in Germany, which apparently helps out a lot. Still, if you're a unilingual anglophone like myself, having a semi-universal translator in your pocket is a really good idea if you're visiting here.
When the war ended and the Soviets occupied Poland, they offered to rebuild Warsaw's Old City but did so with a catch: they would rebuild the entire town, but not the Royal Castle. Not stupid, the Varsovians took the Soviets up on their offer, but rebuilt the castle after they were driven from Poland decades later. This Soviet policy of dismantling the monarchy in the hearts of minds of the Poles extended well beyond this offer, occupied Warsaw saw the Soviets deface national monuments everywhere, burning the crowns off of the Polish coat of Arms everywhere they could find it. Much like the castle, the crowns were re-attached after the Soviets left.
The monarchy wasn't the only thing the Soviets wanted to destroy and religion was high on their list, but even they weren't crazy enough to try to outlaw the church in Poland. Catholicism was, and still is, very strong in Poland, bolstered considerably by the actions of John Paul II, a Pole himself who is credited (at least in part) with the defeat of communism. There are still churches all over Warsaw and Kraków, and many of them display his likeness on the outside in paintings and sculpture.
One last note on the culture: from what I could tell, "socialism" here is an even dirtier word than it is in the US. The cab driver who took me home one night kept asking me questions about Canada (his English was pretty good) and toward the end he said something to the effect of "it must be nice to have such strong capitalism there". I tried to explain that many of us aspire to a more socialist state, but he seemed to think I was pulling his leg or something. It would seem that Poland's experience with communism has tainted the whole concept for a few generations.
Poland is one of the poorer European nations, still recovering from decades of occupation and neglect. The currency there is called the złoty (pronounced zlottee) and you can buy one for about $0.33CAD or €0.23. In real world terms, this means that a Twix chocolate bar will run you about $0.40CAD or €0.30. So long as you stay out of the tourist-targetted places (read: Hard Rock Café), you can easily get by on about €10/day.
My hostel was in the suburbs, one of those aforementioned concrete monstrosities that had been gutted and heavily renovated on the inside. My private room had a big comfortable bed, free wifi, a private bathroom and it was super-clean. I stayed there for 10days for about 1200zł or €278. This was so affordable that I just abandoned my hostel for one night and left for Kraków by high speed train (60zł) where I splurged on a 4star hotel for 232zł so I could visit Auschwitz. Honestly, if you're looking for a low-cost holiday in a country where the food is decent, and the history fascinating, Poland is the place.
Apparently, Poland is the land of pierogis, so I sampled a bunch while I was in Warsaw. Honestly, I don't see the appeal, but they weren't terrible. I'd like to experiment with making them on my own sometime though. They're pretty simple, and might be more to my liking with some bacon and feta...
They also have this ridiculous ice cream (not my photo) there that, while saturated in sugar is really fun to eat. The soups all have a flavour similar to other Eastern European styles, and the diet in general is very "meat and potatoes" friendly. Generally, my stomach had a good time in Poland.
Poland is pretty awesome. It's the birthplace of both Marie Curie and Copernicus, the seat of Auschwitz and and archive of 20th century cold war history. If you've got t the opportunity, I recommend a visit.
Photos from the trip can be found in my image gallery
Interesting things are happening down near the water on the East side of Toronto: someone is trying to build a Walmart. I rode my bike down there about a month ago and the whole area is being dug up in preparation for a sort of "power centre" (to borrow a phrase from Radiant City).
The new complex calls for roughly 2000 parking spots, yet claims to be an "urbanised" environment and Councillor Paula Fletcher isn't falling for it for a second.
Today City Hall denied Walmart permission to build its box down there and it did so in part due to support from people like her. It wasn't a big leap really, no one wants the damn thing there anyway so she's just acting as her constituents have asked. Frankly, I think that that area would be much better served by a mixed use residential/greenspace/commercial area, especially since it's right on what is possibly one of the prettiest bike lanes in the city.
Nice job Paula, keep up the good work. The fight isn't over yet (it rarely is with Walmart). The issue is expected to be brought before the Ontario Municipal Board sometime in the next month and sadly, that particular institution is not known for it's smart urban planning. If anyone has any ideas regarding how we might help the OMB make an intelligent decision, I'm all ears.
I'm here at Open Cities for an all-day "unconference" about the design of our cities. I'm too groggy to come up with a good description, so here's what's on the website:
Open Cities Toronto 2007 is a weekend-long web of conversation and celebration that asks: how do we collaboratively add more open to the urban landscape we share? What happens when people working on open source, public space, open content, mash up art, and open business work together? How do we make Toronto a magnet for people playing with the open meme?
You are invited to discuss, dance, debate, and download Toronto’s potential to become an epicentre and an example of a community that thrives on openness. We’ve all chosen to live here for a reason – let’s figure out how we can combine our talents to build a city-wide community of openness.
I'll be blogging throughout the day so you can check back to see what's happening "as it happens" so to speak... unless you're reading this through Facebook, since apparently, their software isn't smart enough to process changes to pre-existing posts.
It's been fun so far, Misha Glouberman has been a fabulous ring-leader. I've had some good conversations from so many different people. One guy wanted to build a mobile FM transmitter for Uganda, and I met a couple of women wanting to revitalise the street food vending in Toronto. My favourite so far though, has to be the woman who organises seemingly random dancing sessions around the city. Fun times are being had.
I just finished my first conversation and I have to say that I'm not that impressed. It's interesting conversation, but at this point, it feels more like a sort of mental masturbation than anything else. We share ideas, but nothing else comes of it. Maybe I'll feel differently later.
So it's finally over and I'm pleased to say that my attitude has changed. I've had some good conversation, but more importantly, I've learned a lot of handy stuff as well. On top of that, I've come up against two cool projects that some of these people want to do: an Kevin Bracken and Lori Kufner (New Mind Space) are advocating a true 24hour Toronto, and Mark Surman is attempting to creat an Open Source Chamber of Commerce. Both ideas sound fabulous, and it's solidified my faith in gettogethers like this one.
I'm heading over to the after-shindig-bbq at Ft. York. Hopefully, there will be more interesting things there.
Spacing has a lovely piece of satire surrounding the street furniture in Seattle today. It's worth checking out if only to see how a city committed to urban beauty does its job.
I attended Toronto's Executive Committee meeting today to depute on the new Street Furniture Harmonisation Program. Unlike the the last time deputed at City Hall however, my deputation was much clearer. Sadly though, despite the stronger opposition this time, we lost everything.
This whole Strong Mayor system is quite interesting really. Basically, you have a group of councillors who's sole function is to vote as the Mayor wishes -- regardless of what their constituents want or what they personally feel. This was most evident in Councillor Moscoe's statement that he was going to vote for this project, but he'd be "holding his nose" in doing so. I was appalled really at the lack of interest in Democracy.
We had city staff, who despite the high praise hefted upon them by Miller, really did a shit job on this project. They used financial and quantifying numbers not from their own research, but from numbers supplied by the ad companies bidding on the contract. In one case, they even re-wrote the system of measurement, claiming that even though the amount of ad-space (and eye-level ads) was increasing, the "units" of advertising were smaller.
So lets be clear here. Six square feet of ads on a garbage can on the ground, vs roughly twenty-four square feet of illuminated, eye-level ads are comparable in the eyes of city staff. ...I don't know what to say here.
It was right about at this point where David Meslin referred to this whole process as legalising bribery... and he was right. Astral Outdoor is paying Toronto a lot of money to violate our bylaws.
From our position, we deputed on a variety of different subjects. From the lack of allowed public input, to style comparisons with other cities, to the environmental concerns surrounding energy for illuminated ads, to the fact that Astral Media has a well-documented history of non-compliance with city bylaws. Only one of us mentioned the overabundance of ad-space in this contract, but that was the only thing Miller's council focused on at the end... that is, he focused on it and promptly dismissed it.
I don't know what it is that causes me to think that this sort of thing would work. Clearly, when this project came about two years ago, there was no need for consultation or debate. In a sharply divided council favouring the Mayor, Miller gets what Miller wants. Logic be damned.
Looking to take a tour of a neighbourhood in Toronto? Or maybe you're just curious about the history of a pretty building on in Parkdale or Cabbage town? Whatever your interest, Jane's Walk is a free guided tour through the neighbourhood of your choice by a knowledgeable Toronto resident. Prominent Torontonians such as John Sewell and Adam Vaugn are on the list of tour guides, and some the list of neighbourhoods is also really diverse.
I'll probably be going to one, though I'm not sure which one yet. If you're interested in a particular trip, let me know and maybe we'll go together.
Thanks to Stephen for the link :-)