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Exit From Auto Hell


new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

from auto

While some cities are deepening their automobile dependence,
others are finding ways of breaking free. Peter Newman shows how.

Los Angeles is the city of dreams – it has created fantasies, romances and visions of tomorrow that have seeped into every corner of the world. Disneyland, movies and television permeate every part of the city and its dream industry. Yet its traffic, sprawl and smog reveal a waking nightmare – a city with no vision other than that of the highway engineer.

Taking 'the toys from the boys', Hollywood B-movie style. This one is The freedom over space and time that is promised by the car was a perfect fit for the Los Angeles dream: a city of individuals where streets and other public places are easily sacrificed to traffic. In most cities there is an alternative dream to slow down the traffic, to provide alternative modes, to build urban villages where people don’t need a car – but not in LA. The city of angels it seems is not up to that kind of dream, it prefers to create the fantasies of Hollywood. So the freeways keep coming and the sprawl keeps growing.

Bangkok is also known as the city of angels, and for its recent history it has been pursuing the car about as keenly as LA. Traffic levels regularly exceed road capacity so that total gridlock seems a whisker away on most days.

Alternative visions for cities where car dependence is not so dominant are not difficult to find. Many European cities like Zurich, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Freiburg have shown how to reduce their traffic. Up the west coast from Los Angeles is Portland, where a citizen-initiated vision stopped the Mount Hood Expressway and saw it build MAX, their light rail system, instead. Portland’s downtown public spaces, its traffic-calmed neighbourhoods and its growing use of light rail testify to their different vision. Although still heavily car-dependent, Portland has ventured on to a different path.

In Asia, Singapore decided it would not follow the American dream and has for 20 years created a wealthy city-state based around its electric rail system and well-designed centres. The city has a sixth of the car use in Los Angeles and eight times as much use of public transport. Although it’s nearly four times as wealthy, Singapore has 40-per-cent less car use than Bangkok, 20-per-cent more public transport use.

Singapore went against World Bank advice by building an electric rail system. The American transport establishment which has dominated Bank policy for 50 years, still regards electric rail as an inferior choice to upgrading bus services. Singapore has proven them to be wrong. Only cities with good electric rail systems show average speeds of transit faster than traffic, thus offering a competitive advantage to transit. In Singapore the traffic speed averages 32 kph and the MRT train averages 40 kph. In Bangkok the traffic crawls along at 13 kph and the bus system averages a mere 9 kph. Imagine the dramatic improvement if Bangkok could build a similar rail system to Singapore, and thus offer a real solution to its traffic. Instead the tollways grow and the traffic worsens.

These cities are all determined by their dreams, not some inevitable process of the market. If you look at the cost of a transport system as a proportion of city wealth, Bangkok spends 17 per cent of its city wealth on its car-dominated transport system while Singapore spends a mere 7 per cent of its city wealth on its transit dominated transport system.

Los Angeles with all its freeways – and minuscule transit – spends 12 per cent of its wealth on transport while most European cities – with extensive transit systems – spend only 8 per cent. Overall, from an international study of 37 cases1, those cities which have good transit systems based around electric rail have much lower total transport costs than those cities which have freeways and poor bus-based transit. This is the opposite of current investment ideology which suggests that freeways are good for a city’s economy and transit is a drain on city wealth.

To manage a city with traffic problems is a big challenge but the evidence we have gathered at Perth’s Institute for Science and Technology Policy indicate that it can be done. However, the process must begin with a dream that is fostered by a city’s people until the insistent solutions of traffic engineers are quietened and the common-sense of the common good is heard.

The vibrancy of Greenwich Village in New York would have been lost had it not been for the citizens, led by Jane Jacobs, who stood up to the freeway plan of Robert Moses. Then when Jacobs moved to Toronto she helped in the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway which would have cut a swathe through the inner city. Instead of building this or any other expressways the city went for public transport and has created one of the least auto-dependent cities in North America. Similar stories can be told in Portland, Vancouver, and in most European cities, all of which had large motorway plans dreamed up for them by international traffic-planning consultants.

Common to all these stories of citizen-based action to stop freeways, has been the importance of key women who have helped to create a different dream for their cities. That freeways are a man’s toy is also very obvious and it is not hard to see why some men feel the need to impose this fetish on their city. The anti-freeway movement is about taking the ‘toys from the boys’ and instead presenting a dream of how light rail, traffic calming and urban villages can provide a softer, more human kind of city.

In Los Angeles, despite the last freeway costing $200 million per kilometre to build, and despite only 18 per cent of the population actually believing that freeways help ease congestion, the city is planning another freeway through 1,000 homes in Pasadena. Lois Arkin, who founded LA’s Eco-Village, has a different dream and with the residents of Pasadena and other transit advocates she is hopeful that this dream can win the day. But the dream merchants of Hollywood are still going strong; at Disneyland’s latest attraction, the Rocket Rods, Walt Disney himself pronounces in full surround video that ‘the symbol of American freedom is the highway’.

Peter Newman is Professor of City Policy at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. His most recent book – co-authored with Dr Jeff Kenworthy – is Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence (Island Press, 1999).

1 Research conducted by Perth’s Institute for Science and Technology Policy

Professor Peter Newman
Institute for Science and Technology Policy
Murdoch University
PERTH Western Australia 6150
ph: 61-89-360-2902
fax: 61-89-360 6421
e-mail: [email protected]
web site: http://wwwistp.murdoch.edu.au

Visiting Professor
City and Regional Planning
University of Pennsylvania

Kicking the habit: Planning as therapy

THE CAR IS THE TECHNOLOGY which involves the biggest number of employees, the highest advertising budget, the largest annual accidental death rate and the biggest contribution to global warming. How do you begin to approach managing something so popular and yet so destructive? There are three ways: technology (civilizing the car), economics (pricing it) and planning (reducing the need to travel and providing other options). Two cities that have shown how effective the last of these – planning – can be, are Stockholm and Curitiba.

IT HAS LONG BEEN A POLICY IN STOCKHOLM (population 1.6 million) to develop around stations on the city’s rapid transit system. The centres are strung together like pearls on a bead along the railway system and are all of a high density, particularly around the station core. All these sub-centers show the characteristics of urban villages, though some are predominantly residential while others have a mix of uses.

Raised bus shelters for speedy boarding in Curitiba.

Stockholm’s centers are compact and of ‘walking’ scale, with a rich array of facilities clustered together within a relatively small area. Motorized and non-motorized transport are segregated, town squares are traffic-free and there are well-integrated parks and children’s play areas. This helps make for a dense but human-scale environment. There is plenty of open space, woven throughout the housing areas, as well as contact with natural assets such as lakes and woods.

While there is an emphasis on local self-sufficiency within Stockholm’s sub-centers, the need for good transit connections to the core and other parts of the city is paramount. But it’s assumed that people will use bus or rail rather than cars. Such planning has created a wealthy city with car use that is almost a third of US cities. More importantly it has reduced car use per capita in the past decade – and plans to continue doing so.

THE BRAZILIAN CITY OF CURITIBA (population 1.8 million) has shown how even with scarce urban resources it is possible to create a coherent, city-wide transit service that is closely integrated to land use and social policy.

The transit system, developed over the past 20 years, began with the use of express buses on exclusive lanes on axes radiating out of the city centre. Brainchild of City Mayor (and planner) Jaime Lerner, the concept’s success is due to the fact that it is supported by strong planning that ensures the bus routes act like railways. The system is used by more than 1.3 million passengers each day, 28 per cent of whom previously travelled by car. This has meant 25-per-cent less fuel consumption city-wide and one of the lowest levels of air pollution in Brazil.

The central city areas have been pedestrianized and historic buildings are protected from redevelopment as a result of the reduced pressure from cars. Several main thoroughfares have been closed to traffic and converted into tree-lined walkways.

Balanced development of sub-centers along the transit system has also helped protect the historic city centre. Having acquired land along or close to the new busways prior to their construction, the municipal government was able to plan convenient, high-density housing for 17,000 lower-income families.

The system runs smoothly: express buses, inter-district buses and conventional (feeder) buses are now fully integrated into the network. There are large bus terminals at the end of each of the five express busways where people can transfer to inter-district or feeder buses. The next phase of Curitiba’s growth is to develop higher-capacity rail services along the main axes.

CURITIBA HAS SHOWN THAT PLANNING CAN WORK in a less-wealthy city just as Stockholm has shown it works in a rich one. The key is visionary political leadership which is implemented in stages with strong grassroots support.

Peter Newman

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