The Automobile City’s Pedestrian Problem

“Western,” particularly American cities, have a problem and it weighs a couple of tons on average. Cars are a nuisance and a menace to society. Not only are they threat to human lives, for some reason we think we’re invincible when driving, but a threat to community life. Part of the problem lies in the vast amount of real estate that having a car requires. I’m not talking about the garage space, I’m talking about the wider road space, the multi-lane highways, the ramps, the overpasses, and the gas stations. Cars have only “been around” since World War II, thanks to mass production and interchangeable parts (among other things). Most, if not all, of our cities were created decades, centuries, or millenia before World War II. We didn’t create cities for automobiles, but we have been revising our cities since then to make room for the beasts.

As much as technical and process advantages were useful in dropping the relative price of a car so that “everyone” could own one, that “everyone” eventually did and still expects to haunts our species. I say, our species, because the “right of car ownership” has long passed to the “developing” world. Now, everywhere you go, succeeding at life can be measured by whether or not you own a car. So everywhere year, more cars hit the roads and the most expedient policy answer is to make cities and towns and places more car accessible, or at least try to maintain the same level of accessibility via car. The U.S. Census Bureau released (in 2009, via thesource.metro.net) average commute times and the number of commuters subjected to these pains, while it aggregates all forms of transportation we can help but wonder how many of the longer commuters are suffering in cars in places like New York. Over 500,000 people commute for over an hour to get to work, every.single.day. Full disclosure: I take public transportation and I’m in the 30 to 34 minute range (on a good day).

Thus, in order to (literally) “stand still” with the same level of accessibility, say you only want to spend 30 minutes to get to work, and the population keeps growing (particularly in and around cities), and the new comers are bringing their cars or buying new cars, what is your place going to do? The typical response, more lanes. In the 2000s we’re getting creative with HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes, HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, and a few others. Curiously, commuter buses, trains, and light rail are almost never thought of. In the American context, I would argue that this is part and parcel of our society’s “I’m an independent American and I don’t have to share my space with strangers!” After all, American’s took the European concept of private gardens for the rich and “democratized” it with the suburbs. Granted your suburban lot isn’t the palace of Versailles, but its private, and its a garden, and its MINE. So is that car parked out front too.

So as roads get wider and cars multiply, I stumbled upon an interesting geographic thought. Not only are pedestrians increasingly at risk from vehicles (a two ton vehicle versus a 100 lb. woman is no contest), there’s a noticeable geographic impact as well. We’re being forced underground.

Recently, I moved to Arlington, Virginia. Fantastic place and one of the main selling points, an underground for pedestrians! As the map below shows, there are shops built underneath the streets and buildings. Walking around, it has a small-town market sort of vibe to it. What helps is that there are sky lights and other natural light sources liberally sprinkled throughout the system to lighten up the underground street. And a good thing to, without these natural light sources it would feel like a catacomb. Much like some of the underground in Seoul, below the designer shops and perfume parlors, where other merchants sell not-so-designer items. While I’m thankful for this safe space to wander around at leisure, its sad to think that to make a place “walkable” or “walk-friendly” its forced underground. I get the feeling the community is still young, so I’m anxious to see if it grows.

Crystal City Underground, ca. 2000s (via refugees.org)

On a related note, I attended a National Geographic Society talk/seminar/thing last fall (October?) by Daniel Raven-Ellison. As part of his lecture he played a clip, or a short film, of a partially-blind’s woman experience in London. For me, I appreciated being shown a city, that I’m somewhat familiar with, through a different perspective. At night, the narrator relied primarily on sound as vision was more difficult and talked about how the sounds of the city change from place to place. The camera is dark for most of this so you here the story, as its being told on the street. London, you could hear, was a walkable pedestrian city.

I used to think D.C. was a walkable pedestrian city, after an unfortunate accident with a taxi and testing that video’s message, I realized its not. I closed my eyes sitting outside a coffee shop downtown, all you can hear are cars. And car horns.

Hello, underground.

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2 thoughts on “The Automobile City’s Pedestrian Problem

  1. Pingback: The Geography of Rich, White Kids | Z Geography

  2. Pingback: Exploring an Underground City: the Crystal Underground | Z Geography

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