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Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Review: Happy City

 Happy City is a book about urban design. You probably already know the principles behind it if you've ever lived in or even visited for a week's stretch a European city:

  • Deny cars access to the city center, or at least, design the city center around walking rather than cars
  • Create mix used neighborhoods, the antithesis of the American zoning system, where you can have shop-houses (shops at the street level, living quarters at the upper level)
  • Increase density, but not too much (the author describes how bad long corridors in shared high rise towers are)
  • Create spaces for people to gather and look at other people
Much of the book is a rant against American-style suburbia:

Foley’s own clients invariably wanted to trade up: they all wanted a bigger house on a bigger yard in a more perfect neighborhood, and Foley helped them get it. But after a few sales cycles she noticed that those big homes did not seem to be making her clients happier. “Time and again,” she told me when I called her, “I would walk into an absolutely gorgeous home with a beautiful pool that never got used and a game room that was never actually filled with friends, owned by people who were living really unhappy lives.” People’s new homes were so big that they created a whole new layer of housekeeping, and so expensive that they forced their owners to work harder to keep them. One day Foley joined a Realtors’ tour of a spacious stucco tract home. The walls were pristine—Foley still remembers the color: Navajo Sand. The carpets were immaculate. But the place felt like a campsite. There was practically no furniture. A lone TV sat on a packing crate, and just about everything else lay on the floor. Clothing, books, and tools, all stacked in neat piles. Mattresses and futons lined the carpets in the bedrooms. It was clear that the house purchase had taken the family right to the edge of its financial wherewithal. They had spent everything they had. There was nothing left for furniture or garden supplies. The yard was a mud pit. The family had joined the ranks of what Foley called “floor people,” since floor space was all they had (pg 79)

The book describes how when tested against other commuters cycling commuters are by far the most joyful, much better off than people who drive, take transit, or even walk! This should not surprise anyone, as our natural mode of locomotion is walking, but as John Forester has noted, cycling is like walking but on an exhilarated level, with the same effort producing speeds faster than running --- it grants you a natural high.

But of course, the author Charles Montgomery, like many pundits, rants against vehicular cycling, as demanding skills and a level of personal courage that he considers heroic. He must not have observed, as I did, the Italian grandmother who got on her bike and then negotiated a traffic circle in crazy Italian traffic with more aplomb than many American league cycling instructors would have. I've personally observed many kids in Palo Alto ride their bicycles vehicular fashion with skill. What it takes isn't courage, but education, and Montgomery is steadfast in his insistence that painted lines or separated facilities are practicable in areas of lower density than Europe, where of course in many fabulous cycling areas there are no bike paths or bike lanes. He laughably claims that American vehicular cycling enthusiasts won the battle, when in reality, they've lost the battle every time, and barely recovered their losses only in courts, where they've had to sue for the rights to use the roads that would otherwise be denied them. Even today, the cycling advocacy groups hesitate to take on causes like roads that have "no cycling allowed" signs posted on them, preferring the easy path of advocating for bike lanes and bike paths, even in places where those same painted bike lanes create motorist driving errors.

Despite the obvious effort involved, self-propelled commuters report feeling that their trips are easier than the trips of people who sit still for most of the journey. They are the likeliest to say their trip was fun. Children overwhelmingly say they prefer finding their own way to school rather than being chauffeured. These are the sentiments of people in American and Canadian cities, which tend to be designed in ways that make walking and cycling unpleasant and dangerous. In the Netherlands, where road designers create safe spaces for bikes, cyclists report feeling more joy, less fear, less anger, less sadness than both drivers and transit users. Even in New York City, where the streets are loud, congested, aggressive, and dangerous, cyclists report enjoying their journeys more than anyone else...Even those who endure the most severe bicycle trips seem to take pleasure in them. They feel capable. They feel free. They feel and are healthier. The average convert to bike commuting loses thirteen pounds in the first year. They may not all attain Robert Judge’s level of transcendence, but cyclists report feeling connected to the world around them in a way that is simply not possible in the sealed environment of an automobile or a bus or a subway car. Their journeys are both sensual and kinesthetic. (pg. 181-184)

What redeems the book is that Mongomery doesn't just suggest bike paths everywhere, he also describes a radical solution, such as the once a year car-free day, where cars are banned completely. (Though good luck with that in any American city!) The book was obviously written before COVID pandemic, but maybe the pandemic experience with many streets closed and cafes/restaurants allowed to extend past the sidewalk will create more enthusiasm for better use of public space.

By 2001, almost twice as many people were cycling to work in the city, saving the average minimum-wage worker the equivalent of a month and a half’s salary that year. But here is the amazing thing: the happy city program, with its aggressive focus on creating a fairer city, did not only benefit the poor. It made life better for almost everyone. The TransMilenio moved so many people so efficiently that car drivers crossed the city faster as well: commuting times fell by a fifth. (pg. 248)

Here's the thing. It feels natural that car opponents like Montgomery appear to be good allies for cyclists. And I do enjoy those great walkable neighborhoods that I've lived in. But I get the feeling that despite everything he writes about cycling, people like him actually hate the enthusiastic cyclists who commute middle distances (4-12 miles) and enjoy riding in the suburbs much more than even the most cycling-friendly city. I wanted to be able to recommend this book, but can't do so because of how much latent cycling hatred there is in it. 


Sojka's Call said...

My volunteer time on the Active Transportation Committee for a small city led me to study this subject in some detail. There is a fascinating amount of detail to be understood from neighborhood design to deciding the appropriate bicycle infrastructure (bike lanes separated or next to vehicles), closing streets, one-way streets, speed limits, bike parking, etc, etc) to connectivity to community involvement to education to community outreach. Now, throw on top of all that the explosion of e-alternatives like scooters, e-bikes (pedal assist and throttles), skateboards, hover-craft, Segways, you-name-it and one can soon feel overwhelmed. I actually don't think it would be that hard to design both a city and then needed infrastructure to support all these various alternative transportation technologies and future ones as they are developed. My hope is that a small college town that is somewhat separated like Davis or SLO or Northamptom (UMass) decide to take the lead on development and implementation. They have enough clout with the local government that they could force the massive changes needed. The economic benefits could be tremendous from making the university more enticing to top students, to a massive increase in tourism to becoming THE intellectual hub in this field. I know this will happen eventually. I only hope I am alive then!

N said...

After recommending Happy City to you, I read another urban planning book called "Cities For People".

It is pro-cyclist and written by the Danish architect who redesigned Copenhagen so that now 37% of people commute by bicycle. But that book is written for urban planners, so it has fewer stories and narrative.