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Monday, September 26, 2022

Review: Walkable City

 Walkable City is a book written by a city planner about how to make a city walkable. He has laudable goals but hides an anti-cycling agenda amongst his many platitudes which destroyed his credibility for me. I wanted to like the book. It points out the many penalties of the American lifestyle, where you sit in a car to go anywhere, and end up paying more for cars, paying in increased obesity, increased traffic fatalities, and time spent sitting in traffic. He points out (rightly) that electric cars don't solve the problem --- they might be environmentally less destructive, but you're still stuck sitting in a car.

He even confirms one of my favorite swear phrases, "DLTE" (Dummy Lamb Traffic Engineer), providing lots of ammunition:

While all traffic engineers can be trouble, state engineers are the toughest because they have no obligation to listen to a local mayor or citizens. They answer to a higher authority, which is ultimately the god Traffic Flow. They will typically claim a concern for walkability and “context-sensitive design,” but everything is still viewed through the lens of “level of service,” and level of service means smooth flow. Incidentally, state DOTs are also a huge source of work for planning consultants, which is a big reason why few planners are willing to stand up to them...It seems a bit unfair to blame the city engineer for this situation. Because most of the public complaints one hears in cities are about traffic, it stands to reason that any good public servant would work to reduce traffic congestion. This would be acceptable if efforts to reduce traffic congestion didn’t wreck cities and perhaps also if they worked. But they don’t work, because of induced demand. Most city engineers don’t understand induced demand. They might say that they do, but, if so, they don’t act upon that understanding. I say this because it would seem that almost no traffic engineers in America possess the necessary combination of insight and political will that would allow them to take the induced demand discussion to its logical conclusion, which is this: Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process. I understand that it might be difficult to tell the public that you can’t satisfy their biggest complaint. (pg 88-89)

For all that, he claims to be realistic, that most American cities don't have sufficient population density to support more than a couple of blocks of walkable downtown. Compound that with city zoning codes that require parking to be built and we end up with the shape of modern American cities today. He also points out that the familiar story of conspiracies of businesses tearing out street cars in order to switch to buses and private car had a very willing accomplice --- the American public:

In 1902, every U.S. city with a population of ten thousand or more had its own streetcar system.5 At midcentury, Los Angeles was served by more than a thousand electric trolleys a day.6 These were torn out in a vast criminal conspiracy that is as well documented● as it was inevitable. It’s easy to get mad at General Motors and forget that, at the time, most cities and citizens delighted over the change from old-fashioned streetcars to streamlined buses. The real transition, of course, was from dependence on a public system to liberation via the private automobile, albeit subsidized formidably with public dollars. We trashed our trains because we wanted to and nobody said we couldn’t. (pg. 141)

 So if you can't achieve the kind of density you routinely see in European cities, why not encourage cycling? Here, Speck buys completely into what John Forester calls the cycling inferiority complex. He claims that cycling in traffic is too difficult and challenging for normal humans to master. So cyclists must be protected by bike paths and bike lanes (bike lanes are insane --- paint can't protect you!). But he gives the "Naked Streets" movement a pass:

Naked streets refers to the concept of stripping a roadway of its signage—all of it, including stop signs, signals, and even stripes. Far from creating mayhem, this approach appears to have lowered crash rates wherever it has been tried. Following Monderman’s advice, the Danish town of Christiansfeld removed all signs and signals from its main intersection, and watched the number of serious accidents each year fall from three to zero. (pg. 176)

So somehow naked streets are great for walking, but not for cycling?!! Worse, his claim that cyclists can't be educated to interact with traffic properly doesn't jibe with what anyone with eyes can observe for himself/herself in European cities. I've watched Italian grandmothers get on their bike and ride into a busy traffic circle at rush hour, in traffic that would make many League of American Bicyclist cycling instructors cower. But somehow the author visited many European cities and never saw the same thing.

I learned many things, such as why zoning was invented (it's not completely evil --- it's to make sure that factories and pollution spewing power plants can't be built next to residential areas). I learned many things about how to make even parking structures work alongside a walking-friendly city. I learned how if you build a house, it's far better to have a sitting-height wall than a full size wall:

 When we built our house, I put a sitting-height wall on both sides, and a prominent sidewalk-hugging bench by the front door. You would be surprised how often someone sits there. Never mind that on occasion that person is a homeless crack-smoking schizophrenic … it was the right thing to do. (pg. 241)

Good luck convincing anyone to do that now that he's admitted that crack-smoking schizophrenics would camp out on your front door.

When I was in my 20s I thought I hated cities. Now that I'm better travelled, I've realized that I don't hate cities. I hate American cities. This book articulates many of the reasons why and many of the culprits. But its amazing hostility towards vehicular cycling and unwillingness to embrace cycling as even a potential solution to problems facing the American city made me frown with discuss over many of the treatment in this book. The book was written before ebikes. With ebikes in the picture even his objections are pretty dumb. Read this book if you must. But keep in mind that it's a non-cyclist prescribing how cyclists should behave, which is suspicious and patronizing.

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