Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives is the name of an interesting book I recently read by Chris and Melissa Bruntlett. I’ve previously discussed their book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality which describes the history and implementation of measures taken to make Dutch cities bike and pedestrian friendly. The result is they have some of the highest percentages of trips taken by active transportation, and lowest percentages by motor vehicle, of any cities in the world.
Their new book has a more personal perspective. The authors both found jobs in the city of Delft in the Netherlands, with a population of a bit over 100,000. They relocated there with their family (a younger son and a high-school age daughter), from Vancouver, BC. They were already a “car-lite” family in Vancouver, not owning any motor vehicles, renting one when needed, and walking and biking as much as possible. Vancouver is a beautiful city, which has worked hard to become more pedestrian and bike friendly in recent years. But the contrast in lifestyle with Delft was night and day. The difference is that Delft, like other Dutch cities, has not just striven over the past few decades to provide good pedestrian and bike facilities. They have actively worked on curbing motor vehicle traffic, so that their cities are much less “car dominant”.
Local streets, especially residential streets, are kept to a speed limit under 30 km/hr (about 18 mph), with various “traffic calming” measures. These streets feed to “collector” streets which take traffic out to a ring road around the city where speed limits are higher. Care is taken to eliminate what are called “sneaky routes”, where motor vehicles can try to take short cuts through the traffic-calmed parts of the city. This has become more of an issue in other countries like the US in recent years, with the advent of gps navigation, which will often help drivers find such “sneaky routes”. The idea is for drivers to take the ring road to get as close as possible to their destination in the city, and take a collector street into the closest parking garage. Thenceforth they are on foot.
This right away reminded me of the Stanford University campus, which is organized much the same way. “Campus Drive” is the ring road. If you want to go to the business school, you take the closest road in from Campus drive (with typically a speed limit of 15 mph (less than 30 km/hr.) and park in the nearest lot, and then are on foot. If you want to go to the engineering school or medical school which are on the other side of campus, you get back on Campus drive and drive around to the other side. There are few ways to sneak through the middle of the campus. This makes the campus inside Campus drive delightful if you are on foot or bike. But it is still perfectly reasonable to get around by car. And it tends to encourage walking, because it’s actually much quicker to cut across campus on foot than to get back in your car and drive around to find another lot. Many campuses in North America are like this. We just have to figure out how to organize our cities a similar way, as the Dutch have.
This brings up the question of people with limited mobility. In Delft the best solution seems to be mobility scooters, which fit in perfectly with the bike facilities. This works well as a solution in large stores, so it seems reasonable to extend it to downtowns. In the book the authors tell the story of a friend Mara who does fine in Delft using either her mobility scooter or her hand powered tricycle.
The most encouraging aspect of the Bruntlett’s personal story is the effect it has on their children, who thrive and become quite independent. They quickly learn to ride their bikes everywhere, as well as take advantage of transit and regional rail, which is very well organized. The parents learn not to bat an eyelash if the kids decide to go to a neighboring city like the Hague or Rotterdam. “Ok honey, just be back in time for dinner”. This is a tremendous relief for the parents, who no longer have to escort the kids to all their extracurricular activities, since they know they are perfectly safe finding their own way. They describe also how beneficial this is to the children’s development, in contrast to being members of the “backseat generation”, so prevalent in much of the modern, car-oriented, world.
This book answered a question for me that frustrates active transportation advocates: “why are we not achieving a higher ‘mode share’ (percentage of trips taken) for biking and walking?” In North America, it remains disappointingly low in many cities, down around 2% or so, with motor vehicles doing 95% or more of trips. Even cities at the top of the list in bike friendliness like Portland or Minneapolis are lucky to achieve 10% mode share. The answer seems to be that while we are doing a better job of providing alternatives, we are not doing enough to curb motor vehicle traffic. In the US and Canada we have spent decades sacrificing more and more of the land area of our cities to automobiles, including disruptively shoving freeways right through downtown areas, often at the expense of demolishing neighborhoods to make room for them. There’s a case to be made that we’ve already made our downtowns much too friendly to motor vehicles at the expense of everyone else. Curbing traffic seems be the missing step.
Here’s an example. My little town of Morgan Hill has an attractive downtown with quant restaurants and shops, that is only four blocks long. We have more than adequate off-street parking, both behind the downtown buildings and in a large garage. All free. So why does there have to be on-street parking all along our main street? Why should you be able to park right in front of your destination, rather than walk a block or two? People routinely walk more than the entire length of downtown Morgan Hill when they are shopping in department stores. And realistically, you’re not going to be able to park right out front, you’re going to clog up traffic driving around the block looking for a close space before giving up and parking in the garage anyway. The space wasted on the on-street parking could add considerably to the downtown ambience, with planters and sidewalk cafe space.
It will be interesting to see how the traffic reduction, and makeshift “taking back the streets” that took place during the Covid19 shutdown affects things going forward, a point the authors made in the book. There is already an interesting sign of this in Morgan Hill. A few years back, the city did a pilot study of reducing Monterey Road, the main road through downtown, to one lane each way. The majority of merchants objected, and many citizens threw a fit, leading to some raucous city hall meetings. Then during the Covid 19 shutdown, merchants were permitted to place barriers blocking a lane to create outdoors space, which was especially popular with restaurants for outdoor dining. Afterwards the merchants were again polled about the idea of the lane reduction, and the majority were now in favor of it. The city quietly announced they were going ahead with making the lane reduction permanent, and there has been little backlash. Amazing how just being able to temporarily experience less traffic, and more space devoted to human beings, changed attitudes.