Sunday, January 3, 2016

Reimagining Our Streets: Bikes Will Lead, But They Will Not Be Alone

Bikes are a disruptive force on our streets. Thank God. I've spent my life watching a frozen standoff between cars and pedestrians, and it was well past time to start moving in a better direction.

Our streets have an interesting history. The pedestrians were there first. The cars arrived around World War I, and they hit this country like a tsunami, rearranging our built environment, our laws, and our minds. (To read more about all this, see Peter Norton's book Fighting Traffic.)

Before the cars came, the streets were open to all who wished to come and go - pedestrians, beer wagons, hansom cabs, horse-drawn trolleys, the occasional coach and four (that would be four horses). Things could be a bit chaotic, but when it came to getting killed, people seem to have been more worried about Typhoid Mary and other carriers of infectious disease.

When cars showed up, they had a number of advantages - they were big, and heavy, and fast. Before then, the occupants of the street had largely all gone about the same speed. Cars were also very popular. People loved their cars. Now that we're jaded, and overwhelmed by the sheer number of cars on our streets, it's a bit hard to imagine what it was like.

Cars came to own the streets in the 1920s. They basically muscled their way in, and they literally marginalized the pedestrians, pushing them over the curb and confining them to the sidewalk. (Sidewalks date back at least to Roman times, but until the car arrived, they were an amenity, not a ghetto.)

And so there things stood, until a few years ago, with pedestrians pinned to the sidewalk and cars owning the cartway - the street space between the curbs. Pedestrians were allowed to cross at the corner, but it was best to look both ways.

Then along came the bicyclists, and all of a sudden we are reimagining our streets.

I live in Philadelphia, and recently I attended the city's first Vision Zero conference, which was organized, not surprisingly, by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Bikes are going to lead the reimagining of our public spaces. But they will need some help - and I think they will get it.

Runners, for instance, have been doing Open Streets for years - they call their events races. The Broad Street Run has shut down the full length of Broad Street in Philadelphia on the first Sunday in May every year for decades.

Children used to play in the street. News flash: In Philadelphia, they still do, on the many little side streets of our town. Now, I live on Lombard Street, which is an access road for the Schuylkill Expressway, and I don't expect to see children in short pants and floppy hats shooting marbles in the middle of Lombard Street anytime soon. But one block away, on Addison Street, children often draw with chalk and play ball in the good weather as their parents sit on stoops, watching over their little ones and socializing with one another.

Restaurants are also getting more aggressive about pushing out on to the sidewalks and even into the streets. Special props to the bagel shop Spread on 20th Street, for figuring out what to do when the pope visited, and vehicular movement was greatly restricted in a large part of the downtown. Spread took the lane, with tables. And very happy customers.

Bikes will lead these groups, because bikes have organization, focus, and even a little bit of money. And because, for bikes, the issue is not optional.

We need bike lanes. We need a network of bike lanes that will allow people to get around town safely. This network will make the streets better for everybody. It will calm traffic, and it will make the streets safer for pedestrians to cross. (See, for instance,  the New York City Department of Transportation's 2014 report Protected Bicycle Lanes in NYC.)

And yes, this means that motorists will need to learn to share the road with the many other groups that have legitimate claims on the space.

Twice I have run down the middle of the Champs Elysees in Paris. And I was not alone. It was called the Paris Marathon.

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