Sunday, September 12, 2010

On The Dominance of the Automobile

While a serious politician here in the United States was arguing that bicycle advocates are secretly plotting for the U.N. to take over our country (or something), something very different was taking place in Montreal -- and as far as we can tell, U.N. forces were not involved.

The political party that won borough elections in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal viewed bicycles as adding freedom, not reducing it.

In the 10 months since the young Projet MontrĂ©al party won control of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough in the last municipal election, the new administration has embarked on a bold experiment in urban planning. Streets are being redirected to thwart through traffic. Some parking spots have been painted green and closed to cars. Noisy bars are being threatened with stiff fines, and in an initiative to combat “visual pollution,” a ban on all billboards was announced this week.

Since 83% of vehicle traffic is through-traffic going to and from downtown, cars are being steered toward two traffic arteries and away from neighborhood streets. Fines for violating the noise ordinance have been dramatically increased. And yes, the billboards: feeling they generate little in tax revenue, and a high social cost instead, they are going ahead and telling billboard owners to take them down by November of next year.

Not everyone is happy about this, of course. Here's a story in English about it (which includes the quote above).

These are bold steps. Some of the debate is practical -- how does a music club, for instance, assure that music cannot be heard outside of its walls at all, and is there wiggle room there? Some of it, however, is most certainly about class privilege. When a neighborhood says, through its elected government, "no more billboards here," are the precious freedoms of billboard owners being violated?

Back here in our own republic, we love to talk about preserving freedom and liberty. It is important to keep in mind whose freedom we are talking about. The Projet Montreal party is concerned with making the neighborhood "family friendly," a higher standard of living for a neighborhood of workers and their kids. They are using their mandate to do that and taking bold steps, taking inspiration from cities like London and Copenhagen.

The automobile has long been a status symbol in the United States. Once, just owning one was a major status symbol. The MRZine site has an interesting story sketching a political history of the automobile (the authors are releasing a book on the topic in 2011). It is by now largely unquestioned that transit funds and policy, and local infrastructure throughout the U.S., grant the automobile utter dominance. We are known as a country where people love their cars. We are also a country where people disproportionately depend on cars for getting around, resulting in great expense for lower-earners, pollution, noise, road rage, and other degradations on our standard of living. I enjoy driving, too, but not every day and not for every errand.

The dominance of the automobile has also made it possible to live way out in remote areas where it is difficult to contemplate reducing car use.

In urban areas, however, there are lots of things that can be done. Traffic-calming measures that slow cars down on streets where children play. Bike-sharing programs (like the one denounced as a U.N. plot in Colorado) that also promote human behaviors like sharing. Spaces that encourage walking and cycling. "No car" zones (which, one hopes, would include parking facilities on the periphery somewhere, so commuters could leave their cars and walk in). Taxis and well-funded bus systems.

These are things that benefit working class and poor, and therefore in our rhetoric constitute a violation of "liberty."

It is important to ask: for whom?

(Photo: Spruce Street renovation project in Deming.)


Kyle said...

Not totally unrelated, the issue here in DC is that it is so over crowded with people, the suburbs stretch out 50 miles in each direction. Metro is still more expensive than driving into work, and tele-commuting isn't an option for a lot of people in my line of work.

I would love to see more cities do this type of thing, but the biggest offender of cars on the road are the outlying suburbs. What we really need to see is a large investment in rail infrastructure to reduce the impact of cars.

And yea, road rage, thats a huge problem out this way, and LA too from what I hear.

Pam said...

I live in a very bike-friendly city. There are also miles of walking/biking trails through the suburbs and parks. There is one at the end of my alley. I walk there all the time.

In Dallas the bars and neighborhoods that surround downtown Dallas are constantly battling over noise, traffic and parking issues.