In North America bike lanes are afterthoughts slapped on infrastructure meant for heavy metal objects that kill people and the planet. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the conversation from supporting large single occupant vehicles to supporting solutions to move large groups of people safely through our cities. In the 20th century car manufacturers spent lots of money to convince people that everyone needs a car and that “smart cities” would be built around the car and not people. Today we need to do the opposite and spend time and money convincing everyone that cities should be for people and not cars – and we can do it!
Cars and trucks get billions in federal, state, and local money. Governments can mindlessly belch out vast sums for highway widenings—see the $1.6 billion spent on a single-lane addition to the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, even though we’ve known for years that it would not make a dent in travel times. With all this money seemingly available for car infrastructure, some of which is absolutely useless or makes traffic worse, there’s only a pittance devoted to robust bike networks. Why?
Let’s dare to design something that can actually make a difference and imagine micromobility infrastructure that goes beyond bike lanes and that leapfrogs piecemeal local approaches. Let’s create a blueprint that can have real, lasting impact, to excite the masses, bring together many groups, companies, special interests, and demographics, create real mode shifts, and actually make a real difference in pollution, climate, and car deaths.
London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) can be considered a roaring success. The ULEZ was created by London mayor Sadiq Khan to combat the health crisis created from too many cars being in a small geographic area (and to improve the ability of people to get around the city). The plan called for a section of London to be only accessible to vehicles which meet the criteria of an ultra low emission vehicle, like electric cars. The policy has reduced the total amount of vehicles in that part of London while also reducing toxic pollutants in the air. If London can do it then surely other cities can too!
Since introducing the ULEZ new data reveals that:
• Roadside nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution has reduced by 36 per cent in the zone. This is measured from February 2017 to September 2019, to reflect when the Mayor publicly confirmed the Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) – the predecessor to the ULEZ – and people started to prepare for the schemes. Analysis in today’s City Hall report estimates that the reduction in NO2 pollution solely attributable to the ULEZ is 29 per cent*.
• None of the air quality monitoring sites located on ULEZ boundary roads have measured an increase in NO2 pollution levels since the scheme was introduced in April 2019.
• From March to September 2019 there was a large reduction in the number of older, more polluting, non-compliant vehicles detected in the zone: some 13,500 fewer on an average day, a reduction of 38 per cent.
A regularly seen warning on roads is that “speed kills” and cities have been slowing traffic around the world to protect pedestrians. However, have you thought about how speed as a concept kills? Over at the tech-worshipping magazine, Wired, they’re running an article that explores the idea that reaching for better speeds is in itself a problem. The need for speed is killing the planet and instead, they argue, we need to strive for efficiency.
Here’s the thing: These ideas for accelerating the future fail to address a far more pressing problem than our stalled speedometers. In the US, transportation accounts for 27 percent of the carbon we release into the air, more than any other sector of the economy. Four-fifths of that comes from cars and trucks. The internal combustion engine is rocketing us deeper into a climate crisis that demands an immediate—and big—reduction in those emissions. Hyperloops might run on clean electricity, but it would take decades for them to become extensive enough to replace a significant number of cars. Supersonic flight requires engines that use much more fuel, and more carbon, than slower planes. These rosy renderings of effortless whooshing hither and yon distract us from what the problem demands: a way forward that prioritizes not thoughtless speed but calibrated efficiency.
The climate crisis requires solutions at all levels and that includes the streets. Safe streets for pedestrians and cyclists ensures that more people will use sustainable transit (and not drive polluting cars). New York City has earned a reputation for redesigning their streetscape to be for people instead of cars, which has been praised here on this site and elsewhere. This reputation was fostered under the previous mayor and now the new mayor, Bill De Blasio, isn’t living up to his predecessor’s urban design philosophy. We can’t ignore that the debate has moved from just needing bike lanes to needing safe bike lanes – New York City is still ahead of other cities. Let’s hope all cities can have more elevated debates about safe transit infrastructure.
Let’s stand back and look at what’s going on. The problem is the absence of an infrastructure that gives bikers, pedestrians, and even delivery trucks what they need so they don’t go to war against each other for the rat-infested crumbs of asphalt the city has them fighting over. Cyclists need protected lanes and prioritized lights all over the city. Give that to them and they won’t swarm the sidewalks, they won’t drive the wrong way all the time, and they won’t go through intersections when they shouldn’t. Give pedestrians the wide and safe sidewalks they need, the benches their weary legs desire, the trees that make shade in the summer, and calm streets in which the majority of space is devoted to the majority of people who are not in private cars. This has been proven to work — it’s not a risky leap, it’s been ridiculously successful in cities across the world, particularly in Europe.
Thanks to Aidan!
The French city of Dunkirk recently made a major decision to make all their public transit free to anyone. It’s worked really well and now people are hoping the idea spreads to other places in France. It’s noteworthy that the climate crisis wasn’t the driving factor behind the plan it was to improve the life of the citizens of Dunkirk. The residents are happier with less pollution and reliable transit while it has also improved commute times for workers.
More revealing than the simple increase is the way that the free buses are changing residents’ habits. In a town where a large majority of residents (about two-thirds) have typically depended on their cars to get around, half of the 2,000 passengers surveyed by researchers said they take the bus more or much more than before. Of those new users, 48 percent say they regularly use it instead of their cars. Some (approximately 5 percent of the total respondents) even said that they sold their car or decided against buying a second one because of the free buses.
For Damien Carême, the mayor of Grande-Synthe (which neighbors Dunkirk), improving the lives of working-class residents, revitalising small cities and fighting climate change go hand in hand. Speaking in 2016, Carême (of the Green party, Europe Ecologie les Verts), said he hoped Dunkirk’s fare-free model could “make the urban area a figurehead for industrial territories undergoing environmental transition.”