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In the future, who’s going to win? Cars or bikes and pedestrians?

Posted Aug 04 2010 6:32am

As public policy has began a course correction from the 20th century “car is king” transportation policy to a more balanced approach, there have been changes in the landscape of our roads. This has meant everything from modest improvements like widened sidewalks (or even the existence of sidewalks) and bike lanes to more visionary plans like banning cars on certain streets and removing freeways (yes, despite their mammoth concrete and steel structures meant to convey permanence, freeways can actually be torn down and removed.)

Still, most cities carve out relatively small spaces on the roads for bicycles and pedestrians, not willing to upset the current car dominant culture. At a City of Austin briefing last year, the sharrows downtown on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets were presented as an alternative to bike lanes because “there wasn’t room to put a bike lane on these roads.” Excuse me? Guadalupe and Lavaca are some of the widest roads in downtown with 4 lanes of one way traffic along most of the route. No, there was plenty of room. We just didn’t want to upset the drivers of cars. Of course when we dipped our toes in a proposal to make bicycles equal to cars in importance on just one mile of road in this town, it resulted in hysterics about banning cars and destroying our economy .

In this light, the National Journal Transportation blog recently posted an article with the evocative title “ Will Bicyclists And Pedestrians Squeeze Out Cars? ” They also posted comments in response to this question from various national transportation experts. Most take the moderate view of that we can make space for everyone, yet there are a few bolder individuals. Michael A. Replogle, Policy Director and Founder for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, says:

In cities from Seoul to San Francisco and Milwaukee, tearing down elevated highways has improved traffic flow, reduced accidents and pollution, and revitalized once blighted neighborhoods. Though such proposals may seem bold and sometimes heavily criticized, once they are implemented it is clear that the result is greater equity for citizens, better use of public space, and improved and safer traffic flow for all modes.

This sort of pitting of various groups against each other may generate traffic to their site, but it smacks to me of the shallow approach you are more likely to see on cable news channels or the local evening news, not a serious policy publication. The real issue that no one wants to talk about is what will happen when gas reaches over $5/gallon. That may happen next year or it may happen in 10 years, but it is clear that our country and the economy are built on the reality of cheap oil, and we are completely unprepared for a future of high gas prices.

We can talk about who is going to “win”, or we can talk about how to prepare for future that is certain to come with the least pain and suffering to our communities. One approach makes people defensive and divides us into camps of “drivers” and “cyclists.” I prefer to think of everyone as people and to talk about what’s going to be best for a community of humans. Let’s quit polarizing every conversation and talk about the very serious issue of dealing with a future that will be radically different from the last 75 years.

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