What I sTraffic and What Should We Do About It?
A Bike People editorial by Richard Risemberg

For decades now, traffic engineers have addressed the problem of traffic in only two ways: either by building more traffic lanes to accommodate it, or by reshaping roads to speed it up. In doing so, they have stolen from us the basic public spaces in which community was once nurtured, which are the streets in which children used to play, and neighbors meet. The result has been an institutionalizing of motorized hurry, with the high-speed movement of cars the only priority. Streets have become little freeways, and much of bicycle advocacy has become an effort to facilitate the efforts of a brave few to ride in the nervous chaos of congested streets. We ask for stripes to make obvious our everpresent right to the roadway; we ask for separate lanes to accommodate the timid; we promote programs such as Effective Cycling, which, admirable though it is, is fundamentally an effort to make the best of a bad situation. I don't think we have asked for enough. There's more to traffic than moving cars, and there's more to streets than traffic.

A street should not be a freeway. A city is more than a scattering of "destination facilities." Traffic is NOT a "flow" to be guided through conduits like sewage; traffic properly seen consists of members of the community in a particular form of interaction within the community. This means not just neighbors: any community includes persons from larger communities (e.g. state, county) who participate in the smaller one (town, neighborhood) temporarily. It is no one's right to use a community--their own as well as anyone else's--merely as a mechanism for their own gain or convenience. To speed down a street destroys all the other uses of the street that are not speeding. To designate any but primary arterials for through traffic permanently obviates the use of those streets for anything that is not through traffic. And to destroy a neighborhood for the sake of new freeways or new roads is an insult to our humanity. The answer to too much traffic is not to make more roads, nor to make faster roads. It is not to make so much traffic.

I am convinced that one of the prime causes of urban degradation is the practice of encouraging transport modes that physically destroy or isolate neighborhoods from each other. I live in the midst of a net of immensely-wide freeways and high-speed arterials that all too often form literal walls, with fewer gates in them than some medieval towns, and which effectively separate neighborhoods from each other and from their commercial areas. They REQUIRE tedious driving for any social interaction, be it no more than going for a loaf of bread. Driving itself, with every person encapsulated in a relatively tiny chamber and riding in defined and often walled-off channels, further augments the carelessness of people who have no place to call home but the box they sleep in. In a city where no one cares, chaos rules. You can take an EC course and learn to ride through it, but once you do you may wonder why you bothered. In a properly designed city, where mixed use development is permitted (let us say encouraged!), no high-volume roadway designs would be necessary, and bicycling would be simple, feasible, and natural. You would still need Effective Cycling because there would still be mixed traffic--in fact, there would be MORE mixed traffic (bicycles, people walking) than there ever will be in the present infrastructure. You might even have to slow down on your way through the neighborhood on your bike! And it would be worth your while.

I'll repeat myself now and say yet once more that the infrastructure we suffer with today did not exist seventy years ago. What was built can be unbuilt, as what was built before was unbuilt to make room for the present. A mixed-use neo-traditional neighborhood is the most effective bicycle facility you can build. Lobby for that; fight old stupid zoning laws that forbid corner stores and small building lots. Ask for new zoning that limits "big-box" retail development such as Wal-Mart or Costco, since it CANNOT survive economically without drawing customers from a thirty mile radius and so requires the support of expanded high-speed road lanes. (Note the hidden subsidy to big business!) In other words, build neighborhoods not tracts. This will do more for bicycling than ten million miles of poky old go-nowhere bike paths or striped lanes. Aside from essential details such as crosswise drain grates and safe bike parking, human-scale neighborhood development is the only real bicycle infrastructure.

Richard Risemberg