30 January 2011

The Power of Ideas

As I was cycling home in the pouring rain the other day, it struck me that the car is as dangerous an idea as it is a physical object. The reasons that people consider the car to be so successful are the very same reasons why the car is so problematic; they are isolating, they promote a (false) sense of security, they have the appearance of convenience and they are desirable. Or at least that is what people believe.

Why do people believe these things? In large part, I presume that an endless, expensive and all-pervading campaign of marketing and advertising has done its job. I also presume that like most new technologies, the motor car had to survive the early knocks and the battle to “define” what this new technology was (when they first arrived on the street, they were considered “death machines”, driven by “road hogs” and “speed maniacs”).

The question is probably not even relevant for recent generations, who have not had to make the paradigm shift that allowed the car into our lives – it was already there. So how did it do it in the first place? And, the question that really intrigues me - What subtle shifts in society and thinking allowed us to hand over huge swathes of public space to an essentially private pursuit?

From an urban planning point of view, the founding in 1929 of a small town called Radburn located within Fair Lawn, New Jersey may have been a turning point. It was conceived as a “Town for the Motor Age” and was designed on the basis of almost complete separation of different modes of transportation. As the motor car gathered in popularity after the turn of the century with large scale manufacturers like Ford leading the way, calls for motorists to be separated from the suddenly slower and more vulnerable street-users became ever stronger. This “separation” was to be achieved by simply removing the vulnerable from the streets, which was a pragmatic and understandable approach to problems like the staggering numbers of children being killed by motor cars whilst playing.

 At Radburn, here was the urban manifestation of this process for all to see – and just as importantly for others to be influenced by. The spaces that were previously the “streets” for all and sundry to use by collaboration and compromise became the “roads” for motor cars only. Pedestrians and cyclists were given their own alternative spaces and routes. Great, you may cry – exactly the model of segregation we want! The problem is that by handing over this road space to cars, particularly in urban situations, and allowing the transportation system to become dictated by the needs of one particular mode, we have also given away our civic space. The road is for cars and that is that.

In order to now re-engineer that same road space to create the segregation and cycling infrastructure we so desire, we have to overcome the idea that the space somehow “belongs” to the motor car. Possession is, as the old saying goes, nine-tenths of the law. The trick that was pulled off by “motordom” in the 20’s is the same trick needed now and it is going to be a very hard sell. But, it happened before and it has happened again, not only in the famous cycling nations of Holland and Denmark, but seemingly unlikely places such as Paris and Barcelona. Never underestimate the power of ideas.

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