Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City

Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City
Monday, November 10, 2014 by Brent Toderian

It's rare for a newspaper to dedicate two stories in the same issue to the planning, design, and transportation challenges of a city, and even more rare for a newspaper to ask for an additional op-ed piece from a visiting city planner to tie it all together. That's what the Western Australian newspaper did this past week, during my trip to Perth, Australia. I was there at the invitation of the Heart Foundation to work with local state planning and transport staff, local politicians, other stakeholders and media on multi-modal city-making, active transport and smarter land-use. I was also there to help with a broader conversation about a different direction for the city and a necessary culture change around the car.

In the interview I did for one of the articles written by Kent Acott, I compared Perth to a "wealthy addict who was rich enough to hide the implications of his addictions."

"But the consequences - like congestion and the lack of reasonable transport options - can't be hidden forever and are already showing through. If you put more money into walking, cycling and public transport you can break your addiction, be more successful in addressing congestion, and move more people with less money and less space."

As for that op-ed piece, written as an open letter to a car-dependant city at a crossroads, here it is. They gave it a high profile, full page spread in the paper - it wasn't just tucked away in the editorial section. Although written for Perth, it's applicable to any city facing car dependancy, and thus to too many of our global cities.

Perth at a Crossroad in Smart City Stakes

"We could never do that in our city" - eight words I've heard many times all over the world.

It's amazing how much energy goes into making excuses for why a city can't get better.

Although I've heard great passion for better city-making here in Perth this week while working with the Heart Foundation, I've also heard some of those excuses, while working with stakeholders, politicians and State planning and transport staff.

"Perth is different," I've been told, in various ways.

It's true, Perth is different. Every city is. But you're not THAT different. You're really not.

Cities have more in common that they have differences. What every city absolutely has in common is that it takes vision, will and skill to get better. It takes follow-through. It takes fewer excuses and more focus on all you can accomplish if you want it bad enough.

Perth is currently mostly a car-dependent city.

You've got a lot of suburban sprawl - more than most cities.

Yes, you have some impressive rail infrastructure, some successful pedestrian streets and places in the central area, and you've been building some initial urban biking infrastructure. Some very good projects for a more walkable, livable city are currently underway. These have been smart moves, and more will be needed.

But the car is still king here. And you're spending even more money and energy keeping it that way.

Your suburbs are incredibly spread out. Not all suburbia around the world is urban sprawl, but too much of it is.

The main determiner of sprawl is car-dependency, and so much of your suburbia is sprawl.

It didn't have to be that way, it wasn't inevitable - you made choices that have lead you here. There are big costs and consequences connected to those choices.

Other cities chose differently, like Vancouver in Canada where I was chief planner for six years.

Many other cities I'm now working with around the world are choosing differently right now, as you read this. Many cities understand that their future isn't inevitable - it's designed.

Smart cities are working hard to become true multi-modal cities - where residents have many inviting transportation options like walking, biking and public transport, and don't need to totally rely on the car.

It's not impossible - all it takes is a change of priorities and perspective. Smart cities are proving that being more multi-modal is a key to success, in almost every way success is measured, but particularly in economic success.

But you're not going to make walking, biking and public transport (also referred to as active mobility) more attractive if you're still trying to build more and more space for the car. Smart cities have learned you can't have your cake and eat it too. Cars take up a lot more space - to drive and to park - than active mobility does.

And a lot more public money too, per kilometres travelled.

You have to prioritise active mobility to make it inviting. In this context, the notion of "balancing" travel modes is a myth, and often code for the status quo.

The good news is, when you prioritise active mobility, it makes getting around easier for everyone, INCLUDING drivers.

I know that can seem counter-intuitive, but smart cities have proven it's true.

If you design a city for cars, it fails for everyone, including drivers.

If you design a multi-modal city that prioritizes walking, biking and public transport, it works for everyone, including drivers.

In other words, there's no "war on cars" here. That's a lazy political and media narrative.

There's an old saying about what's called "The Law of Congestion" - building more road lanes to solve congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity.

The whole idea of justifying more roads is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. You justify the road project based on the projected number of cars and the cars come because of the road project you've built.

New lanes always fill up, because more sprawl is built and people drive more. If you hadn't built the new road, the cars wouldn't have come. You're never going to build your way out of the congestion problem - at least not with roads They're incredibly expensive, and they generally don't work at "solving" congestion.

Once you have different priorities and perspective around a multi-modal city, it's going to take designing your city, and especially your suburbs, differently. It means your suburbs will change.

It's kind of a cruel joke to design a suburb for cars and then tell everyone they should be walking, biking and taking public transport more.

You need much more density, much more of a mix of land-uses, concentrated around your rail stations and in walkable village and town centres. When communities are more compact, connected and complete, everything is closer and more walkable, urban biking can be slower and shorter, and public transport works. It's what I call "the Power of Nearness."

You actually may have better public transport infrastructure here in Perth than we have in Vancouver - you have heavy rail, we don't. But we're doing a lot more with the land-use around our light rail to take advantage of a population that can walk to public transport as opposed to having to drive to it. You have to take better advantage of the advantage you have in transport infrastructure. More people and more density around public transport - that's one of the biggest things you're missing here in Perth.

You also need much better walking, biking and public transport infrastructure to make these trips inviting. The chicken-and egg about which should come first, land use/density or better infrastructure/service has been debated, but I tend to suggest you do both, as soon as you're able.

That means spending a lot less on roads and a lot more on active mobility. The good news is that not only does spending on this kind of infrastructure work much better for mobility and congestion than spending on roads, it also has a much better demonstrated return-on-investment in economic development, job creation, taxation, etc. It's the smart economic choice.

And it means insisting on better urban design and architecture in general, especially in the ways that make walking a treat - active building edges at eye level with no blank walls along streets, better street design and amenities that make urban neighbourhoods walkable, liveable and lovable.

In Vancouver, we've been prioritizing walking, biking and public transport in our city-making for years. We rejected the freeways decades ago - we're the only major North American city that doesn't have any, and our city works better because of that. In fact, we haven't added any new road capacity for cars since the 1990's, and don't intend to in the future.

We've been transforming more and more of the road space we had into wider sidewalks, bus-only lanes, separated bike-lanes and other space for active, healthy, space-saving transport. And our commute times and vehicle km's travelled, two of the biggest definitions of success for traffic engineers, have both been going down. In other words, it's easier to get around the city, and a lot more people are making "trips." Just with fewer cars.

We don't ban the car. We just prioritize it last. And that works better for everyone because moving more people takes less money and less space.

We've been separating our bike lanes from car traffic because, among other things, that's the key to getting urban cyclists aged 8-80 and more women on bikes. It's working - urban biking is exploding, as it is in many cities around the world.

We have much more significant land use and densities around public transport stations - mixed, walkable, compact high density neighbourhoods - and we have higher public transport ridership to show for it.

What smart cities like Vancouver understand is multi-modal city-making with better urban design is the bedrock of economic success.

We've avoided the unhelpful false choices around good planning OR economic growth and job creation, because we know that smart planning and great urban design is the basis of our economic success. It creates value, in many definitions of that word.

Will Perth be a smart city?

You seem to be at a crossroads - or should I say, a crossing of two rail-lines.

One leads to continued car dependence, with the increasingly quantified and undeniable costs and consequences. The other leads to a healthier, greener, more resilient multi-modal future that also happens to be more economically successful.

It's not too late to change, but the longer you wait, the further down the wrong track you go, the harder it will be for you.

The future isn't inevitable. It's a choice.

Design it better.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver's former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian