Urban mobility is not a zero-sum game.  When you design streets for bicycles and pedestrians, everybody wins.

When it comes to designing American streets, it’s usually all about the car.   

Look at almost any street in our country. The priorities appear to be, in this order: (1) maximizing the rapid flow of motor vehicles; (2) providing as much curbside parking as possible without interfering with Priority (1); and (3) everything else.

Many American critics of so-called “alternative” transportation seem to believe that it has to be this way. They apparently see urban planning as a black-and-white, zero-sum game in which there’s only one legitimate winner. If bicycles and pedestrians “win,” they believe, then cars “lose.” And if cars lose, then industry, business, mobility and “real people” lose as well.

Look at the debate over Seattle’s very modest efforts to provide more space on its streets for bicycles. The City is slowly placing some of its arterials on a “road diet” and adding bike lanes. But the negative reaction has been fierce, with opponents claiming that this “war on cars” will clog the streets and drive the City’s industrial base elsewhere. 

And in questioning whether the City should make spending for bike and pedestrian facilities a priority, a Seattle Times columnist recently posed the issue as a stark, either/or proposition, saying: “ Seattle voters have to decide what kind of city they want: one with affordable taxes and reasonable accommodation for business and jobs, or a bike and pedestrian haven backed by plenty of public spending.”

I have no doubt that much of this expressed angst arises from genuine concern—genuine, but misplaced and ultimately harmful. 

Consider: (1) Seattle is already among the nation’s most congested metropolitan areas. We’ve ranked as high as Number 2 during the past ten years.  The average Seattle-area driver spends about 45 hours a year stuck in traffic.  (2) Seattle, like other Washington cities, has committed itself to greater density.  That means more people in the same space—and unless there is another way to get around, more cars. (3) No large City has ever eliminated congestion by road-building alone.  The Los Angeles metropolitan area, which probably has the world’s most extensive freeway system, routinely ranks as America’s most congested.  (4) Cities that turn themselves entirely over to the car are among the most polluted and least livable. Think L.A. and Houston; would you move to either of those places for quality of life alone?

Perhaps more importantly, consider the experience of cities that have taken a different path.  Their experience shows that everyone’s mobility is increased when commuters are given a variety of options. Their experience also shows that giving street space to bicycles and pedestrians helps create a far more pleasant and humane urban environment.  In other words, everybody wins.

Exhibit A is Copenhagen, Denmark.

Visitors can be forgiven for thinking that Copenhagen has always been bicycle and pedestrian nirvana; that the bicycle tracks, pedestrian streets and sidewalk cafes that one sees today are a natural outgrowth of Danish culture. Not so. They are the result of conscious policy choices that have taken almost 50 years to implement.

Two videos illustrate Copenhagen’s transformation and the results; both are well worth watching. One is a clip from the film “Contested Streets.”  The other is a short video from Street Films called “Copenhagen’s Car-Free Streets and Slow-Speed Zones.”  In them, Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl and others recount how cars began proliferating in the city during the 1950s.  Cyclists were pushed aside, and Copenhagen’s lovely squares were turned into parking lots.

The transformation to a different model began in the early 1960s, when one kilometer of the City’s main shopping street was turned into a pedestrian mall.  And in the 1980s, the City began to build an extensive system of separated “cycle tracks” on major arterials, often taking general-purpose car lanes to do so. As here, business owners often howled.  Danes aren’t Italians, they said—they don’t just walk around for the hell of it. The weather’s too bad—no one will frequent the pedestrian zones. Business will be ruined.

But the City went ahead, and proved the critics wrong.

In the process, they created an urban setting that is commonly held up as a world-class model of livability and sustainability. And “real people,” the kind that critics of Seattle’s modest steps claim will be driven away, got back on their bikes. Today, more than a third of the commuters in Copenhagen get to work or school on their bicycles.  So it turned out that the cycle tracks weren’t just for a few selfish Lycra-clad eco-lunatics. They were for everybody.

And no, they didn’t outlaw the car. The Copenhagen area has a surprisingly-extensive freeway system.  And Copenhagen’s streets are less congested than Seattle’s. In fact, according to Gehl, Copenhagen is the least-congested City of its size in the Western world.

And that’s no zero-sum game.

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