Study on I-81 Wrapping Up Soon

VDOT is hosting a third round of meetings on its study of I-81. The study, as directed by the General Assembly, is meant to “identify targeted improvement along I-81 and potential revenue sources that could be dedicated to improvements.” more

At the Shadowbox: The Car

RIDE Solutions at The Shadowbox

"The Car"RIDE Solutions is partnering with The Shadowbox, Roanoke’s Microcinema, to sponsor a series of transportation-related films, once a month, through June of 2011.  We hope to  offer a selection of popular films, documentaries, short film collections, and other works, and follow up each film with an open discussion

It might seem strange to kick off a film series intended to encourage serious discussion of transportation issue and their impacts on our region with a campy 70’s horror flick.  If you knew my personal love of horror movies (campy and otherwise) it might seem a more natural selection, but there’s more to this than inflicting my cinematic tastes on an unsuspecting Shadowbox audience.

Sustainable transportation planning and advocacy is serious business.  It touches on almost every aspect of our life and every sector of our economy.  Does all the stuff we buy get to us on trucks or on trains?  How does the ability to long-haul goods on publicly subsidized highways effect local producers and manufacturers?  How does an emphasis on highways effect where money is spent in local transportation systems?  How do those choices reduce or increase mobility options that allow people to get to jobs or services?  What do we do with the Baby Boom generation when they can’t drive anymore?  How does all this fit into our energy picture?  How do our energy needs effect foreign policy choices?  So on and so on and so on – infrastructure, energy, employment, social services, health; transportation has implications for each of these areas and more.

Sustainable transportation advocates take these issues seriously (well, except maybe for bicycle advocates, who tend to have a better sense of humor about this stuff – see: River Laker or the World Naked Bike Ride [no, I will not link to anything having to do with the latter]) and love to trot out compelling numbers and graphs and charts to show why our system as it exists is flawed and desperately needs to change.  They are compelling numbers and they support strong, rational arguments for an overhaul of how we get around and how we design cities to get around in, arguments that are in many cases irrefutable (bicycles are smaller than cars, need fewer parking spaces, and riding them improves public health; that’s hard to argue against).  But they aren’t always persuasive.

That’s because our attachment to cars in the U.S. isn’t entirely rational.  We have a deep emotional attachment to them; they’re not simply machines, they’re symbols of freedom, of power, of status (sometimes moreso than our homes; I know plenty of folks whose cars have more amenities than their houses).  That kind of attachment can be difficult to overcome with graphs and numbers alone.  When you challenge someone’s car, you’re not just challenging a transportation decision, you’re challenging a lifestyle choice.

That said, despite what every car commercial on television ever produced would like you to believe, it’s clear that our relationship with our vehicles isn’t without some ambiguity.  We may love our cars, but we’re also afraid of them.  Note the number of commercials that show crash-test dummies surviving horrible accidents; car companies know that our cars have the potential to kill us, and they want to reassure us that we’ll be fine, just fine.  That’s why we’re starting the film series with The Car.  In part, because it should be fun; there will be time for preachy, but informative, documentaries later.  But also, because a movie starring an evil, murderous car would seem to exploit some of that hidden fear we have about our cars.  Maybe in this film we can sense some subconscious reaction to the roaring of a powerful engine and the toothy sneer of a massive radiator grill, some ambivalence towards this machine that seems to be getting out of our control.

Whatever we learn from this, if anything, I think it’s as important to be aware of the role these machines play in popular culture (and by “these machines,” I do mean bicycles and buses and trains and all of these things, which I hope we’ll be able to tackle over the course of the next year) as it is to be aware of the cold, hard facts about them.

In Defense of Ciclovia

A few weeks ago, the Friday after August 1st’s Ciclovia, a Letter to the Editor appeared in The Roanoke Times that took a critical look at the event (letter appears second from bottom, but is quoted below):

Since Roanoke spent a lot of money making bike lanes around parks, I do not see why they have to have a bike show downtown (“Taking to the streets” Aug. 2 photos). Streets are blocked, interfering with traffic. More important, children are riding their bikes in the street and could be hit by a car or bus.

If the city built bike lanes around parks and other areas, they should be used, not city streets made for cars and buses.

My response appeared in today’s paper, quoted below in full:

In response to Catherine Wydner’s Aug. 7 letter, “Use bike lanes, not the city streets,” I want to clarify a few misconceptions she seems to have about our recent Ciclovia event.

The Ciclovia, organized by the Roanoke chapter of BikeWalk Virginia, was an effort to show how much more vibrant our urban space could be when it is opened to people rather than dedicated to cars. Indeed, the 500-plus attendees of the event — including cyclists, artists, families, health professionals, rollerbladers and others — enjoyed the opportunity to “play in the streets” and experience Downtown Roanoke in an exciting, new way.

I take issue with her assertion that city streets are “made for cars and buses.” Streets are made for transportation, regardless of mode. Citizens should feel comfortable and safe choosing how to commute, do their shopping and visit friends, whether they do so in a car, on a bus, on a bike or on foot.

Smart cities concentrate on transportation designs that move people, not only cars, and Roanoke’s support of events like Ciclovia reveals its dedication to this principle. BikeWalk appreciates the city’s support and the support of all who attended the event.

This idea that “streets are for cars,” as if cars are creatures with rights, is one we have to get past if we’re ever going to make significant improvements in our transportation infratructure and energy use.  A century ago, people might have argued vehemently that “Streets are for horses!”  Before that, “Streets are for the market stalls!” and even “What the heck is a street?”  Now, as always, streets are a function of our cities and how we choose to move around within them and connect to others.  They should always be viewed with an eye toward moving people the fastest, safest, most efficient and, now, cleanest way possible.  In many cases that may be by car, which is fine.  But not always, and not for everyone, and the more we keep this top-of-mind the better off our cities will be.