David Owen’s Green Metropolis on Ciclovia

April 16, 2010 at 12:01 am 3 comments

Green Metropolis by David Owen, Riverhead Books, 2009

I just finished reading David Owen’s book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability.

Though there are a few things I differ with him on, I highly recommend the book as a thought-provoking treatise on how and why cities make sense environmentally. If you want to read the short verison of the book, link over to Owen’s 2004 New Yorker article entitled Green Manhattan. (Thanks to Beth Steckler for showing me that article a few years ago.)

David Owen’s basic premise is that living in a big city is demonstrably great for the environment – mainly because instead of driving, folks take transit, walk or bike to nearby destinations. He shows that the concentration of folks in real walkable cities  is the antithesis of sprawl. Though cities may be perceived as grey nature-deficient areas, concentrating people in them allows for a very small footprint, so that other places can remain less impacted.

In the course of making his case, Owen blows away a lot of widely-held environmental icons – from solar energy, to LEED green building certification, to the benefits of urban parks, to locavorism, to commuter rail, to the promise of compact fuel-efficient cars, and more. I suspect that the author may not have made a lot of friends with this book… but I think it’s actually brilliant for getting us urban environmentalists to reimagine what’s actually effective in the ways we try make our cities environmentally friendly – and to get us to think about some of our blind spots.   

Here’s Owen’s passage critical of New York City’s ciclovia:

In New York in 2008, Mayor Bloomberg introduced a program called Summer Streets, which banned motor vehicles from about seven miles of Manhattan streets, including Park Avenue below Seventy-second Street, on three Saturdays in August between seven in the morning and one in the afternoon. The plan was greeted enthusiastically by most residents, environmentalists, and bicyclists (although some expressed concern that the elimination of all motor traffic on some streets would merely increase congestion on others.) Paul Steely White, the executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told The New York Times, “It’s a new way to use a street, using it more like a park than as a thoroughfare, Everyone around the world knows about Park Avenue as one of New York City’s most storied thoroughfares, and to turn that over to pedestrians and cyclists, even though it’s just for three consecutive Saturdays, I think sends a powerful message that the tide is turning so that bicyclists and pedestrians are on at least an equal footing with drivers.” There was nothing actually wrong with the plan, if one considered it as a special recreational event, like allowing kids to play around fire hydrants on hot days, or turning a large parking lot over to a carnival. … But programs like Summer Streets don’t really lead anywhere, in terms of broad transportation strategy for urban areas. City bicyclists undoubtedly enjoyed being able to tool down Manhattan’s spine, virtually unimpeded, from the middle of Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, but removing motor traffic from upper Park Avenue didn’t make that street any less of a pedestrian wasteland than it already was. Car-free programs like Summer Streets treat pedestrians and bicyclists the way Robert Moses used to treat cars, by segregating them on expressways of their own.

A better idea, which Bloomberg’s office announced a few weeks later, was a plan to reconfigure Broadway by closing two of its four lanes to vehicle traffic and turning those lanes over to pedestrians, pedestrians, bicyclists, and vendors. That program actually carried New York a step closer to something that every big city needs, which is a surface-transportation vision that integrates buses, trucks, cabs, cars, bicyclists and pedestrians into a coherent system in which all elements coexist safely, while steadily shrinking the space devoted to cars.

This is one of about a half-dozen passages where I do differ with Owen. I think ciclovia programs, in addition to being great “recreational events” can help people to re-envision our streets – to experience them differently than we do today. I think ciclovia also has potential to get out-of-shape folks out walking and beginners up bicycling – and can help those folks realize that it’s easier than they expect. Also, as the recurrences become more frequent (many Latin American ciclovias occur every Sunday all year) they do serve as real transportation facilities.

I think it’s not “either/or” but “and.” Cities including New York, San Francisco, and Bogota, have shown that it’s possible to have successful ciclovias and to implement permanent facilities that make bicycling and walking safer and more convenient. I think we can and should do it all.  

What do you think? Will cicLAvia succeed as a program that changes people’s minds about public space and urban transportation? or will it just be a great recreational event? or ??

(by Joe Linton)

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Spring breakin’ Olvera Street Not So Far From Home

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. colleen713  |  April 17, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Nice cover! I will be searching for that on my next trip to the library.

  • 2. Bobby  |  April 19, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I agree with your response Joe, the best way is definitely an infrastructure AND ciclovia approach, Owen glosses over that possibility. Also, saying that “removing motor traffic from upper Park Avenue didn’t make that street any less of a pedestrian wasteland ” makes me think he hasn’t actually been to a ciclovia. Any space, when filled with people, can be turned from a “pedestrian wasteland” to an activated, social space. I think this was the big success of Summer Streets in New York. Also, characterizing ciclovias as “expressways” akin to Robert Moses’ highways seems rather disingenuously provocative. With a ciclovia, major cross streets are open to vehicular traffic. It is something that brings a community together, rather than dividing it like an expressway.

    • 3. Joe Linton  |  April 19, 2010 at 10:30 pm

      The way I read that sentence, I think that Owen probably meant “removing motor traffic from upper Park Avenue [for three days each year] didn’t make that street any less of a pedestrian wasteland [for the other 360+ days each year]” – which, without any real knowledge of Park Avenue, I expect is probably true. I think his Robert Moses reference is similar – if bike and peds are welcomed only three days each year, then that’s segregating them – not making them part of the fabric of the city.

      I want to repeat that Owen’s book is excellent – I wanted to write more about his very-right-on critiques… but they didn’t tie directly to cicLAvia and, also, I didn’t want to offend too many cicLAvia readers.

      I highly recommend reading it, even if I don’t agree with everything he says. He made me think a lot about the sort of suburban biases in the US environmental movement.


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