Yesterday morning I had a rather lively discussion about the prioritization of streets, and whether bicyclists and motorists should truly “share the road.” From this group came a range of opinions, including, “if you can’t go as fast as motorists, then stay off the road,” and, “all but freeways should be designed to allow slower travelers such as mopeds and bicycles.” As you might have guessed, my view fell into the latter.
It all started because I brought up this story about a teen boy who was killed in a car crash after untying the bikini top of the driver. I wanted to gauge the others’ thoughts on who was at fault for the crash and what the punishment should be, if any. I switched gears, then bringing up the regularity of crashes involving motorists and bicyclists, which usually result in no citation to the driver at all.
To my amazement, one of the debaters actually called bicyclists, scooter riders, and even passengers of Amish buggies, “safety hazards.” I mean, I realize that riding a bike or a buggy does have some inherent risk unique from the risks of driving a car, but last time I checked we don’t use the words “safety hazard” to describe a human being. Throughout the argument it became clear that this person sees motorists as having ultimate priority over the road network, and that all lesser modes of transport are subject to their mass and speed.
At dinner last night I lamented to my wife over the seeming ignorance of this one debater. But in her usual wisdom she helped me to see that I might be looking at this all the wrong way. See, this person’s frame of reference is the private automobile. For decades, auto manufacturers, real estate developers, governments, and the media have all portrayed mobility through car ownership as a key tenet of the American Dream. And, admittedly, the private automobile does provide a versatility that no other mode of transportation can match. But, whereas I would argue this debater as being selfish in thinking her Suburban is better than my Jamis, she likely sees this as perfectly normal. And that is where my wife helped me to realize my missed opportunity; that is, to help educate (rather than antagonize) the public on the benefits of transportation mode choice for all and creating a network of infrastructure to support that choice.
It’s easy for the motor-minded to think that citizens who get around via bike or transit are against cars and would rather recreate the built environment as it was before Henry Ford came on the scene. But, at least for me, that’s simply untrue. Rather, I want to live in the type of community that says wherever you want to go, however you choose to travel there, you will have a safe, complete, and convenient way of arriving.
My last post delved heavily into my personal struggles with food and fitness, and as I was writing I wondered what application all of that would have regarding the rest of my writing, which is typically centered on issues of urban livability and access to equitable transportation. But as I stepped on a scale this past week to discover I had already gained more than 10 pounds since finishing my Master’s degree this spring, a light bulb came on.
Food and fitness are just as much about the built environment as are buildings, street trees, and transit. You see, college campuses are a microcosm of what many urbanists strive to create in existing cities throughout the developed world. They typically have some, if not all, of the following features:
- A high concentration of pedestrian traffic
- Limited and/or low-speed vehicular access through the core
- A mix of uses (educational, employment, retail/food, residential/dorms)
- A strong network of sidewalks (and sometimes bike infrastructure)
- High levels of activity throughout the day
- Centrally located green spaces
- Higher density of employment and residences
- Transit access (either campus-only service or connectivity to an area-wide system)
For me, my time on college campuses has been more active than my time away from school. I walked between buildings and to transit. I spent less time at a single desk, daydreaming about the next morsel of food I could ingest. I jogged to get out of the rain or to catch a bus (sometimes unsuccessfully). A well-equipped gym was located within walking distance.
Today, I am back to driving. I drive to work, so that I can sit at a desk. I drive to lunch, then back to work. I drive to the gym. I even have to drive to access a decent park. And, all of this is driving me to eat.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not blaming all 10 of those pounds on the environment. I am still ultimately responsible for every calorie I consume. I mean, how else would I explain the many other current and former college students who succumb to the Freshman Fifteen in spite of living in these urban oases? Yet, I still can’t help but agree with the mounting evidence that unwalkable places are more to blame for our obesity epidemic than we’ve given credit for.