Thursday, March 17, 2011

A car mentality

This post was inspired by a talkback to an article in Ynet Magazine. The article, entitled "Back to the Desert", is about A.B. Yehoshua's plans to spend a weekend at Kibbutz Sde Boker (pictured at left, with ibex), and why he thinks settling the Negev would solve our density and demographic problems, and restore the old-time Zionist values that made Israel's first prime minister go to settle the desert in a shack ...

Yehoshua's invocation of Ben-Gurion at Kibbutz Sde Boker stands in stark contrast to the values embodied in talkback #12 to the article:

To make the Negev attractive would take little things, which make for well-planned cities. If we planned a city from the start, we'd have roads wide enough for 2 lanes of traffic, despite the fact that cars will park on both sides of the streets, unfortunately Israeli-style. Every SINGLE place of business and school would have an actual parking lot, suitable for the cars that will actually need to park there. Real urban planning will go a long way. Israelis' would flock to a well-planned place. [emphases mine - WiJ]

Without wanting to "flame" an unsuspecting talkbacker, it's hard not to be distressed that the talkbacker's only planning desiderata relate to the convenience of drivers, and reflect zero walkability awareness.

When we think of Sde Boker or any other kibbutz, images of large, green public spaces generally come to mind. Folks walking or scooting around on bicycles. The kibbutznik doesn't own a car; he doesn't need one. He can get to work/kindergarten/the clinic/the post office, etc., on foot or by bike. And as he walks or pedals along, he enjoys the lovingly-tended common areas that reflect the kibbutz's community-friendly values.

These values, which A.B. Yehoshua links with old-fashioned Zionism, do not require a kibbutz environment in order to be realized. As noted in a previous post, they can exist quite well in an urban setting, such as Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, whose green and welcoming semi-public spaces reflect the values of its original inhabitants -- Zionist leaders of the pre- and early-statehood period.

Those were the days when people didn't think they needed cars for every shopping excursion; when children walked to school -- or got there in large buses, rather than being chauffered by their parents in private automobiles.

It's no accident that Rehavia has some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. People like to live in communities that are walkable. The talkbacker notes that "Israelis would flock to a well-planned community" -- in fact, wealthy Israelis and foreigners are doing just that throughout Jerusalem's walkable older neighborhoods.

But these are precisely the neighborhoods that don't have wide roads to accomodate both two-way traffic and parking on both sides of the street. These are the neighborhoods where "every SINGLE place of business and school" doesn't have a parking lot.

The fact is that narrow roads and a lack of off-street parking are actually tools used by enlightened planners to promote walking, bicycling and the use of public transportation over the use of private automobiles.

Dom Nozzi, an American urban planner who writes compellingly about walkability and New Urbanism topics, has this to say about widening roads to relieve congestion:

[I]n the face of a tolled or congested road, a number of motorists will choose to avoid the road. Some will choose an alternative road nearby. Or will drive at a different time of day (instead of rush hour). Or will walk, bicycle or use transit. Or will forego the trip completely. In the long run, many people would move closer to their destinations.

But widening a road short-circuits these self-regulating changes in travel behavior. A widened road that is free to use says to motorists: “Feel free to use this major road to drive across town at rush hour to rent a video!”]

Regarding the talkbacker's demand for a "parking lot for EVERY SINGLE place of business and school," it's worth checking out the off-street parking links at the Municipal Research and Services Center, a non-profit organization offering professional consulting services to local government in Washington State. The MRSC notes that "[n]ewer off-street parking ordinances recognize both the necessity of parking and the need to reduce dependence on the automobile by encouraging transit and other alternative transportation modes." [emphasis mine - WiJ]

The planning perspective represented by the talkbacker quoted above produces the following

Wouldn't you rather shop here:

Photo credits:
Ibex at Sde Boker: Hannah Sivan via the PikiWiki
Big-box shopping: Ben Schumin -- Wikipedia
Washington, GA storefronts: TampAGS, for AGS Media (via Wikipedia)

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