Archive for December, 2010

Check Your ‘Weapon’ at the City Limits

2010/12/24

In the Old West, one was not allowed to carry a gun in a town, but was required to check his six-shooter or rifle at the sheriff’s office on arrival, and pick it up when leaving.  That didn’t prevent fights and disputes, but did prevent them from involving guns that propelled bullets that would, once fired, go on and on and hit uninvolved parties.  Leaving cowpokes to deal with disputes by using fists made sense.

Today, we have cities where people are afraid to walk or cycle — which therefore inhibits using transit as well — on certain streets or under certain conditions because other people use vehicles under their rather amateurish  control .  (They completely ban their children from any self-directed transportation until age 12 or 12).  This device has power that is used by the driver to serve peaceful ends, but too often, the driver errs and others vulnerable parties suffer.  It harms the role of the places near our homes from playing a second-order-hearth function.  It therefore has a chilling effect on engaging in the activities that make cities convivial and sustainable.

I am a rather lonely proponent of shifting cities to dependence on walking, cycling, transit, individual vehicles specifically suited to walkable street (see below), and finally (and least) cars.  Cars are designed to meet the transportation needs of their owners over a wide range of trip types.  Although most trips are short, slow, and solo, the few trips that are otherwise — usually taken outside the city — tend to be the tail wagging the dog.  We make cars big (5-8 seats), fast (well over freeway speed limits), and able to handle both long trips and bouncy roads, neither of which, again, are faced in cities.  The only need for personal motorized vehicles in cities could be completely met by bicycles and what I am calling S4UVs, which stands for Small, Slow, Silent, and Soft Urban Vehicles, or basically 2- and 3-wheeled  electric powered devices that are also designed to do little harm to bystanders when the driver — probably much younger than the present highway traffic laws require — doesn’t exert control in an entirely benign way.

This would leave a more limited roll for cars as we know them today.  They would probably be allowed only on freeways and wide, semi-fast suburban arterials, the same roads that semi-trailers tend to be self-limited to.  When something is not used that much — for the frequent, in-town trips — and otherwise only for infrequent out-of-town trips, it doesn’t make sense for each driver to own his own.  Sharing makes great sense.

One use is that cars become a form of transit during rush hours, taking many seat-kms from the city’s transit system for the trips — or parts of trips — that are of too-low volume to warrant larger vehicles driven, suitably, by specially trained drivers.  This system, which I have described as a carsharing ‘hybrid’ for suburban application in an article for Ottawa’s Peace & Environment News (January 2007), would be utilized at other times by families for trips at other times within the city (and driven rather slowly on the walkable streets).  These cars would be parked on streets and be reserved via a system that ‘knows’ the location of each car and what prior commitments have been made for each, allowing easy queries for access via cell phones.  During the workdays, the cars would be mostly located in employment zones and be used for business meetings and lunch-hour shuttles to activity centres.

Even those driving the shared cars in cities would be subject to two new realities: a) their use would be more accountable via the natural role of the carsharing company to ensure their vehicles are being used in a sustainable way via the IT links to each car, and b) drivers would have to meet a higher standard since that would meet walkability criteria more easily and because fewer drivers are needed to do the driving, and society can be more selective as to the requirements.

And for those who now use a car for trips to other population centre — and often complain about the large trucks and buses which intimidate them — can now consider another choice.  Use a common carrier to reach the destination, and then select modes for trips just as they did back home, knowing that shared cars are available, if needed.

The people of the Old West knew a danger when they saw one.  However, they didn’t have a system of transportation available to offer people arriving in big, dangerous cars, as the last century started.  We have that choice, and should use it.

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