Monday, January 16, 2012


A few blocks from my office, there’s a dreary, ten-year-old strip mall fronted by literally acres of unrelieved parking lot.  Though it has no fewer than five separate entrances for cars, God help anyone who dares to approach the place on foot.  To reach its quarter-mile-long phalanx of storefronts, you can either negotiate the single paltry thread of sidewalk the developers saw fit to provide, or else try to cross a vast sea of dirty asphalt on foot, with cars flashing carelessly past on all sides and bearing down behind you unseen.

One of the many exasperating tenets of postwar planning was the assumption that nobody would ever want to walk anywhere, anytime.  Shopping centers, not to speak of downtown streets, were laid out mainly to suit automobiles and not people.  Seemingly, the only time a human was expected to walk outdoors was enroute to the driver’s seat.  

Yet many people do walk, and hopefully many more will do so in coming years.  What with traffic snarls, interminable waits at signals, and the inevitable battle for parking, it’s often quite literally faster to walk three or four blocks than it is to drive that far.  And mind you, I say this as a lifelong motorhead. 

Given all the bad things we’ve found out about designing cities around cars instead of people, modern planners are doing their best to bring pedestrians into this creaky old equation. It’s a fine idea in theory, but in practice, wherever cars and pedestrians mix, the cars invariably win out.  The reason is obvious:  Since a car weighs twenty to thirty times what a person does, any contest between the two will not end up in the pedestrian’s favor.  Hence, we’re psychologically conditioned from childhood to subordinate ourselves to those big bad cars.  

Less obvious, but just as problematic, a car also takes up about thirty times as much space as a person on foot, resulting in vast areas of our cities that have no function whatever but to store our four-wheeled friends.  All told, we pave over about forty percent of our cities solely to accomodate motor vehicles (in Los Angeles, the figure is said to be closer to sixty percent).  This autocentric environment extends right into our own homes, one-quarter of which we happily devote to garage space. 

Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric of New Urbanist planning, which promises to reverse these twisted priorities, little has changed on the ground.  I recently stopped in at yet another shopping complex not far from my office, this one barely two years old.  Unlike the stupefying strip mall mentioned earlier, this “retail village” employs many of the latest New Urbanist planning ideas--varied building facades, happy little plazas, pretty paving, and the like.  

For hapless shoppers, alas, these potentially lovely surroundings are completely co-opted by the constant stream of cars that go barreling right through the heart of the place. That’s right:  For some inexplicable reason, automobiles weren’t barred from what might have been a charming little shopping lane.  

A smattering of New Urbanist rules, it seems, hasn’t been enough to change the game.  Those big bad cars are still winning it.

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