Here’s How You Get People to Choose Active Transportation

Have you ever wondered why so many New Yorkers walk, bike or ride transit instead of driving?  I sometimes ask that question of people, many of whom have never been to New York, just to see what they think.  Some people talk about the rivers and how they impede access to Manhattan.  Others talk about the lack of parking.  Mostly, though, it comes down to convenience.  It’s just not convenient to drive into Manhattan from the suburbs or outer boroughs.  It seems as though everyone everywhere knows that.

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Pittsburgh, like New York, has rivers.  Pittsburgh also has freeways cutting through the heart of downtown.

The next question cuts to the heart of the matter.  Why is it not convenient?  What is different about New York that makes it stand alone (and it really does stand alone as the following graph shows) when it comes to people eschewing the car for other ways to move around?

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When it comes to being car free, New York stands alone.  Graph by Arturo Ramos, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The answer is so obvious and simple and right before our eyes that it made me laugh when I finally figured it out.  Since pictures work better than words, let me show you two.  First, here’s a Google Maps view of lower Manhattan.

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Next, here’s downtown Indianapolis at the same scale.

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What’s the difference?  Freeways.  While there are freeways converging on downtown Indianapolis from all points on the compass, there are none at all in Manhattan unless you count the antiquated, narrow (by modern standards) FDR Drive that hugs the East River.  It used to have a twin along the Hudson River called the West Side Highway, but they took that out years ago.  In spite of all the dire predictions about gridlock, it didn’t happen.  People adjusted.  They walked.  They biked.  They took the subway.  If you want people to choose modes other than the personal automobile, you have to prioritize those modes and make them the easiest choice.  There’s no better and cost effective way of doing that than to stop building ever more and ever wider roads.

I didn’t really think about this until a friend in Lubbock Texas sent me a link to a recent presentation that former Vancouver (BC) chief planner Brent Toderian gave in Denver.  Toderian cycled the city and commented on the many good and some of the bad things Denver is doing to remake itself as a 21st century city.  Among the bad were the region’s obsession with widening freeways.  It’s self defeating because it encourages driving and that, in turn, marginalizes other modes of transportation.   The solution according to Toderian is not to share, but to push active transportation (followed by transit) to the very front of the transportation line.

Of course, that takes a special kind of guts on the part of elected officials…the kind that most of them don’t have.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa said much the same thing many years ago.  It is the first time I’ve heard it in this context and for that I am thankful to my friend in Lubbock and Mr. Toderian.

Would cities like Indianapolis be more pedestrian, bicycle and transit friendly if the city removed the freeways that act as a moat around downtown?  Of course they would.  The challenge they face is in finding and then choosing leaders who are willing to risk political capital to make it happen.  There are very few of those people around and that’s a shame, because there’s no easier way to heal a city than to make it walkable and bikeable.

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