Tagurban planning

Car-free cities

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:06.

Berlin, like many cities, is somewhat crippled by cars in the city. Less so than, say, New York, London, or Los Angeles, historically. But there are too many cars, and too many cars blocking the bike lanes, where those meaningfully exist. There’s not a week where on my way to work I don’t get almost run over by a car because the bike lanes are crap, and usually serve primarily as illegal-but-unenforced car parking. But I digress.

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a refreshing, delightful surge of experiments with car-free streets or neighborhoods.

Oslo banned private cars from parts of the inner city and “closed off certain streets in the centre to cars entirely. They have also removed almost all parking spots and replaced them with cycling lanes, benches and miniature parks.”

San Francisco has closed Market Street for private cars: “Only buses, streetcars, traditional taxis, ambulances, and freight drop-offs are still allowed.”

And even in Manhattan, 14th street is blocked now for cars. The NYC rule applies – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Berlin, of course, hasn’t even started that conversation, so I’ll keep passing ghost bikes in our neighborhood with a dramatic frequency. Accidents involving bikes have gone up dramatically for the last 20 years in Berlin (here’s the official statistic in a basically unreadable PDF) but this number doesn’t even tell half the story: Most accidents are just barely avoided, and hence never show up in those statistics. My personal weekly near-death experience biking to work? Never going to show up there as long as it stays “near-death”.

Most of this would be completely avoidable: Less cars, better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, better public transport. Instead, Berlin is building a highway into the city like it was 1950. We truly have the least progressive leftist government of all times here.

By the way, since I work a lot in the area of Smart Cities: I think Smart Cities have a lot to contribute to urban mobility — but if I’m totally honest, probably a lot less than good old-fashioned intelligent urban planning. We have decades of scientific research in this field, plus thousands of years of history to look at. Yet, somehow we built everything as if the early 20th century model is the default for urban living rather than the total exception that it will likely turn out to be. So let’s get that low-hanging fruit first, and learn to walk before we run.

CityLab argues that car-free cities will soon be the norm. I tend to agree. And I hope we get there sooner rather than later.

What type of smart city do we want to live in?

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Warning: Trick question! The right questions should of course be: What type of city do we want to live in? What parts of our cities do we want to be smart, and in what ways?

That said, this is the talk of my talk for NEXT Conference 2019 in which I explore some basic principles for making sure that if we add so-called smart city technology to our public spaces, we’ll end up with desirable results.