Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Give the streets back to the people!

with 5 comments

This photo of Rambla de Canaletes in Barcelona, Spain is by Claire Pendrous and can be found on flickr. It is just what I need right now – on a cold dark, dank day of the Wister Solstice – the shortest day of the year. A bit of Catalonian sunshine – and a good lesson in how cities ought to be organized. Barcelona existed long before there were cars, and its streets are organised around human beings. Cars take second place. In North America most of our urban areas have been built as cars accelerated the process of urban sprawl. Most cities quickly dispensed with the streetcars and interurbans – and many people now recognize that was a mistake, and simply played into the hands of the automobile makers.

The wisdom of car free streets is now commonplace in Europe and has been picked up quickly in the rest of the world. The Chinese are now beginning to learn that having everyone own a car is not necessarily progress over everyone having a bicycle.

In most older cities there are places like Las Ramblas. London still has many streets that are turned into marketplaces every week – some every weekday, like “The Cut”(actually Lower Marsh but we never called it that) behind Waterloo Station where, one upon a time, I used to spend my lunchtimes listening to the spiel of the costers. This is what civilization looks like. You can find pedestrian streets and street markets in most cities of the world but not many in Canada or the US.

UPDATE – London had a car free day before Christmas

Written by Stephen Rees

December 23, 2007 at 3:03 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Kobe, Japan is a great example of a newer city that has a great pedestrian zone – mostly built following the 1995 earthquake. It’s huge – stretching from Kobe’s central station of Sannomiya to the next station at Motomachi, covered and car-free along its entire 1.5-odd kilometres. They are a great example to modern cities like ours in North America that we too can be car-free, even without the legacy of a pre-automobile city layout.

    A pretty slow day along “Center-Gai” (centre city):


    December 23, 2007 at 8:01 pm

  2. “Most cities quickly dispensed with the streetcars and interurbans”

    you right that as if cities decided on a whim to get rid of them, but the economic foundation was fundementally altered by the automobile and the pre-automobile transport simply could not compete economically with the new form of transport. besides planners, environmentalists, and latte drinkers, is the statement “many people now recognize that was a mistake” really accurate. of course a mistake implies that it would have been feasible to do otherwise.

    And in case your response is cars were subsidize, i would question such a claim and hope their is evidence that backs it up as rail likely has faced more subsidization in both north america and even in europe. subsidization estimates are inaccurate or strongly misleading if they go into questionable assumptions about what externalities are created by autos and then proceed to make further questionable assumptions of the “costs” of the stated externalities (such as including the iraq war as a cost of the automobile).


    December 27, 2007 at 6:48 pm

  3. In the US it was not a whim, it was an illegal plot – subsequently exposed but not punished or corrected. Elsewhere “whim” is about right. Cities wanted to be seen to be modern. Vancouver was odd – it kept trolleybuses. Toronto was even odder – it kept streetcars. Most cities in North America – and in other places – thought that eliminating streetcars would improve traffic flow. Even quite recently in Europe some places tried putting trams underground into “pre-metro” systems – in the hopes that would improve city centre congestion. It didn’t, and that fad quickly faded.

    “many people” is vague – deliberately – but is less argumentative than “thinking people” which is what I had in an earlier draft

    Cars are heavily subsidised. In Canada the federal government, Ontario and Quebec pour millions into car manufacturing in the hopes of keeping jobs. Cars do not pay anything like their full social and environmental cost – taxpayers pick up most of that. Moreover, the way that car ownership costs work, there is a financial incentive to maximise the use of the car to recover the sunk costs. This distorts trip making and mode choice decisions.

    There is now a great deal of evidence that cars did not deliver on their promises. We did not get increased accessibility or personal freedom. We became much less healthy, because we walk and ride bikes less than we once did. We spend more time travelling further to achieve lower levels of happiness. Stress and personal debt to support auto-oriented lifestyles are both huge burdens. Cars kill many more Americans every year than 9/11 did. The argument that we chose this lifestyle freely is bogus – we were sold a pup!

    Sustainable communities look very familiar – because they are remarkably like the communities we had before Henry Ford and his competitors shifted us into their products.

    Stephen Rees

    December 27, 2007 at 8:02 pm

  4. Spain apparently doesn’t resist autos and highways completely as these links will show:

    There are maps and photos of a growing freeway network throughout Spain, even extending to the Canary Islands. One poster claims Spain now has roughly comparable total freeway kilometres as France or Germany. Another calculates that in Greater Madrid there are over 800 kilometres of freeways. And another poster claims that while the freeway network in Madrid has been expanded considerably in the last ten to fifteen years, the freeway network around Barcelona has been left as it was in the early 1990s.

    Another photo roundup from cities all over the world, but including Madrid. Barcelona doesn’t seem to be covered.

    Finally, here’s a thread on what highways people want for Xmas in the US and Canada. There is some debate too about highways versus public transit.

    Budd Campbell

    December 28, 2007 at 1:53 pm

  5. Budd – I am going to allow this just one time. But if you persist with is type of post you will find yourself blocked again.

    I did not say that Spain “resists autos and highways completely”. If you want to comment please stay on topic and tackle the issue – your pro highway rants have no place here

    I do welcome commenst and discussion. Simply gainsaying what went before is not an argument

    yes it is

    no it isn’t

    Back in the days of Generalissimo Franco, Barcelona was still being punished by Madrid for its role in the Civil War. I was there and I saw it in the 1960’s and it was not the thriving, flourishing place it has since become with the restoration of democracy

    Stephen Rees

    December 28, 2007 at 2:11 pm

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