There’s a convincing idea, which often lurks just below the surface of thinking in many countries, guiding what people consider will be good for our towns and cities. The idea is that roads and streets act like the circulation system of a person or animal – and that it’s important to keep building wider and wider traffic ‘arteries’ in order to enable the free flow of this traffic. It’s felt that lots of free flowing traffic indicates a strong city, and that congestion must be fixed by getting the existing traffic moving again.
We assume then that all that noise, all the fumes, all those roads, are together the price that must be paid in order to have a thriving city – that traffic is the ‘lifeblood’ of a town or city.
Now this idea is nonsense, but it’s very convincing and memorable nonsense, so here’s my attempt to disassemble it:
The bloodstream of a person or animal carries red blood cells. Movement of this blood might be part of the system, but the actual work of these red blood cells is to carry oxygen between the lungs and the capillaries. It’s this exchange of oxygen which matters, not the movement in itself. The arteries (and veins) are just the mechanism for transporting the blood from one set of tiny capillaries to the other so that it can do the important stuff it needs to do once it gets there.
The bloodstream analogy CAN be helpful in thinking of a city or town – where the people are analogous to the blood cells – where what matters is the contact and communication that can take place between these people and the city (which is made up of more people of course).
So it’s not the movement of vehicles which matters but the movement of people…. And to be more exact it’s NOT even the movement of the people which matters… it’s actually the exchange between people (of ideas, conversation, emotion, money, goods, etc) which happens at either end of the movement which is important.
But then actually even this isn’t as accurate as I’d like. This thinking assumes that exchange only takes place at either end of a journey. Of course that’s true if you’re driving a single occupancy motor vehicle – but any visitor to a walking/cycling-friendly city, or any observer on a bus or train, will note that all sorts of human exchange can easily take place while moving. That’s not to say that the person driving has no effect on the city of course (quite the opposite is true, the effects are powerful) – just that it’s not the same kind of inter-human exchange that we’re interested in here.
Before my Dutch trip this summer I spent some time looking carefully at behaviours in my own city. I specifically noticed this inter-human communication taking place between people walking past one another. It wasn’t spoken word (on the whole) – but instead manifested itself in the subtle dance of the city pedestrian. There was the very slightest and tiniest of signals to another person of an intention to walk right or left. The very slightest of pauses to allow another to pass in front. Standing a just few centimetres to one side, recognising the private space of another.
Continuing this study once in the Netherlands, one of my key observations was of how intensely human Amsterdam is at commuting time. This communication wasn’t restricted to people walking (or on buses, trains etc). In addition every commuting journey by the thousands of people on bicycles involved really quite intensive contact with others. It’s a very quiet communication – but if this were to be put into spoken words the effect would be of constant chatter. The slightest of nods or a mild lean forward on a bicycle, or a brief pause in pedalling conveys constant and crucial negotiations. “Please?” “Thanks!” “After you.” “Sorry, me first!”
This is a healthy city – one where human exchange isn’t stifled by noise and walls of metal – and where my mode of transport isn’t getting in the way of your human exchange.
Now what if we consider high blood pressure as analogous to traffic congestion? Think of the blood struggling to get around the body. What’s the solution for this? Would we try to solve this by transplanting larger arteries and veins into someone’s body? I’m (clearly) not a doctor, but I can’t imagine that this would help. We might manage to make the blood travel around some parts of the system more easily – but we’d be missing the point. High blood pressure isn’t solved by trying to progressively bypass artery after artery – it’s a whole-system problem. The solution needs to be a whole-system solution. Extending the analogy – if we’d somehow adapted our blood cells to travel around wrapped up in huge packages (equivalent to the car in the analogy), meaning that they couldn’t get into the capillaries, then we’d not gain anything by replacing the capillaries with arteries. That would kill the person or animal.
Returning to our idea that human-communication and city-life are intensely related, what does this tell us about solutions to our transport problems?
Well, for the health of a city we need to get people moving as effectively and efficiently as possible – and goods too – but not at the expense of killing off the city in the process. It’s the city life that matters, which is enabled by the movement, not the movement itself.
Large vehicles – and I’m including private cars in this category – may be useful for long distance transport in artery-like systems, but the health of the city will be measured in the small things – people carrying (many) things by hand, the noise of people chatting to one another, even individual people getting in each other’s way… and here we’re not looking for free flow, but something more precious. Measures of the vibrancy of our city life are NOT to be found by looking at how much traffic we’re moving. Vibrancy is detectable only where people are stationary, or moving slowly, or are brought together. It’s chatter. It’s someone popping along to the local shop on foot or on a bike.
City vibrancy is intensely human.
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