Thursday, February 23, 2012

Car-free cities

Car Trouble: And How to Fix It from J.H. Crawford on Vimeo.

Nice video, care of Stephen Rees' blog.

I actually own the book that is advertised in the final frames; it's full of nice pictures, but I find it thin on really practical ideas about how to deal with the "non-believers", or what to do if your city is actually part of the drive to work. Like New West is.

The book gives some idea of "ideal sizes" and "ideal layouts", but mostly it reads like a lecture on how ugly we've made our cities. It dwells heavily on rapid transit and a bit on freight transportation, but I find it hard to envision real-life solutions after reading his stuff. There is plenty of material for designing a new city from the ground up, but it is hard to translate into practical suggestions for improvement of already built-out cities like New West...maybe his second book in the "car-free series" is more practical.

You can check out Mr. Crawford's website, which has a number of pages of pictures of beautiful old cities and their urban design. It's instructive to look at them; you have to learn how to see what makes these cities attractive. This isn't easy, it takes practise. Is it the fact that the streets are narrow? That they're cobblestone? That there are planters everywhere? Cafes? Neon signs? Arcades? Fountains? That there are no cars? I must say it helps to have travelled, and to have seen different "city designs", both good (downtown Portland, Whistler village, downtown Nelson, downtown Ladysmith) and bad (Duncan, North Nanaimo, Coquitlam). After staring at the pictures for a while, take a walk down Columbia St in New Westminster, and ask yourself what you might be able to do to make the place look and feel better. What would draw more people to the street, to hang out, shop and eat there? Would more parking help? Or wider sidewalks?
Anyways, having lived in Europe for a number of years after graduation (our first son was born there), I can attest to the fact that old cities with car-free centers are wonderful. We lived for 4 years in the old part of a small Swiss city (Neuchatel)- here (our aparment was on the 3rd floor, just around the corner) - where residents park in a central (underground) lot - spots are rented out at a pretty steep cost! - and freight deliveries to the shops are done by small electric vehicles in the early hours of the morning only. The central town is vibrant, with lots of restaurants, outdoor cafes (that serve beer and wine), and shops. There are 2 big grocery stores - both part of national chains - downtown, neither of which are accessible by car. Citizens walk or bike to the shop and carry their goods home. They shop several times a week. Refrigerators are much smaller than we are accustomed to here!

I don't see any reason why we can't create something similar here. Most of New West, after all, dates from the era before the automobile was king. The streets here are narrower than in, say, Burnaby; the lots smaller and the city more walkable as a result. We have 5 - count 'em, five - SkyTrain stations, a river with industrial access, a railway. We should be able to get by with fewer cars and trucks!

It is my personal dream that New West have at least one car-free street, and preferably more. Candidates: 6th St between 6th and 8th avenue (outside the Library); Columbia St downtown; E. Columbia in Sapperton. What do you say?

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