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No Cars Go

Why Carfree Streets Can Save Us (from Terrorists & from Ourselves) 


Late Saturday afternoon, as I was walking back to my apartment here in Oslo amidst an incessant flutter of observations about the good, bad, and ugly of urbanism bouncing around in my datageek head, I got a CNN alert about yet another vehicle plowing into pedestrians in Munster, Germany. Besides the now, all-too-common, no, not-again reaction we're all slowly, sadly, growing insensitive to, I immediately thought of the countless bollards I'd encountered just on that afternoon walk well as the lengthy discussions my CTO, Andy and I had recently been having about said "defensive" design. And I couldn't help but think, are pedestrian barriers really the best way to protect the public realm from future attacks - or is this strategy merely akin to playing a real life version of whack-a-mole - where you're constantly chasing threats, constantly reacting, and where there's never really a winner?

Now, across the street from the building in which our accelerator program is located, there's clearly a building which houses some very important people. How do we know that? There are unmissable, very large, horribly ugly grey bollards - I mean seriously they're ginormous - "guarding" the building. As Andy and I are prone to do (it's like our normally non-stop internal monologues about urban design missteps finally met their match), we noted them and wondered how they could be improved. A fan of guerrilla urbanism and a sucker for good before after shots, I wondered if they could be painted as part of a public art program or if they could double as seating (though I'm pretty sure the guards wouldn't like that). Andy thought they should just make the street pedestrian only and place the bollards at the end of the street. These are all good - but not new - urban design approaches, meant to balance safety and aesthetics. 

But what if we went beyond just balance? What if we just put people first, design-wise - and the rest, including counter-terrorism tactics, would simply follow?

We (well, us William White and Jan Gehl devotees) all know the story of Copenhagen and how they gradually transformed their city center into a public space Mecca by gradually taking policy and design measures to rid their city center of cars. And today, several cities are taking steps in that same direction, including Paris who has piloted this several times already, including along the Champs-Elysées and yes, our current host city, Oslo who aims to ban cars entirely downtown by 2019. Clearly, carfree proponents point to multiple benefits such as reduced congestion and pollution. But what if the benefit was even more fundamental? What if carfree streets in our city centers and downtowns were our best frontline defense against terrorism? What if carfree streets weren't just about quality of life but about saving lives? Could we then convince the powers that be of the exponential power of place? 

Ok, so let's go with this for a minute...what if carfree streets were indeed the urban design savior environmental determinists and proponents of build it and they will come urbanism have been preaching to us about? Now, if you're a regular reader of our blog - and if you've ever met me - you know that saying or even hinting that any one strategy or design change could indeed be a silver bullet for creating awesome places people love is near sacrasant for me. You know - you can take the academic out of academia (and into entrepreneurship) and all...but I literally wrote a whole blog post about hedonic regressions, standardized betas, and R-squares just to make the point that walkability was not a panacea to all of the world's problems. While I still stand by that argument, what if I said, it's so so close?

In the last two blogs in which we've had the misfortune to write about two other urban catastrophes (the FIU bridge collapse and the uber crash), we've pointed out that a) tech is most certainly not a cure-all, especially when it comes to urbanity and b) we need to focus on people-first urban design measures. And now in this third blog, about yet another urban tragedy, I'm realizing that the entire argument we've been trying to get to is stop focusing on siloed solutions - whether that be autonomous cars, pedestrian bridges, or bollards. I'd say, let's think bigger, let's think more holistically about urban design, but really, that's already accomplished simply by making places more walkable...because while walkability is indeed one concept, it touches upon a robust set of urban design features (we count 290+) that are good for us in many varied ways and that together, create a whole is bigger than the sum of its parts situation.

There truly has never been a more parsimonious (KISS) - and affordable - solution that was tied to so many of the benefits we as citymakers are trying to deliver than walkability. More physical activity, check. Less obesity, check. Lowered rates of chronic disease, check. Happier people, check. More connected people, check. Fewer pedestrian deaths, check. Increased commercial and residential property values, check. Fewer vehicle miles traveled, check. Better air quality, check. Mitigate climate change, check. Seriously, reread this. The list of benefits tied to walkability go on and on and there's no other approach this damn simple that is this damn effective across the board - so why not take it to the next level?

If we got rid of cars in city centers, where it's a pain in the butt to drive anyway, we'd not only reap all of the social, health, environmental and economic benefits tied to walkability, we'd actually be taking a proactive counter-terrorist approach that in one fell swoop would eliminate the future Nices, Munsters, London Bridges, Berlins, Westminsters, Stockholms, New York Cities, Charlottesvilles, Las Ramblas, and sadly, others (and not relegate us to seeing ugly, massive bollards everywhere). Bottom line, good urban design is good all around, and we, as placelovers, datageeks and citymakers, must do all we can to shed light and advocate for this, yes, near-silver-bullet remedy to a number of pressing global issues. Get in touch if you want to know more about how we use data and analytics to make this wildly effective tactic a reality across the world.