I am happy to introduce a new guest post series on this blog. It’s my goal to create a place where lovers of the built environment can share their thoughts, observations, and passions. Please let me know if you’re interested in writing!
My choice of first guest blogger was an easy one. I first met Franny when I was 16: we lived across the hall from each other at boarding school. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would both become urban designers and planners. After losing touch for over a decade, we recently reconnected through social media and a mutual friend. She moved to England at the same time I left England. It’s been a joy to share thoughts, build my blog, and enter a design competition with someone who shares a trans-Atlantic knowledge of planning. Enjoy the post and please check out her blog, Ink and Compass, here.
I spent the last two years of my life in Cambridge, MA, which is notorious in the US for being one of the least car-friendly cities in North America. There are one-way streets, roads that double back on themselves, lots of no-left-turn signs, and lots of pedestrians, buses, cyclists, and other cars. Even though I had a car while I lived there, I loathed to drive it anywhere but the grocery store.
When I moved to Cambridge, UK, I left my car behind. The city is small and compact. The terrace house architecture means that few houses come with dedicated parking spots, and on-street parking is hard to come by. Although most streets are two-way, they are so narrow that they can accommodate a car and a cyclist, if both slow down and pass carefully. When two cars meet going opposite directions, an elaborate dance happens.
A friend tried to drop me off at my house last night, but even after four months here, I was foiled by the labyrinth of dead-end streets in my neighborhood, which I have only navigated on foot. We finally gave up when she got me within a few minutes’ walk of my house.
In short: you have to be nuts to want a car in my neighborhood. Of course, people still have them, and car ownership is still an aspirational thing in England, as it is elsewhere. People feel strongly here, as they do in the US, that policies that discourage car ownership are an infringement on their freedom.
And yet: in 2008, the UK had only 525 cars per 1000 people, while the US had 828. What are the fundamental differences in our cultures that the US has 60% higher car-to-resident ratio?
The most obvious thing is the built environment. Below is a map of my neighborhood. I’ve included the most efficient route between my house (point A) and the nearby commercial strip, Mill Road, in a car. Some of the streets are one-way, but most are bisected by cute little cut-throughs. Most allow for emergency access. The streets are also so narrow that driving and parking can be extremely unpleasant; see below for a typical street. And there are all sorts of very small ways in which the design of streets is more accommodating to cycles (without making things worse for automobiles). My favorite is that many of the old homes have hitching rings that have been re-purposed or replaces as cycle lock-up site.
Cambridge has also invested heavily in keeping cars out of the city center. While this is partly to do with pollution, congestion, quality of life, etc, I think it mostly has to with the fact that there is simply not space for all the cars. The city has five park-and-ride locations outside the city. There is a centrally-located bus depot and a brand-new bus rapid transit line with accompanying cycle path.
Which brings me to my next point: the UK also has an extensive off-road bike network. Although in many places it is not well-lit, which makes year-round use a problem, it does provide a sheltered and safe means of transport for people who are not confident sharing the street with cars. I did my friend Lauren’s 10 mile commute in December, just for an adventure, and I was amazed by how much of the route was on dedicated paths.
Because of the urban design considerations, and the difficulty driving, many people elect to cycle where Americans would throw in the towel. In my neighbourhood, it is common to see two or three children strapped to their parents’ cycles, or riding in a cargo trailer. I personally like the ones that have a front cabin for children; I’ve written about ways to encourage riding with childrenat Ink & Compass.
Of course, urban design is not destiny. There is also the fact that the UK has no domestic source of oil and no major car manufacturers to howl about petrol prices, so the cost of car ownership is higher here. The bus system is privatized and covers more territory because of the need to serve small villages, reducing the isolation of people who live in rural or quasi-rural areas. And while I am new to the country, it seems to me that buses have less stigma – less association with poverty – than in the US.
There are many occasions, both here and in the US, where car ownership is necessary or practical, but in England, people do not suffer from dramatically decreased mobility despite having far fewer cars per capita. There are all sorts of lessons that the US could take from the UK to begin to move toward less dependence on personal cars.
Franny Ritchie, of the planning & geography blog Ink and Compass and is a recent graduate of MIT’s urban planning program. She moved from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, UK this past October, and she’s thrilled to be the first guest blogger at At Helm of the Public Realm.