Many of Europe's most successful cities have launched an all-out war on cars. You can read about it in Monday's New York Times.
These cities are making a strong statement that they work best when they work for pedestrians, bicyclists and mass-transit users. They're saying that the era of auto primacy is over in their municipalities. It's a trend to watch because it may bring American alternative transportation policy back full circle.
Cars have always been a challenge for cities. The first reaction to the car was to accommodate it all we could. Roads were widened and straightened. Blocks of buildings were demolished to make way for acres of cheap surface parking lots. The whole way we did retail shopping changed to indoor malls surrounded by parking, sucking shops from downtowns that couldn't compete, no matter how much they amputated themselves to make way for more parking.
That was followed by a couple of decades of unapologetic anti-car activism among alternative transportation advocates and planners. In the 1970s and 1980s we limited parking, converted streets to pedestrian malls and invented traffic calming techniques.
But in recent years there has been a softening of that approach. In fact, I often discouraged my friends in the environmental movement from using statements like, "We just want to get people out of their cars." To me and to a lot of others, that kind of talk came off as condescending. The better approach I felt was to talk about freedom of choice. Sure, most of us drive. But shouldn't we also have the freedom to walk or bike in safety? Shouldn't our kids?
So, our policies weren't anti-car, but pro-choice. And sometimes that even meant building more parking. When I left office I was wrestling with the question of just how big to make the new underground Government East ramp. It currently serves about 400 cars, but the new underground configuration could serve as many as 1,200. That's the option local developers would like. They reason that even if you don't need all that parking right now, we'll be stuck with what we've got if we don't dig as deep an underground ramp as we can right now.
European cities are taking a different, harsher tact. They're closing more streets, narrowing others, and actually timing stop lights for maximum motorist interruption. Their design codes have maximum parking allowed for new developments, not minimums as we do in the U.S. In fact, entire communities like Vaubon in Freiburg, Germany don't allow cars at all.
I have been a passionate pro-choicer, always careful not to dis the auto, but to promote equality of transportation and freedom of choice. But I've been to places where cars take a back seat to peds, bikes and mass transit and those cities are vibrant, fun and safe.
If Madison is going to be the cutting-edge city we want it to be, is it time for a more aggressive, less sanguine, approach?