Last year I attended a great little Conference at the University of Melbourne. It was, predictably, on planning and the built environment. The guy who introduced the Conference imbued enthusiasm and opened with a story of someone who was trying to see a new idea to her Manager. He told how she had numerous knock backs from him and he provided with a seemingly endless degree of evidence as to why change shouldn’t occur. Frustrated, she asked him, “We have been doing the same thing in this company for decades and let’s ask ourselves, ‘How’s that working for us?'”. It was a brilliant question and a fantastic introduction. Given that the Conference was the Festival of Ideas, it wasn’t a bad opening as the audience was going to be pretty receptive.
It appears to me that the same can be said for so much in the built environment, especially in the proportion of space given to cars and lack of space to pedestrians and cyclists in urban environments. I recently watched a lecture by Jan Gehl (if he was in a band I would be termed a groupie, no doubt), and he states that the more asphalt that you lay down the more cars that you will have. The congestion will be improved for an estimated time of three months, but after that you will have more traffic on even wider streets. Who wants to live like that? Sadly, it is what is happening in China at a catastrophic speed.
Of course the size of things here actually have an impact as well. Whilst I couldn’t find a great deal of stats on car sizes for Australia, I did track down a little article from a UK newspaper and let’s face it – we know this is happening all over the developed world. In short, cars are getting bigger and without whacking down more asphalt, their place on traditional roads (and in car parking spaces) becomes increasingly problematic – and that’s as a driver. Try being a pedestrian or a cyclist around a 4×4. It’s basically a scary experience. It is strange as the reason cited as to why people drive 4×4’s is due to safety. They say it makes them feel safe. But at what risk to others who are not behind the wheel of one of these massive vehicles?
I live in a fairly affluent suburb. it is less than 8km’s from the centre of the City of Melbourne and yes I know I am lucky. But I don’t need a car. I don’t feel I need to drive everywhere. A couple of residents’ down from me is an old creche/kindergarten and a bajillion (yes, it’s a lot) amount of children get dropped off here every morning by their Mums and occasionally by their Dads and I would say 70% of them exit from SUV’s or 4×4’s. These kids aren’t being driven across ‘tricky terrain’ or through flooded rivers to get there and yet the parents of these children believe that a vehicle that is completely disproportionate in every sense (not just size, but power and ‘features’) is the most appropriate transportation choice. Just because I don’t need to drive, I am not saying that these parents shouldn’t either but really – do they need something that big?
There is actually a website called www.4x4prejudice.org that has the most outstanding strap line I have ever read. It states: “People Cause Accidents…. Not Vehicles.”
My point is, if we weren’t getting obese and feeling depressed and isolated and everyone wanted to chat with their neighbour or walk with their friend or sit in the park or just ‘go for a stroll’ because they wanted to, because where they lived made them want to do that, then sure – drive what you want to drive and drive where you want to drive it. The issue is however – the two actually are mutually exclusive. No one wants to walk or bike next to a parade of big cars. We gave too much land to cars and built our worlds around them. We got it wrong, and that’s OK, but let’s be brave and admit it.
Things need to change and they can and slowly they are. If you still wonder whether or not they need to, look at what we’re doing and ask yourself, “And how’s that working for us?”.