Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Urban Issues Watch:

Just a few years ago, the proletarian bicycle seemed an indelible part of the streetscape, as emblematic of China as the giant panda and the Great Wall. Yet seemingly overnight, authorities have begun treating bikes as nuisances, with government planners giving right of way to taxis, buses, subways and, increasingly, the private car. Determined bicyclists and environmentalists lament the fading of a half-century tradition of commuting on two wheels, particularly as belching autos create an ashen haze over many Chinese cities. But government planners appear to have no more love for bikes than post-World War II Los Angeles had for its streetcars. China has spent billions of dollars to convert Shanghai's European-style warren of row houses and winding lanes into a Jetsonian vision of modernity. Elevated expressways now weave through a forest of glass and metal. Arching suspension bridges and their on-ramps spiral over the Art Deco facades of colonial-era waterfront banks.

London's bold traffic-abatement scheme — a program to charge motorists £5, or about $7.80, a day for the privilege of driving into central London at peak times — is scheduled to take effect next February. While the famously automobile-shunning mayor is already hailing the plan as the best way to get traffic moving, critics, including small businesses and residents' associations, cannot quite believe it is actually going to happen. ... Nobody disputes that the traffic situation is terrible. Each morning, 40,000 cars, trucks and buses an hour pour (or trickle) into central London, using roads meant for horses, carriages and pedestrians. Traffic now moves at an average of less than 10 miles an hour. Businesses estimate that some £3 million a day is wasted because of gridlock.

Since 1970, the population of the United States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per cent—in other words, cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent. If these trends continue through 2020, every day will resemble a getaway day, with its mixture of commuters, truckers, and recreational drivers, who take to the road without regard for traditional peak travel times, producing congestion all day long: trucks that can't make deliveries on time, people who can't get to or from work, air quality that continues to deteriorate as commerce suffers and our over-all geopolitical position weakens because we are forced to become ever more dependent on foreign oil. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a traffic jam.
see also http://www.newyorker.com/archive/content/?020902fr_archive01

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