SUVs steal public space

From the Project for Public Spaces. Critical Mass steals that public space back.

Guest Editorial
SUVs: Stealing the Public Wealth

by David Burwell

“SUVs are so over!” shouts a recent car ad. This is a remarkable claim, especially from a competing car company. Yet, it rings true. With Arianna Huffington linking SUVs to the financing of terrorists in her Detroit Project; evangelical Christians linking them to ecological destruction in their “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign; and even the U.S. Department of Transportation after them for being more (not less) dangerous than average cars due to their tendency to rollover, these are not good times for Detroit’s biggest money-maker.

Roads should honor and dignify people, not diminish them.

What’s going on? It is possible that a subtle but hugely significant shift in America’s collective unconscious is underway fostered by Detroit’s own ad campaigns. These ads imply that SUV purchasers actually own the road, something all of us pay for through our taxes and which are clearly part of the public realm.

This attitude is not news to non-motorized travelers, euphemistically identified as “impediments to traffic flow” in traffic engineering manuals. The fact that our roads are over-designed for cars to the detriment of the bicyclist and pedestrian is obvious, yet irrelevant to most transportation planners: nobody walks, so who cares? Polling data showing vast jumps in bicycling and walking are dismissed because they still represent rounding error in traffic counts (mostly of arterial highways, not neighborhoods).

No more. Since SUVs, legally classified as “light-trucks” and therefore exempt from most regulation, have passed the 50% mark in new car sales the rest of us on the road are faced with a dilemma: arm ourselves with our own quasi-assault vehicles or get off. However, a third option has emerged�stand and fight. As this unanticipated reaction gains strength, an alliance is emerging between ordinary car owners and the non-motorized community for some rationality and rules in the allocation of public road space. Such a coalition has the potential to push public policy past the tipping point of benign neglect towards road management to active public control of a very precious public asset. If we go this route, here are some principles for creating great public spaces that could help rein in the road warrior:

Principle one: roads should create place, not destroy it.
The idea of roads is to provide access to place. Fifty years ago we were invited to “See the USA in a Chevrolet.” Yet we designed roads that decimated the very places we were invited to see. Designing roads around local features, such as following natural land contours rather than dynamiting through them, gradually introduces the traveler to a landscape as a guest, not a marauder. This has a humanizing effect on the traveler, as well as the road.

Principle two: roads should be useful in themselves, not serve simply as conduits to someplace else.
It is not too late to design-in notions of connectivity, sociability, specialness and, yes, charm into our public road space. This can be as simple as planting flowers in median strips, or as elaborate as road zoning plans that close roads to traffic on holidays or weekends, or for special celebrations. In Bogota, Columbia, the entire road and street system is closed to cars one workday each February for the sole purpose of encouraging interaction among social classes who must all commute together by bus, bus rapid transit, bicycle or on foot. The first time this idea was tried, the mayor was almost impeached. After it became a habit, 85% of the population asked for more car-free days. Roads and streets were public meeting areas before the arrival of the automobile, and they can be managed for this purpose again.

Principle three: roads should honor and dignify people, not diminish them.
This is the Achilles heel of the SUV, since it has the designed-in purpose of serving the operator at the expense of everybody else on the road. This is simply not good manners. It is also the core complaint of pedestrians and bicyclists who have long felt the brunt of auto-centrism in road design and operation. The solutions are easy�wider sidewalks, traffic-calming, and bicycle lanes and paths that form connected systems. In Europe, traffic signals are timed and operated to provide preferential access to intersections for buses and bicycles in respect for their public benefits in road capacity preservation, cleaner air and energy efficiency. In America, we spend millions on talking billboards, road sensors, coordinated signalization and other “intelligent” systems to facilitate vehicle through-put. We can, and should, design elements and amenities that aid the pedestrian and bicyclist as well.

SUVs have unwittingly re-energized the conversation about “who owns this space anyway?” The answer is simple: we all do.

These principles imply an entirely new role for the traffic engineer, who must become much more of a space planner than a traffic-flow facilitator. Just as it is the duty of city planners to protect public values from developer desires to maximize floor-to-area ratios in downtown developments, so should it be the duty of our traffic planners to protect public values in the use of public road space. Now that ordinary car owners understand how it feels to be shoved aside by those seeking to privatize roads for their own self-gratification, perhaps an entirely new conversation about the purpose and use of public road space is timely and possible.

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the “City Beautiful” movement, a movement that died when automobiles took over the cities, paved our public parks, eliminated sidewalks and relegated pedestrians to their present status as “impediments to traffic flow.” SUVs, by intimidating their vehicular brethren off roads and streets, have unwittingly re-energized the conversation about “who owns this space anyway?” The answer is simple: we all do. Once we realize this, and act on this realization, we may well stimulate a revival of the City Beautiful movement, and with it a new civic respect for each other and our mutual well-being.

David Burwell is a cofounder and former president and CEO of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a nationwide network of more than 250 organizations devoted to improving the nation’s transportation system. David served as chairman of STPP from 1990-1997. Prior to joining STPP, Mr. Burwell co-founded and led the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails and greenways organization devoted to the conversion of abandoned rail corridors to public trail use. Mr. Burwell also worked as legal counsel for the National Wildlife Federation where he specialized in transportation, land use and air quality issues. He authored several books and articles on transportation, law and policy. David Burwell joined PPS as a senior associate on January 1, 2003.