Russell Shorto’s op-ed in the NYT — The Dutch Way: Bicycles and Fresh Bread — is a must-read for those who think America needs to break its addiction to automobiles, especially in congested urban centers.
Before I quote from it, let me note that there is no contradiction between the points in this piece and my frequent calls for loosening automobile parking restrictions in Savannah. Ours is not a congested urban center (outside of the northwest quadrant of downtown) and we are years away — maybe decades away — from the kind of paradigm shift discussed in this piece. Making it harder to drive downtown will only hurt downtown’s economy even more.
Here’s Shorto’s opening:
AS an American who has been living here for several years, I am struck, every time I go home, by the way American cities remain manacled to the car. While Europe is dealing with congestion and greenhouse gas buildup by turning urban centers into pedestrian zones and finding innovative ways to combine driving with public transportation, many American cities are carving out more parking spaces. It’s all the more bewildering because America’s collapsing infrastructure would seem to cry out for new solutions.
Geography partly explains the difference: America is spread out, while European cities predate the car. But Boston and Philadelphia have old centers too, while the peripheral sprawl in London and Barcelona mirrors that of American cities.
More important, I think, is mind-set. Take bicycles. The advent of bike lanes in some American cities may seem like a big step, but merely marking a strip of the road for recreational cycling spectacularly misses the point. In Amsterdam, nearly everyone cycles, and cars, bikes and trams coexist in a complex flow, with dedicated bicycle lanes, traffic lights and parking garages. But this is thanks to a different way of thinking about transportation.
Shorto notes that Dutch drivers are trained to open car doors from the inside with their right hands, which means they will pivot to look over their shoulders for cyclists. Since bike riders make more frequent and quicker trips to buy groceries, they can buy food with fewer preservatives, hence the “fresh bread” of the title.
For American cities to think outside the car would seem to require a mental sea change. Then again, Americans, too, are practical, no-nonsense people. And Zef Hemel, the chief planner for the city of Amsterdam, reminded me that sea changes do happen. “Back in the 1960s, we were doing the same thing as America, making cities car-friendly,” he said. Funnily enough, it was an American, Jane Jacobs, who changed the minds of European urban designers. Her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” got European planners to shift their focus from car-friendliness to overall livability.