Villages – Were We Started From
Once upon a time, we started out in villages. Well, obviously it’s a quite a bit more complex than that, but for our purposes we’re starting here. In small communities you know the people who pass you on the street, things are near enough to get to simply, there are places outdoors to enjoy. Obviously this is idealized. Many modern cities do not have this feeling at all. Commuting for hours, across multiple modes of transit, needing to budget hours to get to all the places one needs to go to – which, it seems, are never close together. Or the ones you actually want anyway.
Many modern cities started as villages. Perhaps one grew in power or prestige and absorbed the villages around it over time until one large metropolis was born. London grew this way, New York grew this way, Boston grew this way; and so have many others. Over the course of the past century, plus or minus a few decades, urban growth changed trends. With suburbs, and the push for suburbs, came extensive highway systems, urban re-development to accomodate all that commuter traffic – neighborhoods split in two, or sometimes removed completely. Past villages were scrapped (but one can still see their vestiges in street vectors on maps) in favor of another way of constructing human civilization, one that so often has supported the automobile.
Urban decline, urban renewal – changes in demographics, economic shifts (farewell to heavy manufacturing industry in most US cities!), generational shifts, public policy shifts, rise of technology…. I’ll stop there – I think you get it by now. Cities have changed a lot over the past century, they look a lot different than we ever thought, and there is still not shortage of problems and obstacles begging for creative solutions.
If we take a cue from Occam’s razor, then these creative solutions don’t have to be incredibly complex, even though the situations we’re addressing are. In this video the Mayor of London, Mr. Boris Johnson, in commenting on a book he recently published, takes a very simple, new old-school approach to the present urban situation in modern cities. His interviewer is from New York, and these cities are their prime focus, but one may end up thinking – “this could apply to my city too.”
Taking a Look at London
Mr. Johnson’s main argument is that already more than half the world’s population live in urban areas, and this is set to increase in orders of magnitude within the next fifty years. Urban infrustructure is stressed as it is, with this impending demographic shift, these services, if left in their present state, will not be able to keep up. The suburban model will not, and cannot be maintained as the priority of civic development. In order to maintain a high quality of life cities must reply to this ahead of time. Ways to get in and out – that are efficient timewise and economically, not just for the future sometime-denizens, but for people of the present; places people actually would want to live and invest in; services and programs of high quality on the local level – these all become a prime point.
Mr. Johnson looks at neighborhoods: providing clean and enjoyable outdoor spaces, businesses and services, and ease of transit. How is this done? Bicycles provide a pivotal part of foundation. They don’t take up that much space, they don’t release exhaust fumes, they are quiet, and provide health benefits of cardiovascular activity. (Not to mention all the other benefits.) Using a “village within a city” approach to civic policy, the bicycle is the ideal transit vehicle – one does not have to go many miles for all the goods, services, and employment opportunities.
Taking a Look at the UK
This past week the British Medical Association (BMA) published a report on health and transport. Their conclusions point to all the things Mr. Boris Johnson is so enthusiastic about. Bicycles become an integral part of how they suggest addressing a transit system that is not conducive to the health of the nation. The BMA argues that historically the civic transit decisions have had a prevalence of favoring automotive travel, and while cars are an essential part of our lives, they do not have to define us and our cities – they do not have to come first, while health comes second. The BMA suggests that a more pedestrian and cycling approach for the short trips that are so much a part of our everyday lives, can, cummulatively postively impact emissions, but even more so our health.
Travel and transit that emphasizes the automobile creates a very sedentary daily existence. Or as another author puts it, “cars make us fat”. Not to attack cars fundamentally, they form a valuable place in our ability to move across the face of this world; but in using them too much, in places and at times where it is not necessary, and favoring them above other forms of transit in long term decision making – we hurt the health of the individual, the city, and the nation, argues the BMA. One place this ‘too much’ situation occurs across the board is our cities – and this is not just in the UK.
An excerpt of the BMA report reads:
“Active forms of transport, such as cycling and walking, are highly cost effective forms of transport. To the individual, walking has few costs associated with it, while the costs associated with cycling are minimal compared to those of motorised transportation. Active travel contributes savings to healthcare budgets, in terms of savings on treating chronic illness. Transport-related physical inactivity in England is estimated to cost £9.8 billion per year to the economy. This figure is in addition to the £2.5 billion in healthcare costs spent annually on treating obesity. “A 2007 Cycling England report that estimated the economic value of cycling, found that the health benefits could be valued at £87-300 per cyclist per year, depending on their age, fitness level, and neighbourhood. This did not account for the substantial social benefits of cycling, which include offering more independence to children, improving the quality of life for communities and, in some areas, supporting tourism. “A 50 per cent increase [in cycling] could lead to health savings of £1.3 billion…All [international] studies reported highly significant economic benefits of walking and cycling interventions. The median result for all data identified was a benefit to cost ratio of 13:1 and for the UK, the figure was higher at 19:1.”
And while yes, those measurements are in pounds, the savings can apply in the United States as well. We see a profoundly convincing set of arguments – from personal health benefits, and savings from better health; to personal economic benefit, from saving on gasoline costs and parking costs. We see national benefits, with lower healthcare costs per capita from a healthier populace. Not to mention, fewer emissions, less noise, and more patronage of local businesses by pedestrians and cyclists.
It Doesn’t Mean You Have to Give Up Your Car
Live too far to pedal all the way? Love your car? Worry about inclement weather? Folding bikes can help, drive part way, unfold and pedal the rest of the way. Weather too bad to ride? Take your folding bike on the public transit system, or put it in the trunk and your good to go. Health and economics – the benefits for an individual, the community, and the nation; and you can fold it up and take it with you.