I recently read an interesting book called “Street Smart: The Rise of Cities, the Fall of Cars“. It was written in 2015 by Samuel Schwartz, a New York City-based traffic engineer affectionately known as Gridlock Sam. I learned a lot from this book and I wanted to share some of it with readers.
As the title suggests, Street Smart is about our streets and how they work (or should work) for us. I don’t know how it is for you, but most people I speak with just assume that the primary purpose of a road is to move people and goods in motor vehicles. Schwartz slays that sacred dragon right up front. The earliest roads, he writes, predate cars and trucks by hundreds of years. They were built for pedestrians, oxcarts and other similar conveyances. That’s something to think about the next time you hear that roads are for cars. They’re not. They never were.
This is the crux of the matter for those of us who believe that using bicycles for transportation can transform our places and greatly improve our quality of life. It’s not about infrastructure. We already have everything we need when it comes to asphalt and poured concrete. It’s simply a matter of changing how we use it and that starts by changing perceptions of how it should be used.
Since moving to a small town in Iowa, I’ve been able to see this in a way I never could before. Jefferson is a very easy place to bicycle. Local stores and restaurants always have bikes out front. We’re located on a regional rail trail and that certainly helps keep bikes in the public consciousness here, but we don’t have a single piece of dedicated bicycle infrastructure. There are no bike lanes, protected or otherwise. There are no sharrows. If you ride in town, you ride on the street. Motorists understand this and are generally supportive. It works as well as anything I’ve seen anywhere.
This is important. Most bicyclists I know do not want to hear this, but we simply do not have the collective will to build out a nationwide network of bicycle infrastructure. Even if we did, it wouldn’t be complete until most of us are long gone. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?
The obvious answer is to go back to basics. Streets can serve a wide variety of users. That’s what they were designed to do. Instead of letting one user group impose their will on the rest of us, we need to go back to the future. Roads are not for cars or any other single class of vehicle. Roads are for people. Sam Schwartz understands this, and he makes his case elegantly.