The Nimblest City
Slate readers' best ideas for making city transportation more efficient.
I challenged readers to channel their inner Campbell Scott, or rather the idealistic transportation planner he played in the 1992 film Singles, and come up with innovative solutions for the increasingly pressing problems of moving people around and between cities in an efficient, safe, and perhaps even pleasurable manner.
Yesterday, I sifted through the top three vote getters: narrow cars, smart buses, and bike stations. But there were myriad other ideas, ranging from calls to restructure property taxes or change zoning laws; to ideas to encourage pedestrianism, such as doing away with "no-gun zones" (one feels safer on one's one walk when strapped with a Glock, you see) or distributing free umbrellas (not a bad idea per se—nor, come to think of it, is distributing free walking shoes or free lemonade—but wider sidewalks and better crossings would probably rank higher on most pedestrians' lists). A few things struck me. One was the number of reader pseudonyms based on characters in novels by Ayn Rand (that patron saint of chat-room ressentiment).
But I was also a bit surprised that readers didn't suggest more ideas already being enacted in places around the world. In the last few weeks, for example, I've observed some interesting schemes in Hoboken, N.J., and Bogotá, Colombia. In the former, the "Corner Cars" program combines Bici-style bike-share immediacy and the backing of a big rental-car company (Hertz) in a Zipcar-esque program that utilizes dedicated on-street parking—so 90 percent of the city is no more than five minutes away from a car. The latter city has become deservedly famous for the Trasmilenio, its bus rapid transit system, but it also has a plan, similar to one in Mexico City, called pico y placa, that bans cars from the city on certain days based on their license plate number. (Those who can afford it simply buy another car, but the Mexico City program has nonetheless had an effect.)
Slate V: How To Beat Traffic
Perhaps people in those cities don't think these schemes are worthwhile, or all that novel, or perhaps they simply don't pay attention; whatever the case, readers tended to focus on what could be rather than what's out there. Automated cars, for example, were a favorite idea. These certainly have the potential to iron out some congestion (particularly in highway driving) and improve safety, though it's less clear that urban vehicular congestion is going to be solved simply by taking human control away from the wheel. "Car trains," which combine the personal mobility of cars with the efficiency (and chance for a productive commute) of train travel, were suggested by a few people—certainly an interesting idea, but one wonders, among other things, what sort of vast infrastructure would be required for boarding and disembarking.
Given the intractability of urban congestion, it's not surprising that another popular idea was to simply do away with commuting altogether, whether by living closer to work or telecommuting or having "staggered" work times (an idea that has been discussed since the early 20th century). Indeed, moving bits is a lot cheaper and faster than moving people, but given the acknowledged productivity benefits of working in physical proximity, it's unclear how far we can go in doing away with human congestion (although at least one person, in a radical Jeffersonian vein, suggested we decamp from large cities altogether).
Other ideas that found traction were raising the gas tax (something that actually hasn't been done since the age of Singles, even though doing so would surely dampen the nation's growing annual mileage and help make up for huge funding gaps in our wobbly road infrastructure). There were, similarly, a lot of calls to increase taxes on parking or reform municipal parking codes (as previously discussed). On the flip side, there were many calls for making public transit free—to essentially make it a big loss-leader for cities, the costs of which would theoretically be recouped through higher productivity, more economic activity, etc. (Several cities have already put such programs in place.) And old standby ideas, like HOV lanes—and carpooling in general—had their fans. It's been estimated that if one in five solo drivers simply got out of their own car, rush-hour congestion could be eliminated. But at the moment, cities don't make it easy for informal carpoolers.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.