Saturday, April 20, 2013

Living At Hogwarts

Via Bird Dog's Old Urbanist site is this fun article from New World Economics, We can all be wizards. He favors a certain type of village environment with narrow streets and varieties of buildings, and sees the beauty of that nicely displayed in the Harry Potter movies.  We saw The Shambles in York, and there are a few of those narrow street, non-gridded neighborhoods in Budapest as well.  Anything that grew up before autos has some flavor of it, such as sections of Boston near downtown.

I think there are enormous problems being overlooked or dismissed in the essay, but it's fun anyway.  I don't know that we actually would like to live in that environment, but it's enjoyable to imagine, anyway.

The Old Urbanist links to a couple of dozen sites focused on improving city life or human environment in general.  If you poke around, you will notice a strong trend not only to places where one can walk, but a lot of pro-bicycle evangelism as well. The usual line is that American society reflexively privileges automobiles and whatever is good for those, not giving enough thought to the non-polluting, less-parking, no-fossil-fuel, good-for-your-health bicycles.

Well, why privilege bicycles?  It's a recent, sort of odd technology in the human experience, with not much record as being the main transport for large segments of populations. The number of people who can use them for trips of any length is small, and they are only useful in certain weather, when you aren't carrying much. If you don't think that CO2 or peak oil are quite the problem they are made out to be, and you notice that cyclists tend to be a leggy crew, without a lot of disability, multiple children, or unwieldy packages, you might start to question what all the hype is about.

And then there's rain, and winter, when all those super-useful-and-necessary bike lines are now just wasted space.  I do see some advantages.  Not so many as advertised. It's a nice hobby.


Sam L. said...

Portland OR government just loves them. Many others see them as a horde of locusts.

Sam L. said...

And idiots.

Dubbahdee said...

I think the logic runs something like this:
1) In a dense urban environment most trips are short.
2) Most people can do short trips on bicycle.
3) Those that we now tend to think can't, could if...they did. IOW, if they ride bikes, the exercise would make them healthy enough to ride bikes.
4)China does it, and they have lots of people.

jaed said...

It's not really a question of healthiness. Most people are physically able to ride for short distances, but...

- No one likes getting soaked on the way to work.

- It's hard to carry three kids on your bike.

- It's hard to carry the results of a major grocery run on your bike. they're not very useful for a large swath of the population.

Bikes also cost quite a bit, and you can't generally just say "Well, substitute it for your car and you'll come out ahead!", because they're not interchangeable (see above). A car is generally quite a bit more useful than a bicycle, if you can have only one.

Also, that bike lanes thing... they're heavily fashionable in Portland, and they are not a good solution to much of anything. They're too narrow, to start with. They're on the edge of the street, so often part of the width is unusable to bikes because of the slope of the street toward the gutter. I drive past bikes all the time and there is just not enough clearance for car lanes and standard-width bike lanes to coexist safely, not when there's an appreciable speed difference.

Not that it's a great situation where there isn't a bike lane. It's common here to be stuck behind a bicylist on a one-lane-each-way road, where the bicyclist will not yield to faster traffic and ends up with a tail of ten cars waiting as he toils up a hill. (I do blame bike culture for this. There's a heavy dose of contempt for drivers and pedestrians, that can make bicyclists reluctant to observe standard road-safety rules because they feel above them.) Running red lights and coming close to running down pedestrians are also endemic.

David Foster said...

In my neck of the woods, lots of money has been spent on bike lanes, but most bicyclists refuse to use them. They prefer to ride in the road, even on narrow two-lane roads where they are creating an obvious traffic blockage and safety hazard. Sometimes they ride abreast.

I think the term is "passive aggressive."

David Foster said...

Note also that bicycle-centric transportation policy discriminates against people who work in manufacturing and distribution. Factories and warehouses are rarely in areas that will be easily reachable by bicycle, being more concerned in their location with things like railroad, Interstate, and (sometimes) water, people who are doing actual physical work all day will not usually want to also ride a bike a couple of miles to and from work every day.

Sam L. said...

David, they are aggressively passive aggressive. Idjits!

jaed said...

They might be aggressive or passive aggressive, but it might also be a safety hazard... see above about narrow bike lanes, and the ones here are actually said to be wider than usual.

If using the bike lane isn't safe for prevailing conditions - if there's a good chance you'll be hit or knocked off the road by passing car traffic, or otherwise find yourself in a ditch - it makes sense to take the main traffic lane. (This doesn't excuse failing to pull over for faster traffic on a narrow road, obviously. That's a whole other problem.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The bicycling part attracted more attention than the medieval streets part.

One can imagine a road system which privileged bicycles over autos, or each equally, or some pedestrian/cyclist/auto hierarchy. Cyclists ask us to do that. It's a fun exercise and illuminating about our assumptions about transportation and urban design. They have a very good point. I go one step further and ask that we think outside that box, and imagine the consequences. The ground shifts.

Texan99 said...

I don't know about bicycles, but I do know that it's hard to design spaces for an automobile culture that aren't ugly. There's a reason people preserve the charming old medieval villages, even though they're a nightmare for cars.

There used to be a shopping center near my childhood home designed like a European village: you parked outside and walked through little winding streets with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. It was delightful. Every shop was unique; no chains to speak of at that time. I'm sorry it didn't catch on.

The Riverwalk in San Antonio is a very successful example of a pedestrian scale.

jaed said...

I don't know that I'd agree with that. Freeway overpasses, for example, are often lovely objects.

It's hard, I think, to design spaces that work for both cars and people on foot because the scale is different. Cars are larger than people and they require a lot more room to maneuver safely. A road that's designed for both cars and pedestrians will necessarily be broader than one designed just for pedestrians, so the two sides of the street will feel unnaturally far apart if you're on foot. Cars can't turn easily, so streets they use had better not meet at less than a right angle. Etc.

Our designs come from the ways we use a place, not from some notion of "privileging" cars, bikes, pedestrians, or some combination. If we want to live in Hogwarts (and not just have the occasional tourist spot or nonessential shopping area designed like it for nostalgia), we'll have to change the way we live. This will involve changes we won't like, and will also exclude an awful lot of people. (I think of an apartment complex where I once lived, with parking around the perimeter and walking paths between the buildings. It was appealing and could have been made much more so, very human-scale, but my parents who have mobility problems could never have lived there.)

Texan99 said...

You're right, and I was thinking about spaces where cars and people must mingle, without saying so. A freeway or an overpass or a bridge can be beautiful, I agree. It's the giant parking-lot interfaces between roads and buildings that we can't seem to get right. Same goes for garages attached to homes.

But I quite like drive-ins. Maybe things work better when we assume no one's ever getting out of the car.