The main obstacles to the transformation of our streets
Public space By Màrius Navazo 2 weeks ago
As city makers and urbanists, we recognise the significant and consistent challenges that we must collectively overcome in order to support a well-functioning and happy city. As such, I have specifically identified the five main obstacles to the transformation of our streets. I warmly invite you to read along and take these thoughts forward into your work for the AfterCovid.City.
1. Parking

This is a big obstacle – huge. Probably, the greatest of all five barriers listed here. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, on-street parking has been preserved in our cities to a large degree: paid and free parking. In fact, our society seems to defend the right to free space for cars more enthusiastically than the right to decent housing for people themselves. Previously, I have  expanded on this in the series10 myths about urban mobility” (link to article in Spanish), in the post entitled “The right to parking” (link to article in Spanish). In any case, the truth is that any proposal to transform our streets that involves eliminating on-street parking (as is almost always the case with contemporary urban regeneration) will encounter great reluctance among both the neighbourhood and the impacted stakeholders – such as those related to economic activities, politicians and even City Council staff. So, who is going to be the ‘bad guy’ to tell residents to walk instead of drive; or find a parking spot out of the main streets? Or even more: who is going to repeat the words of the Mayor of Pontevedra when he affirmed that as a Mayor, I have no obligation to find anyone [a spot] to park their car? Of course, parking advocates in our cities will never lack an abundance of local support for their complaints, but we as city leaders must take action against this outdated and harmful position.

2. Traffic circulation

The things that our society considers important are sometimes nonsensical, and a phenomenon that should be quite insignificant – such as traffic movement on the street level, becomes the subject of a heated and divisive debate. Essentially, most people who drive a vehicle want to minimise their daily trips and make their life as convenient in its current state as possible, without venturing into new routines. So, if the proposed transformation to ease traffic in an area, or even pedestrianise a street, involves extending some car routes, some drivers will not hesitate to hit the roof with protests. If drivers who complain constitute a “large group”, the transformation proposal may find significant difficulties, and thus be cancelled. So, be very careful about changing traffic directions and increasing the time that a driver must press a pedal! It may seem exaggerated, but I think I’m not the only one in this job experiencing this on a daily basis.

We have spent decades designing traffic directions to maximize accessibility by car and allowing endless shortcuts to shorten car routes.

But the need to reduce car dominance, to a greater or lesser degree, implicitly involves just the opposite – as the well-known Copenhagenize schemes clearly show. Even if there are people who argue that car journeys should not be extended in order to reduce emissions, it must be clear that emission reductions are basically achieved when the car is in the garage. As soon as it leaves the garage and enters the traffic, it is better if we set the conditions we consider necessary. But since our society believes that time is money and drivers are still pretty much untouchable, who dares to force them to spend more time comfortably in the car? And of course the local media will be there as a mouthpiece for such complaints.

3. Rejection or fear of urban vibrancy

 

It emerges in almost every transformation process when one wants to make streets livelier with more uses and functions. This leads to more friendly and liveable streets, but sometimes this can also lead to a sense of too many people on residential streets.  While many residents may agree with decreasing through-traffic or reducing traffic speeds, in no way does that mean that they agree to increasing the number of people on their own street. Ambivalently or subconsciously, when they head out the front door, they likely tend towards streets full of people and cosmopolitan stimulation for a nicer experience. However, in their own street, many people prefer their own car parked in front of their houses, opposed to a bench. On a bench, residents fear that this welcomes “other” people to be seated, linger at night, or lounge to drink. Endless things may happen on a bench, especially in the eyes of those who are suspicious of urban vibrancy. Nevertheless nothing happens in a parked car. And that is well thought-of for many people! Therefore, rejection of urban vibrancy acts as a major barrier for transforming our streets. I recently put together different misgivings about urban vibrancy, and pointed out some ways forward, in this article published in the Red de Ciudades que Caminan blog.

The truth is, that when some residents oppose a transformation and argue that there will be more people on the street, things start to go wrong and freeze. Who will tell them they cannot demand to maintain a street empty of life? Who will defend that it is not "their" street alone, and rather, that it is a public street for all?

In any case, local media will be there to become a spokesperson for these voices. Unfortunately, all too often the voices of those who would like the streets for playing and hanging out – young or old – are overlooked due to fear and car preference.

4. The fear “less cars, less business”

Several studies from different countries and continents, and even the closest and most palpable experiences anyone may know, deny this fear. However, it is inevitable to avoid. In order not to extend this text, in this twitter thread there is a good compilation of arguments to dismantle this belief. But despite many arguments, the truth is, this fear acts as a monstrous barrier. Who dares to try something, if many family businesses are telling you that it will lead to their ruin? 

5. The belief "fewer cars, fewer votes"

 

As a final culmination, it appears that this gloom is something that almost all politicians put up with –  since they often feel that if they cut the ‘car status quo’, they will lose the next elections. I will not go into affirming or denying this fear, since I am not an expert in election politics. What we do know is that this belief becomes another major barrier to transform our streets for the better. However, we also know the recent Paris mobility case study: large cuts have been made to car privileges without witnessing any retribution in the elections. Another exemplary case study is Pontevedra; a city that has shifted it’s priority to pedestrians and has continued to have political support. 

To tackle our challenges, we must first recognise them. In this text, I present the main barriers we must overcome for street transformations, and through this identification, we can make strategic plans forward for action and real change. 

 

Màrius Navazo, geographer.

Submitted from Barcelona, September 2021