Savvy investors don’t sound an alarm when they see a crash coming—at least not before they shift their own assets. Might it be the same with the mechanical city, emblemised by the car? Maybe the macro factors against it and the quiet divestment now underway is as good a warning as any of us should expect to receive before motordom, all of it (its industries, societal structures, urbanism, infrastructure… everything), undertakes a rapturous, biblical Fall.
Sprawling car cities are completely exposed to the supply side shock that we all know is coming with the shift to renewable energy. Already most are flying close to fiscal meltdown, having too few households providing them tax and too many miles of roads, pipes and power lines in need of repair. Something as simple as yesterday’s agreement in Paris might be all that it takes to trigger The Car Crash. Motordom is the lowest hanging fruit. Just by halving its dependence on cars a nation can cut 10% of its emissions. Then driving would be the minority mode. Then the way we build and use cities would be reversed. Anyone holding a house in the suburbs without a for sale sign is out of their mind.
Were it not for this lack of liquidity—the difficulty in selling a house, moving a family, moving an office, leaving old clients, ending the lease on a big box retail premises, etc.—the car city might have crashed years ago, if not with the 1970s oil crisis, then the sub-prime loan crisis triggered by the price of oil and commuting. The car city didn’t crash. It just whittles away. Have you ever whittled a stick? Then you know how easily the last half can snap then game over.
Another thing sparing the car city is that aside from it, there aren’t a lot of other cities to choose from. There are the transit oriented boomtowns of the 19th century, like London. But if you’re not there already you’ve left it too late. The world’s super rich have bought all the apartments in the centres of cities like London only to leave them sitting there empty. Down on the street there’s just tourists.
And there are other things proponents of transit based cities won’t tell you. Any of them large enough to join the economic powerhouse category of six-million-plus (London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo) have slower average trip times than cities the same size that are organised around cars. Another thing they’re hush hush about is that walking to the station each day is not a panacea for chronic disease. We evolved to use our bodies far more in a day. Let me put those two points in the language of investment: cities that have spent more on public transport than roads have weaker access to markets and the return they receive on their investment in human capital isn’t much better than in the car city.
There are car cities that occasionally boom, like Midland in Texas that tapped some oil in 2014 so grew by a quarter. And there is one transit intensive city, New York, that is so dense, and that built so many train lines when it could afford to, that connection between millions of people is still cheap and fast. But what can you do with that info? You won’t predict the next Midland, and New York is sold out.
Do you know what though? We don’t have to choose between known kinds of cities. There is enough growth forecast for cities in the next fifty years that we can invent a third kind. Then, as people do to get rich, we could invest in something we came up with ourselves.
That’s the frame through which to view bicycle urbanism. It should not be seen as a way to redeem districts that already exist, or make bikes sing in tandem with cars, or enhance city life at the feet of old buildings. It should be seen as a new and contrarian prescription for the large scale subdivision of greenfields, greyfields and brownfields. How we survey the new property boundaries, and how we design the public realm and new buildings that go there, will determine cities’ fortunes in the post-machine and post-fossil fuel era.
With the right built environment (permeable, dense and with encumbrances to cycling removed from the ground plane) the bicycle can be the basis of a six-million-plus city with faster commutes than the car city can ever provide. You can traverse a dense city much faster by bike, even if you only ride slowly, than you can in car, if you only get those steel elephants out of everyones way.
Dismissing the simple solution is like saying it can’t possibly be quicker to make soup with a knife. Some people believe that. They reach for a fandangled food processor with a touch screen and programs, then spend 15 minutes just cleaning it after. The knife is much quicker. If you think about it, letting people connect in a city is a similar problem to evenly combining diced pieces of carrot with diced pieces of meat in a soup. You should not overwork it, not when you can simply create the conditions for the elements to mix by themselves.
Do you know what frightens those who profit from the car city? It’s not the movement of funds from their cities to cities with metros. It’s not the inevitability of a driverless car running over a child. It’s the thought of a home-cook and a cyclist getting together to design a gadget-free city.