What is the single largest physical asset owned by most cities and towns, and therefore by the public? Your first guess isn’t likely to be correct. The answer is the public way – the street.
Now think of the word: “Street.” Quick – what image comes to mind?
Cars? More cars!
There are other possible images: On the Fourth of July we gather in huge crowds to watch parades go down the street. Kids play basketball, baseball, and hockey in the street. Hand-written posters announce block parties that bring neighbors together to socialize in the street. Festivals bring music or local foods or theater into the streets. In some neighborhoods, families still hang out on the stoop and socialize in the street. Some lucky commercial areas have reclaimed the entire street – the vehicular roadway, the car-parking spaces, and the pedestrian sidewalk – as shared space: full of places to sit and talk and eat and buy things and attracting additional customers to local stores. Occasionally, farmers’ markets take over parking lots. Trolleys and buses can take up part of a street, as can bike lanes and pedestrian crossings. Bus stops, benches, median strips, planted green areas, and even small gardens can be part of the street.
But in today’s United States, all these are anomalies. Your first image was correct – in our streets, cars get priority. Kids are told to not play in the street. We have to look both ways before crossing. For over 50 years, the job of city planners and traffic engineers was to move as many vehicles as possible as fast as possible through our neighborhoods. As if the Interstate Highway System was the model of what every street should aspire to become. As if racing between places was more important than what happened within them.
As a result, streets are places of noise, pollution, and danger. The chemical run-off from the pavement and the vehicle exhaust poison our diminishing water supply. People living near highways have elevated rates of asthma and high blood pressure. We have ripped up our trolley tracks, underfunded our train systems, refused to expand our bus service, and raised prices for the little transit that does exist. In many places it is difficult to shop, or get to work, or bring the kids to school, or eat out, or go to the movies, or participate in sports, or even see the neighbors without getting into a car. With sidewalks often missing or in poor condition, and with bike lanes or paths few and far between, we have made walking and cycling into dangerous activities, pitting unarmored bodies against steel ramming devices. So we no longer walk or bike and our weight goes up along with our rates of obesity-related chronic disease and the societal cost of health insurance.
In contrast to all these costs, the automobile industry pays almost nothing. Road and gas taxes don’t even core the cost of maintaining our roads, much less pay for the externalized damage caused by an internal-combustion economy. It is an almost criminal giveaway, an example of corporate welfare that may once have helped stimulate economic growth but has long-since become a barrier to a better future.
There is another way of utilizing the enormous public resource available in the space between buildings. As our population increases, as energy and other resources become more expensive and uncertain, as growing economic inequality spurs deterioration and violence, as we need to create hubs of attractive density in our cities and suburbs – perhaps our streets can be part of the solution. Perhaps we need to change the priority list defining the purpose of our street space. What if we begin to prioritize human power over fuel power, direct personal interaction over horn-blowing communication, the tasks of daily life over the rush to get somewhere else.
Of course, streets would continue to be used for transportation, and some streets would still serve as major arterials or highways (although they’d always include side-paths for bikes and walkers as well). But a growing percentage of our street space would be used to improve the social, cultural, and economic vitality of the people who live or work nearby. In those streets, cars and even trucks might still be welcome, so long as they were willing to fit into a people-centered environment.
We need to stop so cheaply giving away one of our most valuable resources to a single industry and a single usage. Taxpayers are not getting the full value of their asset. Streets are a powerful leverage tool for revitalizing our urban and suburban areas if not our entire society. The first step is freeing ourselves from the cultural brainwashing that has narrowed our thinking.
Life belongs in the street, and so do we.