2. On the Run

This week I continue with the C.Rushing blog cover of Dark Side of the Moon- ten blogs corresponding to the playlist of that famous album. The second song (or third depending on which version of the album you have) is called On the Run. This is an instrumental piece that is sometimes referred to as The Travel Sequence…

Whether you call it On the Run or The Travel Sequence, the second song on DSOTM is about movement. If you take a dispassionate view of our built environment, you might conclude that American life is about the same. A cursory glance at any aerial photo (or a look outside the door) proves that most of our built environment is dedicated to moving things: people, cars, freight, waste. This is a common theme in human history. We have always needed to move things. We move good resources, things like food and water closer and bad things like waste and pollution farther away. Of course, if the things don’t move, we move people to them.

Movement, movement everywhere

Over the last 60 years, our American society has developed unprecedented mobility for people and things. We can do marvelous, wondrous and fantastic things. Unfortunately, nobody rides for free and we are dealing with the myriad unintended consequences on the other side of the coin. If you’re interested enough in urban design to be reading this, you’re likely part of the choir and I don’t have to run through the litany of unintended consequences that our automobile dependency has created.

Cars aren’t inherently evil. In and of themselves, roads aren’t bad things. Surface parking lots are not of the devil. The problem is that cities have abdicated their responsibility to create healthy places to traffic engineers who only care about moving cars as quick as possible. Yes, people are in those cars, but what do they arrive to when they get out of the car? What’s the point in getting somewhere marginally quicker if the destination sucks? If we can create better place to move through and to, a reasonable response to a traffic engineer warning of longer travel times or more congestion is “So what”. 

Beyond their threat, there are serious and significant studies that show that traffic engineers are full of it. Closer to home we have specific examples: remember when all the traffic engineers came out and told us that switching McCallie and MLKing would result in gridlock, mayhem and loss of life? Yeah, they were full of it. Remember when the traffic engineers told us that reducing the capacity of Riverfront Parkway would result in gridlock, mayhem and loss of life? Yeah, they were full of it.

Currently we have a situation where engineers hold sway- communities mindlessly follow their recommendations, then try to do their best to clean up after the roads are built. A more healthy model would put the design of places for people, commerce, life and activity on equal footing with the need for access to those places, or (perish the thought) given higher priority.

Movement is important and necessary, but we have lost all perspective. The city should be designed as a beautiful, generous, healthy place that accommodates our lives- movement systems should support that, not drive it.

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