(ideas.) I’m in Los Angeles to participate in the Ford Motor Company’s “City of Tomorrow” event. My panel is called “Take Back the Streets” and like so many other titles I encounter at symposiums like this, it begs the question, “for who?” For who should we take back the streets? And who should take them back?
Nearly a century ago, as automobiles helped revolutionize our way of life, the public and private sector worked to transform both the design of our streets and the fundamental structure of cities. Over time, the democratic space of the street, which was originally open to all people, was redesigned to prioritize people in cars. This “innovation” transformed the way we live our lives – and our expectations for living them. Sidewalks were narrowed, jaywalking was made a crime, and engineers created new types of pavement for driving on and new geometries for highways. We were laying the groundwork for what today we call sprawl but at that time we just called the future. And it was.
It was the future because we made it so. I’ve written about this before. Millions of decisions were made by millions of people over many decades, driven by a toxic conspiracy of optimism, technology, apathy, greed, and cultural inertia. Massive investments followed, generating a radical new American prosperity in the suburbs that was intentionally not available to everyone. We masked discriminatory policies and practices with an aspirational physical infrastructure to build sprawl, which over time became both a reflection and guardian of American social and economic inequity.
I want to be clear. We all live in that structure of inequity and we all need to take back our streets – even the wide boulevards of sprawl. As today’s economic forces look to revitalize cities, however, and as we reclaim the lanes of urban thoroughfares through “complete street” redesigns, signal automation, driverless cars, and other innovations, we need to make sure they are not masking a new generation of discriminatory practices. We need to make sure they work “for everyone.”
Think about it. Just like the early days of sprawl, today we are transforming both our physical infrastructure and the expectations we have for our lives. At the very time we are rethinking the space of the street to better support vibrant, healthy, resilient places, the demographics of those communities are changing – radically in some places – through gentrification. In fact, here in Los Angeles and in other growing cities, exactly because these well-intentioned improvements help shape a better future for our lives, they often become drivers of economic forces that displace people.
To recap, we are relegating people who can’t afford fancy new autonomous cars to places designed primarily for people in cars. And then we are narrowing the streets that made those outlying areas viable, reducing their access to the global economy, which is increasingly found in the center. As we take back our streets, claiming our focus is people, if we don’t address the question “for who – which people?” we risk increasing social and economic inequity and securing it with a new generation of infrastructure.
The answer is not to not redesign streets. The answer is not to not modify our obsolete, car-dependent public realm for a better, more mobile, healthy, and resilient future. The answer is simply to ensure that those physical improvements come alongside policy and investments in housing, transit, and economic opportunity, so that as we define a new future by taking back our streets, we make sure we reclaim them for everyone. >> Ryan Gravel