We live in a city quite totally dominated by the automobile. It has taken us 100 years to ruin what was once a beautiful and urbane metropolis, but by God, we’ve done it! These pages are littered with the evidence of that ruination, but in case you needed a bit more proof:
Albert Stone shows us West Main and Brown, in 1908. And I show you West Main and Brown, today:
It’s the American way, really. Our city is certainly not the only city that has paid an inestimable price for what we think of as mobility and freedom.
But guess what? We have imported the madness! You knew this, didn’t you? But we have just spent a couple of months as witnesses, looking up close at what’s happened, and will happen, in far away places, thanks to our unending infatuation with the car. It’s ugly out there, and will get worse than anything we can imagine. Just a couple of examples should suffice.
I grew up with images of China that were filled with bicycles – millions and millions of bicycles.
Even in the 1980s, 80% of all Beijingers used a bicycle as their means of transportation.
Today: bicycle ridership is down to 19.7% of the population, and cars, added to the streets at the rate of about 10,000 a week, are king.
Beijing – 22 lanes of traffic.
Beijing – 18 lanes of traffic.
All the older urban forms are being destroyed – I encourage readers to find a copy of an extraordinary and very sad work by Michael Meyer: “The Last Days of Old Beijing” – and the city, now of over 22,000,000, is on its 10th ring road. Wrecked.
And then there’s Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok is worse than anything we have ever witnessed. Breathtaking, literally and otherwise.
Some places have passed tax laws to try to slow the auto-growth – Hong Kong has a 100% tax on auto purchases, and in Vietnam it’s 200%. The results of the tax are pretty predictable, though: two-wheeled mayhem, as here, at the Cho Dam market in Nha Trang, Vietnam.
Right behind these examples are Shanghai and Singapore, and yes, Sydney and Auckland.
And then when one begins to contemplate India, with its almost non-existent highway infrastructure, and one speculates about what’s to come, the possibilities are truly nightmarish.
Not one city we visited has any hope of keeping the car, and high velocity mobility, from doing radical, limitless damage. In Beijing, the state is doing what it can to increase bicycle ridership back into the high 20% range. But it’s really way too little, and way too late.
We saw so much that was extraordinary, beautiful, proud, alive, and wonderful. But the underlying theme of death-by-auto was everywhere we went. Faster comes the destruction. Faster, Faster.