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Archive for the ‘The next city’ Category

We’ve just enjoyed a screening of Stephen Low’s wonderful documentary entitled “The Trolley” here in our city. The theater was packed, and while Mr. Low’s film compellingly advocates in favor of streetcars, in fact defines them as critical to our urban future, I heard no voices expressing doubt about his point of view. Bring on the streetcars!

the trolley

But wait just a minute. Even among our town’s knowledgeable urbanites, overnight skepticism has emerged. Some of our progressive and thoughtful urbanist colleagues here have said that buses seem to be a much more economically realistic choice – streetcars are just too expensive.

buses in traffic

Others have pointed out that ridership for the newest streetcars in the US, such as in Cincinnati or Detroit, has fallen very far below projections – they are expensive, and they don’t carry enough passengers. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a better system, some claim: buses running long distances to key destinations with reduced numbers of stops to shorten travel time.

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The BRT in LA.

Others recognize our region’s unrelenting loyalty to the automobile and suggest that only a major calamity would induce our neighbors to use public transit – bus, BRT or otherwise.  (This particular observation seems entirely accurate).

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Yes, Rochester, NY.

And some have said that the dozen or so new US streetcar systems are nothing more than toy trains, having no real or practical impact on mobility in the cities where they have been constructed. Critics say they are busy on weekends and filled with tourists, but as weekday commuter options they are zeroes.

Okay then. Let’s step back and think about all this for a moment. Let’s note at the outset that 12 of the modern streetcar systems in the US carried a total of 20,000,000 people last year. And that 1/3 of those systems are linked to modern light rail systems that combined carry over 100,000,000 passengers annually. All of this seems to suggest that the streetcars, and especially when they are a part of a transit NETWORK, do in fact have a practical impact on urban mobility. The network part is important. We’ll come back to that.

trimetsystemBuses and trains and light rail – a network – in Portland.

It turns out that, as in most aspects of contemporary life, the truth is more equivocal and ambiguous than the claims of detractors. Or advocates.

Some of the new systems have been very badly managed from the outset and are suffering as a result. Some of the systems had their maps and routing fall victim to local political breezes, and as a result don’t go where they should, or need, to go. Some of the systems have had equipment failure (a streetcar needs to be able to run in cold weather….) that is only now seeing resolution. Some systems have had to fight an indifferent public who happily park their cars on the tracks, or crash with startling frequency into the streetcars. The reasons for the weakness of the poorly performing systems are various, complex, and almost never have to do with the streetcar as a tool, but rather who is control of the transit toolbox.

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Parenthetically, I note that even the weakest new streetcar systems have provided very substantial economic development returns in terms of new construction and added taxes, but I will leave that for a later conversation.

I do observe that some of the new systems are on the verge of further expansion, because the performance of these systems suggests that more streetcar is called for. In these cities, streetcars have proven themselves to be valuable, and while the automobile has not been banished in Portland or Kansas City or Seattle, the streetcar is increasingly providing an attractive and sustainable alternative.

KC streetcar

What certainly is true is that streetcar systems seem to work best when they are designed and operated as a part of a larger network of transit. Portland’s system, often cited as a US model for streetcar use, also includes a heavily used (40,000,000 per year) light rail system, MAX, and an excellent bus system as well. The North American model that best describes a successful transit network is in Toronto, where the subway, buses and streetcars carry about 500,000,000 every year.

Networks are also important in Seattle (population 725,0000), or Salt Lake City (population 200,000), or Kansas City (population 488,000), where streetcar use is doing well. Cities need transit of various kinds to best promote and assure non-automobile mobility. This should always be the most important measure of success: get cars off the road and get residents onto transit, in any form.

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MAX light rail and Streetcar in Portland, image by Steve Barry.

Because in the end, automobiles are our deadly companions. We now know that our unbridled attachment to our cars, which is increasing here and rapidly across the globe, has profound consequences, and is now and will continue to impose penalties we are only beginning to be able to assess. We need streetcars, and a whole range of known and as yet unknown transit modes to help us create a useable urban future.

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Every year most cities in the US will spend tens of millions of dollars improving highways. In our city the total runs to about $100,000,000 per year. We could buy a lot of trains for that amount, and save a lot of lives in the bargain.

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Tomorrow evening here in Rochester, our city’s very active and helpful transportation advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester, will screen Canadian Stephen Low’s brief  (46 minutes) documentary entitled “The Trolley.” We had the good fortune to see this film in an IMAX theater in Ottawa last year, and Low tells a powerful tale of trolleys as essential forces in shaping our cities, and once more critically necessary as a small step in taming cars and saving the world.

We transportation geeks have never shied away from hyperbole….

The screening of Low’s film will be accompanied by a panel discussion, and I am most flattered to be a member of that panel. So I have been snooping around my favorite world-wide transit sites to bone up on facts and figures, and much to my surprise, I found these:

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Columbus, Ohio (!).

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Not so surprisingly, New York.

But really?

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Chautauqua Lake? Wow. They SHOULD have them in Buffalo.

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At Lake Merritt, in Oakland.

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Connecting Minneapolis with Lake Minnetonka.

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And Pittsburgh. I guess I am not the only one inclined to hyperbole: I think Columbus has them beat for Largest in the World.

Now we are familiar with double-decker trams. We have ridden what I suspect is the most famous double-decker, in Hong Kong.

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Owned and operated by a private entity, yes it’s true, in China, this system carries something like 70,000,000 a year to its nearly 120 station stops. Each car can carry 115 people (it would be mighty uncomfortable if packed, believe me),  and the tram runs on 1.5 minute headways – the time between cars. The fare is under 50 cents, and the system is making money.

Maybe there is hope yet! We have our own North American models to pursue, and the lessons of Hong Kong to guide us. Onward, transiteers!

 

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Audubon

Here in our city, we live on a street that is a prime conduit for zooming rush-hour traffic attempting to avoid congestion. The phenomenon is called rat running, and we have some pretty fast rats.

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We yell at the drivers, we write letters to the City, we try to organize our neighbors, but the street racing drags on (pun intended). We have even thought of sitting at the end of the driveway with Amy’s hairdryer, ala a very funny clip we saw not too long ago, hoping to put the fear of radar into our adversaries.

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As we sip our morning coffee, it is not uncommon to observe cut-through commandos with gas pedals mashed to the floor, roaring by us in a Muybridge-like blur (Muybridge was an early photo master in depicting motion). For us to try and combat this nonsense with what is euphemistically called traffic calming, we would need 70 percent of our neighbors to agree with us. This in a city where the kar is king – tough math, and especially with a handful of absentee landlords. So no speed bumps or speed tables for us. And our suggestion – to allow parking on both sides of our narrow (24’ wide curb to curb – I measured) residential street at all times instead of alternate evenings – will surely never fly in our city of convenience. Who knows – maybe even the Fire Chief (Fire Chiefs design most of our cities these days. We wouldn’t want to have to redesign their equipment, would we?) would get cranky….

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And it’s not just our street, in our neighborhood, where this is a problem. Residential streets and neighborhoods are bad, and even main drags are bad as we rush from work to home, from home to work. Every year hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists collide with these speeding dinosaurs, and often this causes injury, (and sometimes mortal wounds), to the less armored. I know whereof I speak – I got nailed not long ago by a giant pickup truck.

To make matters worse, our block is nearly 1,000 feet long. Many here are much longer – much more than a quarter mile (dragstrip). There is plenty of time to get up a full head of steam – we think 60 mph or more is often the case. As I was reflecting on this unpleasant conundrum I consulted our City Code. I was wondering what it said about street widths and parking arrangements for a street such as ours. And what did I discover? That the Code (Chapter 128, Article IV, section 128-7, Paragraph 9 – I am sure my nomenclature is wrong, but you can find it if you look) specifies “In general, block lengths shall not exceed 1,200 feet or be less than 500 feet.” WHAT??!?

As if speeding weren’t bad enough! All over the city we have these unendingly long blocks. Long blocks make for all kinds of problems in creating a lively, permeable, fine-grained urban fabric – there is quite a literature on this subject. The biggest urban blocks that get diagrammed frequently are in Salt Lake City – 600 feet square. We got ‘em beat.

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I have written here before about the problems with our city’s grid of streets, and our blocks without alleys. Even without hurtling cars, this poses all kinds of problems throughout our city. Add the speed demons and it’s good reason to stay on the sidewalk, or the front porch. Or the backyard.

Rat running and our city grid: a one-two combo of punches. We did get the city to post yellow “SLOW DOWN” strips signs on a few light posts, but that has had exactly no impact on the speeding. And hoping for fewer cars on city streets any time soon is truly a fantasy. Perhaps autonomous cars will make a difference….

In the meanwhile, speaking of backyards, one of our neighbors is cooking up what may be a terrific new approach.

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Traffic in Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China.

Most of us live inside the gravitational pull of cities. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas. In 1950, 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to be urban. Presently, the most urbanized regions include Northern America (82 percent living in urban areas), Latin America and the Caribbean (80 percent), and Europe (74 percent). In contrast, Africa and Asia remain mostly rural, with 41 and 48 per cent of their respective populations living in urban areas, while only 34% of India’s population is urban. So that means that about 4 billion of the planet’s 7.5 billion people currently live in metropolitan circumstances. (Interestingly, of those billions, the UN tells us that about 25 percent live in slums, and that number is rising quickly).

Making cities has always been a very complicated process, balancing economics with social will, and politics and power with public policy and some (often varying) sense of collective well-being. Kings and commoners (even slum-dwellers), moguls and mayors have all wrestled to control the character of urban life, and to preside over the ever-shifting balancing act between self-interest and the common good.

And in this complicated process of city making, architects and urban designers have had the job of creating urban shape and form. Since Hippodamus of Miletus (he was the first, or an early, promoter of the gridded city) and before, urbanists have searched for a right relationship between the block, the street and the building, and the good life. Sometimes their visions have been insightful, sometimes horrific. Or to say that differently, some of their visions have led to a better urban life, and some have led to a problematic and troubled urban life.

Two fast examples of better and less better before we move on to the crux of the discussion. The better city: Chicagoan Daniel Burnham imagined the “City Beautiful,” a city based on civic virtues and urban stewardship. Often accused of elitism, Burnham nonetheless wrote at length (300+ pages in his 1909 Chicago Plan) about the just city, its institutions, and its citizens. The less better city: Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris, promulgated as housing for unknown remote factories, and obsessively focused on all forms of contemporary technology – the car, the plane, the express highway, the ‘skyscraper.’ We can debate this if you like, but the jury has spoken on this matter, and moved on.

In any event, architects and urban designers have always played the role of set designers for the theater which is urban life, creating stages for the unfolding human drama – tragic or comedic – which billions now enact.

But the real question is this: what is a better life in the city? It’s worth asking this question because if we can arrive at some semblance of an understanding about what a good urban life might be, then it might be easier to formulate policy, and architecture, in support.

I am currently enjoying a cluster of essays by the quite extraordinary architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin. The collection is entitled “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan,” and a particular essay is called “The Stair.” I mention all this because in that essay, he says that Jane Jacobs, the Empress of Urbanism, says that a better city life is: “…mutuality, self-government, neighborliness, diversity, intimacy, convenience, contentment, and safety.” I might add a few things to this – a clear and inalienable justice for all, a willingness to restrain one’s appetites in favor of the community, and a desire to live in a resilient and sustainable community, now and forever.

So if this can act as a rudimentary definition of the good life in the city, what can we architects propose to help us get there? I propose a Twelve Step program to advance the common good in the shaping and forming of our cities. Here we go – twelve criteria for establishing urban excellence.

1. Density, Closeness

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Hong Kong, China

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Cadiz, Spain

In cities, density of population and density of use are almost always a prerequisite for other characteristics of urban excellence which follow. Density is a misleading term: many naturally associate dense urban settings with tall buildings in modern cities. But this is not so – some of the densest urban settings in the world are in premodern or protomodern locales, with a dearth of buildings above 5 or 6 stories.

Critically, density frequently brings with it a host of other urban assets: mixed uses, walkability, and an ease of access to the diverse assets of the community.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of density in urban settings is the extent to which auto dependence can be obviated.

2. Walk, Walk, Walk

“No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in a morning.” Cyril Connolly

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Krakow, Poland

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Rome, Italy

Perhaps no single criterion is a better measure of urban excellence than walkability. If a city is understood and experienced as walkable, then it is a city where the automobile has a place, but probably not the place in questions of access and transportation. In walkable urban locales, studies show that residents are healthier, the environment is cleaner, and economic values are stable or rising.

And better urban life happens in a city where all of one’s needs can be met within a 1-mile circle – a 20-minute walk for most. Typically, an urban neighborhood, or quarter, has all of the goods and services needed for daily life – the butcher, the green grocer, the café, the library, the doctor, the pub. And some others, some specialties, as well. Then these centers – often there are many – are interconnected by modes of enhanced mobility – the subway, the streetcar, the bike path, the bus. Walking and cities – a fundamental urban proposition.

3. Beyond Our Feet

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Melbourne, Australia

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Hong Kong, China

We have become numb to the extent that automobiles have subsumed, and often wreaked havoc, on our urban centers. But diverse mobility means movement in cities without a bias of any kind between types of transport: by motor, bike, foot, or any other means. And the thoroughfares of mobility in the best urban settings are not dominated by one or another mode of transportation: all can move freely. No mode is entitled – all modes are entitled.

4. Living Narratives: a Million Stories on Every Corner

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Athens, Greece

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Valletta, Malta

In a city of excellence, we can find ourselves, our homes, our histories, our occupations, the stories of what we were, who came before us, and what they did. All of these narratives embody our personal and communal life, memorialize our best moments, recall our successes, and perhaps forecast our futures. We take care of such cities, we are loyal to such places, because these narratives are signals that we belong, we are empowered, we can take ownership.

In cities of excellence our sense of loyalty and stewardship can be because of at least three circumstances related to the presence of meaningful narratives. First, those narratives can be the legible and conserved – revered – nature of the physical place. Or next, the narratives could be the text for the physical extension of the city: we build on and expand upon the story of what has come before us. Or third, the narrative life of a city (embodying our loyalty and faith in the place) could be the basis for things in the city that are new, previously unseen but somehow resonant with our understanding of ourselves in the city.

5. For Richer, For Poorer

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Bangalore, India

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Tangier, Morocco

Before our era of gas fired mobility, it was much harder for us to avoid each other, much harder for us to segregate ourselves by race and class and ethnicity and whatever else made us different from each other. In those times, economic status was much less lateral or horizontal, and much more vertical, or at least proximate.

For the sake of density and walkability and resilience, and the integration of economic class, the creation of a single urbanism of economic diversity is a signal of urban excellence. We would be much better citizens, and our cities would certainly become physical expressions of a greater richness and vivacity, when wealth and poverty are contiguous.

6. A Public Realm for a Public Life

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Barcelona, Spain

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Shanghai, China

A lively and bustling public realm – busy sidewalks, active plazas, crowded markets – are signals of a healthy and engaged urban population. And a robust public realm is likewise a signal of a healthy urban economy. If urban byways are lively, then residential, retail and commercial uses are all animated, cash is flowing and taxes are being generated.

And there are many approaches that architects and urban designers can adopt that will enhance and complement a robust pubic realm. A bustling urban setting is probably not the result of design alone, but poor design can quickly reduce, and even extinguish, urban vitality.

7. A Living Past Assures a Livable Future

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Lisbon, Portugal

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Barcelona, Spain

Increasingly, cities across the globe feel and appear to be increasingly like one another. International franchises, auto-domination, sprawl, the loss of historic urban fabric, the separation of uses by zone – all of these characteristics and more mark places that have lost their sense of themselves, their collective memories, the narratives that make each place unique, and compelling.

Bur urban excellence is fundamentally about a place becoming more and more particular, more and more like itself (or to invert, less and less like somewhere else).

And it is in the historic built fabric of cities where this specific nature is most legible. Old buildings and old districts tell us who we were, what we did, why we are the way we are, and what we might become as the future unfolds. Losing these memories, these tales of our communal life (often most vivid in our monuments) is a certain guarantee of anonymity, and a true loss of urban value.

8. The City’s Site

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Haifa, Israel

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Cape Town, South Africa

Whether river or lake, ocean or inland sea, mountains or simply seven hills, best cities are fundamentally focused on their essential, and defining, physical characteristics. To say this in a different way, no city of excellence can ignore or fail to foreground the essential qualities of its nature.

Interestingly, connecting to natural assets like rivers, lakes or even oceans may be a new kind of opportunity in many cities. Often these waterfronts were historically industrial in use, and were frequently polluted and strictly utilitarian in their structures and surrounding infrastructure. Converting these zones to useful and attractive elements of the urban fabric is often substantial, but always important, work.

9. Urbs in Horto, Hortus in Urbe

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Sydney, Australia

It was once commonly understood that parks and green spaces were the ‘lungs,’ and more, of any industrial or recently postindustrial city. The natural world present in the city has always acted as a counterweight to the surrounding built urban environment.

In the nineteenth century, urban parks offered relief from the stifling pollution of industrialism, as well as places to enjoy what little leisure was available, to have a place for recreation, and even frequently a place to bathe. In the 21st century many urban parks are being re-imagined – in Budapest for example – and in some cities parks are even being incorporated into private architecture. Most recent developments point at sustainability and resilience as the now-conscious intentions of the next generation of natural spaces in urban fabric.

10. An Institutional Presence

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Cadiz, Spain

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Valletta, Malta

In cities, institutions – governments, churches, universities, hospitals, theaters, libraries, and others – mediate between citizens and the larger community while providing a framework of moral and ethical values that guide and define the place. Excellent cities foreground these institutions, making them visible, and in fact allowing the physical locales of these institutions to act as fundamental organizers of urban fabric. And excellent cities will defend this hierarchy against encroachment of any kind.

11. Ages and Ages, Young and Old

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Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Alicante, Spain

Excellent cities inspire loyalty across many generations. And civic loyalty is essential if a city is to remain robust, resilient, and sustainable. Walking the streets of a city of excellence, or visiting the essential places of those cities, should reveal the presence of a multiple of generations.

In the key locales of any city of excellence, we believe that the presence of at least three generations of any family is essential. To say this in a slightly different way, it should be possible to see families whose ages span 70 years or so as one visits the city’s parks or promenades or plazas.

12. Resilience – A Useable Future

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Singapore

Even now, as many cities realize the need to increase their sustainability, there is not one city on earth that is truly self-sufficient. This seems surprising, perhaps – not one city in the world can feed itself, power itself, slake its thirst.

We humans have devised all sorts of sophisticated technologies and industries to meet our needs, but we have done so without giving serious thought to consequences. And so instead of relying on our immediate environments and surroundings, we rely on fuel from the middle east, fruit from Chile, or shoes from China. This has not always been so – as recently as two centuries ago every city could sustain itself.

And now we know that we must increasingly lead local lives in order for our cities to meet the challenges of the future. As we search the world for examples of this new kind of resilience, this new sense of 21st century sustainability, we learn how truly difficult – notwithstanding completely necessary – is this task that looms before us.

 

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While it is true that Prime Minister Modi just dedicated two GIANT expressways in a city where the car is pretty much completely obsolete, it is also true that this last week the Magenta Line on Delhi’s Metro Network was opened, with 25 stations.

The system is new, clean, well designed, and very heavily used. It carries about 3 million riders every day. And there are still additional lines and extensions in the works.

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Planning began in the late 60s, and construction finally began in 1998. The first phases of the system opened in 2002, ahead of schedule, and work has continued unabated, and will until at least the end of this year.

As one starts to investigate the system, one discovers how heavily used it is.

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In fact, really heavily used:

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202 stations, 1 billion riders in 2016-17, 172 miles of track, 360 trains, 6 lines. Go, Delhi, go!!

 

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Indian Prime Minister Modi was busy on Sunday. He dedicated two expressways – the last portion of the Eastern Peripheral – a giant looping expressway that will, eventually, strangle Delhi, and a 14 lane (!!!) segment of the expressway northeast to Meerut.

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During the dedication he told us that these roads would curb pollution by keeping 50,000 cars a day from entering Delhi. Mr. Prime Minister, I am afraid that you are delusional. These expressways you are building as fast as you can – the Western portion of the Peripheral is almost done – are the wrong answer to questions about pollution, congestion, and the future of Delhi – and India.

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Modi is the one with upraised arm….

Traffic is already so problematic in most Indian cities that NO road – of any kind, not matter how many lanes – will help. My only counsel to you – I appreciate that you are trying to transform the national infrastructure – is to follow the example of Madrid. In Madrid, they are about to ban cars – any cars – from the central city.

Prime Minister, save your Rupees. Ban cars. Do not build roads for cars. It is too late to build roads for cars, and especially in your nation. You have the worst traffic on the planet.

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Madrid.

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I checked in to another neighborhood in my imagined city, and found some things that are a bit disturbing. I wonder how this happened….

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