Appreciating Copenhaganize’s Thoughts On “The Arrogance of Space”

Copenhagenize’s recent article The Arrogance of Space brings to the surface something bicyclists, modern urban planners, and many common people find simmering in their minds all the time. Mikael Colville-Andersen, the Northern European author of this article cuts through the simmer: “I’ve been working a lot in North America the past year, and I’ve become quite obsessed with the obscenely unbalanced distribution of space. I see this arrogance everywhere I go. I see the insanely wide car lanes and the vehicles sailing back and forth in them like inebriated hippopotami.” Oh how I love to hear someone say this… or, rather, read it in writing.

Chengdu, China -- separated bike lanes.
Chengdu, China — Separated Bike Lanes.

Streets that are seldom used, empty concrete parking lots instead of greenery devouring once-so-green landscapes of North America — this is what dominates the continent. It is not even the streets he writes of in this age of foreclosures — there are also large vacant buildings sitting around whilst children and families are homeless and displaced. Now, this is another subject. However, it is related, or of a similar arrogance.

Copenhagenize notes that every city is different, that all have unique personalities. Some are willing and able to accomplish innovative changes, increasing bike lanes, increasing bike-sharing programs. Some, such as the small town I live in, even make sure there is space between the bike lane and car lane for safety’s sake. Too many remain indulgent, living in a past time’s viewpoint and (hopefully a passing) ideology of worship to the shiny, large, isolated armor of autos that drive a few people over even larger slabs of streaming, excessive, overdone concrete jungles.

Copenhagen Fashionista on Wheels
Copenhagen Fashionista on Wheels

In my own experience visiting the Northwestern US, which is a more progressive place than other parts of the country, the story goes something like this:

Concrete Jungle.
Concrete Jungle.

I usually rent a remarkably small, fuel-efficient car (unfortunately, not yet an electric car) to drive out of Seattle to the place I am visiting. I proceed in 7 or 8 streams of traffic that are often stuck, or moving in a unusually slow motion. This car I am in is small and filled with 3 of us, so the waste is minimal. However, if there were a better train system out of Seattle, as one finds from San Francisco, flowing to all the small towns surrounding it, I would not even be using this small car but would readily travel by train. Instead of 8 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, one might have a grassy side view of the track with the train run over land not concrete. Am I a dreamer? Well, I am not the only one.

Consider the lyrically streaming bikes of the bike video, Cycling For Everyone — an Expose: Organically Flowing (below). The sense of concrete infringement is diminished. Less is more. The kind of experience developing urban planners hope for are one of less concrete, fewer cars, increased fresh air, more living life outside.

Already from such a place, folks from Copenhagen and the lands about teach us what we already know:

“However, when you live in an arrogant city, space is readily available. Often not even involving removing lanes or parking. It’s right there. If you want it.”

40 years ago, Copenhagen was just as car-clogged as anywhere else, but now 36% of the population arriving at work or school do so on bicycles, from all over the Metro area. 50% of Copenhageners themselves use bicycles each day. Together, use over 1000 km of bicycle lanes in Greater Copenhagen for their journeys. And the good news is that Copenhagenizing is possible anywhere.

“I can hear the traffic engineers complaining already. This, of course, messes with every computer model they have. It’s not, however, about them anymore. They’ve had their century of trial and error – mostly error. We’re moving on now. We’ll redesign our cities and tell them what to do and how to help us — based on human observation, rationality and logic. They’re brilliant problem solvers. We’ll just be telling them what problems to solve.”

Sometimes saying it like is its feels extraordinarily good, thank you Mikael for doing just this. And this:

“Unfortunately, the myth persists. The sum of our knowledge after 100 years of traffic engineering is that if you create more space for cars, more cars will come. Period. Again, time to move on. A more perfect world is within our reach, once we get a flock of misconception monkeys off our backs.”

This quote by Andres Duany is appropriate:
The problem with planning is that it has been overtaken by mathematical models — traffic, density, impact assessment, public costs etc. discarding common sense and empirical observation.”

Image Credits: Cheryl & RichMikael Coville-Andersen; and footbear (some rights reserved).

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