Also published on Resilience
“For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up,” write Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett, in the opening pages of their new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives.
Unfortunately city streets in the twentieth century became unsafe spaces for humans, especially young humans, when so much prime urban real estate was ceded over to cars. The Bruntletts discuss the negative effects of car culture for children, for care-givers, for social cohesion, for social justice, for mental health, for the ability of the elderly to age in place – plus the positive effects in these realms when urban planners carefully and sensibly curb traffic.
In a previous book, Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (reviewed here), the Bruntletts described the policies and practices that have transformed cities throughout the Netherlands and have turned the nation into a world leader for active transportation. Their new book deepens the analysis from a distinctive personal perspective: two years ago the couple and their two children moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Dutch city of Delft.
Visitors to the Netherlands are rightly amazed at the extensive network of dedicated bike lanes which go to every section of every city, as well as through the countryside. But just as importantly, the Bruntletts explain, is how the Dutch deal with myriad residential streets that do not have dedicated bike lanes: these streets must be safe for human interaction, whether that means kids playing games or biking to school, neighbours standing and chatting, elders strolling along while admiring gardens.
“The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” isn’t really about bicycles. It’s about refusing to sacrifice vast amounts of the public realm to the private automobile; instead reserving space for commerce, community, and social connection. The ubiquitous bicycles are simply a by-product of that larger process; a tool to achieve the end goal of what policy makers call an autoluw (low-car or nearly car-free) city.” (Curbing Traffic, page 4)
Where Building the Cycling City focused on the freedom to bike safely, Curbing Traffic pays more attention to the benefits of a low-car city for those who are not, at any given time, on bikes.
The Child-Friendly City
It starts with children.
Historians of the cycling revolution in the Netherlands cite the key role of the “stop de kindermoord” – stop the child-murders – protest movement nearly fifty years ago. Alarmed and outraged by the ongoing tragedy of children being struck down by motorists, Dutch citizens began what would become a far-ranging reclamation of street space.
Fittingly, the first chapter of Curbing Traffic is entitled “The Child-Friendly City”. Prior to the automobile era, the Bruntletts write, urban children could take care of themselves for hours every day, playing on the street close to home within sight of a parent or trusted neighbours.
The dominance of cars turned that safe space into a violent space. In the words of University of Amsterdam geographer Dr. Lia Karsten, in most cities “cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.”
Making residential streets safe again for children has involved a complex of modified street design, driver-responsibility laws, and strong social norms that tell drivers they are guests on these streets. Dutch streets have become, once again, places for socializing for people of all ages. And because the safe space starts right outside most urbanites’ front doors, children can take off on their own to bike to school, to sports fields, libraries and stores.
The success of the famous Dutch cycling lane network, then, depends on people of all ages being able to safely navigate their neighbourhood streets before reaching the cycle lanes along major roads.
Care is essential
Child care is one important type of care work, and the freedom to let children play outside on safe streets is itself liberating for child-caregivers, who tend to be women. That is one advantage a low-car city has in becoming a feminist city, but there is more.
Curbing Traffic notes that historically the traffic planning profession has considered “work” to mean paid work, which in turn has emphasized commuting to full-time jobs away from home. Planners have focused on facilitating these longer-distance commuting trips, which happen once at the beginning of the work day and once at the end.
Care-givers, on the other hand, typically engage in many shorter trips – to a day-care centre, grocery store, or children’s after-school activities. These trips, which often add up to more kilometres per day than a bread-winner’s commuting, are ignored in many traffic planning studies. (“The Canadian census, for example, only asks about journey to work data, as do countless other countries,” the Bruntletts write.) When these trips are made by a care-giver who also works a paid job, they often involve detours on the trip to or from a paid workplace – “trip-chaining.”
Even in cities which are now putting significant resources into cycling infrastructure, the focus is often on the type of major-thoroughfare bike lanes used by bike commuters to get far beyond their own neighbourhood. (As an example, the Bruntletts discuss new cycling infrastructure in their former home city, Vancouver. See also my discussion of the “cycle super-highways” in London, UK, here.)
In most Dutch cities, by contrast, many short trips that go along with care work happen on streets that are just as quiet, relaxed and safe as the dedicated cycle lanes are. That is one important reason that in the Netherlands, in strong contrast to most industrialized nations, the urban cycling population is more than half women.
Car noise makes us sick
The air pollution caused by motor traffic is frequently discussed, for good reason. Less understood, the Bruntletts write, is the pervasive effective of noise pollution caused by motor traffic:
“While air and water pollution tend to receive the most attention from environmentalists, noise is, in fact, the pollutant that disturbs the greatest number of people in their daily lives. It is a universal stressor, one that stimulates the fight-or-flight response in virtually all animals. An astonishing 65 percent, or 450 million Europeans reside in dwellings exposed to levels above 55 decibels, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems unacceptable.” (Curbing Traffic, page 92-93)
The noise falls into two primary categories, propulsion noise and rolling noise. The arrival of electric vehicles, with their silent engines, should significantly reduce propulsion noise. Rolling noise – caused by the friction of tires on surfaces – goes up dramatically with vehicle speed, and is not ameliorated by electric motors. Unfortunately, Curbing Traffic notes, rolling noise is trending worse, “as the automobile industry continues to push out larger and heavier vehicles, which also require wider tires.”
Constant motor traffic noise, which reminds our senses that streets are dangerous places, stimulates a flow of “fight-or-flight” hormones and contributes to stress. This happens whether or not we are “used to the noise.” In the words of Dr. Edda Bild, a soundscape researcher at McGill University, “People who live in big cities are used to the churning sounds of passing cars. But just because we don’t perceive it, doesn’t mean our body isn’t having a physiological response to what’s happening.” As with air pollution, noise pollution tends to be worst in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
The ill health effects associated with the pervasive presence of noisy, dangerous vehicles go beyond the physical to the mental. Canadian neuroscientist Robin Mazumder summarizes what urban planners can do to help address the global mental health crisis: “Primarily, we need to eliminate the threat that cars pose. Whether that’s through traffic calming or car-free streets, that’s the first thing I would target.”
Through reflections on their personal experiences and through discussions of the work of diverse urban life researchers, the Bruntletts cover far more issues than this review can touch on. Curbing Traffic is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking. Let’s give them the last word.
Living in Delft, they write, has shown them “what is possible when we reduce the supremacy of motor vehicles from our lives and prioritize the human experience.” They add,
“With the right leadership, traffic evaporation policies, as well as those aimed at improving social connection, reducing noise, addressing mental health and equity, and ensuring resiliency regardless of what environmental and health challenges are yet to come, cities of all sizes can provide the quality of life our family now cherishes. We understand why it is so important to have fewer cars in our lives. The critical next step starts today. Now is the time to make it happen.” (Curbing Traffic, page 218)
Photos in this post taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in September, 2018.