New fame for the 15-minute city
And Seattle has a new (tunnel) highway
Imagine living in Paris—or Rome, or New York—for awhile. Now, while you’re there, how about getting in a car and driving to the market to get something for dinner?
I didn’t think so. Even if you’ve got a car parked and ready, driving is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s hard to imagine anyone answering yes to both of the above, even for chronic complainers about traffic and lack of parking. No is the only answer that makes sense to the second question, even if you own a car—and even if you answered yes to the first one.
The very same cities that attract us because of the richness of the environment would be hell to drive—and not just because of traffic and inconvenience. Driving those streets would mean missing out on the same day-to-day surprises and familiar sights that made you want to be there in the first place. It’s simple and experiential. Cars are just too big for one or two people in a city, just like a tractor trailer is too big for Pioneer Square.
The choice should be just as clear in Seattle, even though it was laid out and built up just as cars were becoming affordable to everyone. You can design and develop around people or around cars, not both. If you choose people, you’ll grow like a city. Cars? You’ll find yourself living alongside a highway, one way or the other.
Urbanists have been operating on this logical assumption for years, and talking to anyone who would listen. In the Trump era, we found that vast numbers of fellow citizens think we’re part of an anti-car cabal trying to undermine their way of life. And now, as the Covid pandemic rages, cars look better. They can get us out of proximity to others, and quickly. No need to measure social distance from behind the wheel.
But where does that leave urbanists, and anyone who has chosen to live in the city? We already have enough to worry about.
It’s refreshing these days to read about the 15-minute city, and recent progress in Paris getting pedestrians on even firmer footing—or on two wheels. They’re revamping city squares to include bikeways (and no cars) and introducing new affordable housing into close-in working class and even affluent neighborhoods. It’s all part of making it possible for everyone—from the software programmer to the young mother to the security guard—to live close to work as well as shopping. To do this, they’ll have to live closer together. Yikes. How can they commit to this during a pandemic?
And yet they are. Just like Ann Hidalgo, the Paris mayor who won reelection in June, global mayors touting the 15-minute city have garnered support for similar kinds of infrastructure and made it a part of their Covid recovery plan. They are showing us that a plague is the perfect time for a city to act. They’re investing in new urban infrastructure.
Parisians are quite naturally more amenable to new restrictions and constraints on their transportation choices, but the walkable city has been gaining traction for a long time in places like Portland, OR, and even Seattle, which recently dismantled its waterfront freeway in favor of an on-the-ground promenade and traffic corridor along the urban shore. It’s just that here in Seattle, we had to include at least four lanes of vehicular traffic in the mix and couch it all as multi-modal. Oh, and we had to finish a tunnel for cars first, to replace the capacity for traffic through downtown Seattle that once roared overhead on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Here in the land of progress and environmental values we are still trying to have it all—our 15-minute city and our cars. No one is really choosing. No one is saying no. We’re buying it all.
I haven’t driven it yet, but I know the tunnel is there. Et mon Dieu! We’re right next to a new highway.
How’s that working for you?