What Does American Exceptionalism Mean For Livable Streets?

10_6_denmark_71.jpgRush hour in Copenhagen. Photo: Complete Streets Coalition

Is the United States exceptional? It’s a question that’s bedeviled
activists and historians alike since the country was born 234 years ago
this Sunday. It’s also a question that’s been bugging Barbara McCann,
the executive director of the Complete Streets Coalition. She’s been at
Velo-City, a bike conference held in cycling mecca Copenhagen this year. Writes McCann on her organization’s blog:

Frankly, in the past, I’ve discounted the value of the European
model in the United States. It has been just too different – and
certainly has been rejected by most local elected officials in the US.
Specific European treatments such as cycle-tracks (bicycle lanes raised
from the road surface and separate from the sidewalk) seemed pointless
to discuss. On this trip, however, I came away with greater clarity
about what European cities have to teach the Complete Streets movement
in the United States.

Of course, in more progressive locations around the country,
European-style bike infrastructure, including cycle tracks, has been
installed. American cities have public spaces inspired by Denmark’s Jan Gehl and bus rapid transit lines modeled after (or at least inspired by) Bogotá’s TransMilenio. American cities have learned from best practices around the world, not just Europe.

But one or two cycle-tracks does not a Copenhagen make. There’s
nowhere in this country even close to the cutting edge of livable
streets. So McCann’s question seems apt: Just how much can the United
States learn from other countries?

Whatever your answer, it’s worth considering the lesson McCann brought back from Copenhagen: 

The lesson for most of the United States, then, is not to simply
import a technique or two (although it is encouraging to see a few
American cities trying it): it is to learn how to build the political
consensus that roads serve purposes beyond automobile travel.

Whether an American city makes itself more livable cycle-track by
cycle-track or in another form altogether, the most important piece of
infrastructure is our ability to organize.

More from around the network: The Bike-Sharing Blog shows a fun instructional video for London’s coming bike-sharing program. Matt Yglesias reminds us that density doesn’t have to mean tall buildings. And Cyclelicious has pics of David Letterman on the most fun e-bike ever.

1 thought on What Does American Exceptionalism Mean For Livable Streets?

  1. I had a similar insight several years ago. I as so focused on installing specific pieces of infrastructure that I lost sight of the reasons we don’t have bike friendly streets in L.A.: politics, information, and money in the advocacy movement.

    It is (or at least was) a hard sell to convince a politician to back bicycle infrastructure projects that interfered with automobile travel. Though government money exists to do this type of work, our local elected politicians are worried about being re-elected in a “car town”. They also are kept woefully misinformed about the state and safety of our streets. Additionally, bike advocacy efforts had been small scale and amateur up until two or three years ago.

    So much has changed in that time, and all three of the above are being addressed. It is important to recognize that bike infrastructure, to bicyclists, is all about the facilities – but to society at large, it can seem frivolous and unnecessary. It is our job to sell the policies at all levels: in the halls of power (protests, collective action, print and online journalism), with the technocrats (bike data, standards, visualizations), and with the public (positive images of cyclists, data to reinforce the benefits an area brought by bike infrastructure, safety).

    In L.A., we’re really missing the professional advocacy movement that other cities have. We need a millionaire or two to take interest in what we’re trying to do. There are a lot of hard-working dreamers in the bike movement, with a good dozen that could effectively lead the charge if paid to do so full time. We need a source of money to pay these people to do the work they are already doing, and to hire the support staff to put the whole effort over the top.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2013

|
A growing number places are adopting policies to create safe space on the streets no matter how you get around. This year 80 new complete streets policies were passed by municipalities, states, counties, and planning agencies around the United States looking to make walking and biking safer. That brings the total number of such policies […]

Federal Complete Streets Legislation Gains Momentum

|
Complete Streets advocates received a double dose of good news this week from Washington, D.C. For the first time ever, Complete Streets legislation is now introduced in both Chambers of Congress after the Safe and Complete Streets Act was introduced in the House of Representative. Meanwhile, the Senate version of the bill received its first […]