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The Basic Question: What Are Streets for?

By Paul Lewis, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on August 1, 1997

Itís easy to look at the Critical Mass controversy as an overheated conflict between self-righteous bicyclists and often-aggressive motorists. Certainly, thereís some of that, and more than enough testosterone and mutual distrust and disgust to keep this battle going through the summer.

But thereís a more timeless quality to the debate that can be summed up in two questions that are unresolved elements of American public policy:

What are the streets for?

To whom do they properly belong?

Throughout much of this increasingly suburban nation, the answer seems simple enough. Streets exist to move motor vehicles. Quickly.

At the metropolitan fringe, pedestrians and bicycles never have plied the roads in large numbers, and government policy often implicitly treats them as an alien element.

Where sidewalks - or, more rarely, bike lanes - exist at all, they are often sources of more terror than pleasure for walkers and bikers. Road engineers and city planners have seen these "nonmotorized uses" as obstacles to speedy traffic.

Thus, bicyclists must negotiate past storm sewer drains on narrow shoulders of the road while motorists speed by a few inches away. Pedestrians are required to push buttons just to get a "walk" sign when the light turns green.

Never mind that improved auto speed and access draw more businesses and residents, which means more cars and traffic congestion.

As many urban historians have pointed out, streets were not always viewed in such utilitarian fashion. In photos at the turn of the century, city streets seem crazily disordered, with pedestrians, vending carts, bicyclists and trolley cars all coexisting.

Historically, streets have been public spaces - for meetings and speeches, for children to play, for adults to meet, and for livestock to run. Through events like parades and street fairs, we still observe these traditions.

It is ironic that San Francisco, one of the nationís more friendly places toward foot-and-pedal power, should become the site for the uncompromising warfare of Critical Mass. But in a way, such a public debate could take place in few American cities.

San Francisco is an anomaly. Almost everywhere else, nonmotorized users lost the battle long ago. San Francisco is a delight to negotiate by foot. Thatís a big reason why moving here is a lifestyle choice for many people.

The conflict over Critical Mass is really a conflict over the purposes of cities and, by extension, their streets. Are cities simply conglomerations of commerce with streets provided for movement of goods and workers? Or are cities communities, with streets as public spaces?

American policy has favored the utilitarian approach. San Francisco, with its narrow streets, high density, and natural amenities, has the necessary elements for an alternative vision.

As with other areas of policy in The City - how to shape development, how to help the poor - there always will be conflict over how far to push an approach that sets San Francisco apart from other cities.

These are not new issues. As the French planner Le Corbusier (Charles-…douard Jeanneret-Gris) wrote of his beloved Paris in 1924:

"Day by day the fury of the traffic grew. To leave your house meant that once you had crossed the threshold you were a possible sacrifice to death in the shape of innumerable motors. I think back 20 years, when I was a student: The road belonged to us then."


Just the Facts: Cities and Growth in California

Federal Transportation Policy and the Role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in California

Development Priorities in California Cities: Results from a PPIC Survey