By Anthony Mendiola

What is your neighborhood’s “walk-score”?

04028111000Suburban Sprawl has typically characterized modern cities in North America and South America. As the private automobile became commonplace, cites were designed more and more to accommodate cars rather than to accommodate people. Hour-long commutes from bedroom community suburbs to jobs in the city centers became routine. Think of Los Angeles and what comes to mind? Freeways? Is L.A. a good model for a sustainable metropolis? How could the freeway and transit system have been developed to better accommodate the population and its transportation needs?

Innovation emanating from Brazil is spreading around the world to reverse problems cities face

From North to South, cities around the world are looking for ways to increase walking, biking and create alternatives to car-oriented travel. So, what are these alternative for single-occupancy automobile travel? There are many: Bus, especially the BRT’s or Bus Rapid Transit, Rail LRT or Light Rail Transit, Bike and last but not least, walking. Creative ideas and approaches are to be found when one looks south to cities like Curitiba, state of Parana in Brazil and Bogotá, capital of Colombia. These two cities especially are celebrated in Urban Planning circles for being on the cutting edge of good urban design. The former Mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner and former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa were instrumental leaders who brought affordable and high-quality transit systems to their cities to alleviate social ills and traffic woes.

The Southern Brazilian City of Curitiba, has been at the forefront of environmental city planning since 1965, implementing mass rapid transit systems, encouraging green technology before “green” was in vogue, and creating a “walkable” city center and city-wide recycling program. Curitiba has a strong influence from mass immigration from Italy, Japan and the Middle East. The construction of lively plazas and pedestrian only zones has made a difference in how people enjoy the civic life.

Jaime Learner came to power at age 37 with a background in Engineering. He looked for ways to address the transit needs of the citizens. Many of his implementations were simple ideas, like platforms where passengers pay for tickets before boarding the bus to save time. Also, having platforms that are level with the bus makes it easier and faster getting on the bus. Having dedicated lanes for the bus, cuts down on conflict with cars. As Jaime Lerner said when asked about the proper place for cars in the design of cities:”We cannot be dependent on the car. I’ve repeated this saying many times, but I feel it is very appropriate: The car is like our mother in-law. We have a good relationship with her, but we cannot let her conduct our lives. In other words, if the only woman in your life is your mother in-law, then you have a problem.”

For all its creativity and progressiveness, Curitiba is not Utopia. The high unemployment and huge income disparities that exist for a large segment of Brazil’s population have unfortunately not escaped even a progressive city like Curitiba. More people arrived looking for opportunities to better themselves and their families than the city could accommodate. But the city has responded to help alleviate the problems that marginalized populations face and integrate them into the network of basic sanitation and to provide better housing.

Also, 75% of the population utilizes the Bus Rapid Transit, as it is seen more in a commuter mentality, rather than for only those who can’t afford to own their own car. Compare that to Phoenix, Arizona, a similar sized city in the USA, where only 1 % of the populace uses the bus. BRTs started in Curitiba and were most effectively copied and expanded on in Bogotá with their network called the Transmilenio.

According to the ITDP, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, after only two years, Bogotá’s TransMilenio system brought these benefits:

• 32% reduction in travel time for users
• Violent crime dropped 50% citywide
• 75% reduction in the number of traffic accidents
• 30% reduction in the number of fatalities cause by traffic accidents
• Better air quality – particulate matter -18%
• Noise pollution reduced by 30%

Speaking to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C the former Mayor of Bogotá summed up his philosophy this way: “You may think that pedestrian space is frivolous in a city with many poverty problems, but it’s actually the contrary. During leisure time there is a huge difference between the rich and the poor. The upper-income person goes to a large house, to a garden, to a country club, or on vacations. The lower-income person lives in an extremely small house or apartment. The only leisure alternative to television is public space. It’s the very least a democratic society should offer its citizens”.

Bike to Work, Bike for Fun

bike-1218092_960_720Biking is becoming something for everyday use, not just a child’s toy or a weekend exercise. The San Diego Association of Governments promotes “Bike to Work” day. And in the San Francisco Bay area, “Almost 40 percent of Bay Area commuters live within just five miles of their workplace, a bike-able distance for even inexperienced cyclists. If every person living this close to their workplace ditched their cars on Bike to Work Day alone, more than 60,000 vehicles would be off the road.

Bogotá has become famous for their Ciclovia. The Ciclovia Recreativa or Ruas da Saúde are not to be confused with permanent designated bicycle lanes known as ciclo-rutas, but these are temporary closures of major streets where car traffic is blocked off and the streets are open to bicyclists. These make great community events that promote recreation, exercise, family time and health. It basically consists of the temporary opening up of streets to residents so they may enjoy a safe space for walking, jogging, running or riding a bike. Vehicular access is prohibited in the area where the program operates.

Everything “Old” is “New” Again – New Urbanism and Walking the Neighborhood

Go on line right now to Walk Score – www.walkscore.com and enter your address, enter your work address, and your friend’s address… you will be surprised at what you find out! I found out I live in a very walkable part of mid-city San Diego, with a “walk score” of 78 out of 100 points. But my friend in the suburbs to the north had a walk score of Zero!! That means she lives in a totally car-dependent neighborhood! There is no access to public transit, no place to walk because of cul-de-sac streets and Traffic signals make her wait too long or did not give her enough time to cross once she got to a street. There were no amenities like convenience store, restaurant or café within walking distance either.

Walk Score works to help make neighborhoods more pedestrian friendly and promote better health and more transportation options.

“Acupuncture” for the City

Jaime Lerner realizes that large improvements in urban infrastructure take time to implement. So he advocates doing what he calls “acupuncture”. Go into a blighted area or a really bad traffic snarl and redesign it. The effect could be like a ripple throughout the larger community. There are some patterns and ways of development that we should no longer support. We should be waking up to new ideas about designing urban areas that avoid sprawl and only offer nominal coverage as far as public transportation is concerned.. We should be rethinking housing and long drives to work. The challenge we must focus on is to follow a few simple patterns to design pedestrian friendly environments, more public spaces, implement innovative energy use, invest in well-designed mass transportation systems. In this way, we can have more vibrant towns and cities. Dare to embrace the “car-lite” lifestyle!

* Anthony Mendiola have a degree in City Planning from the San Diego State University. He has traveled extensively throughout South America and Europe and speaks English, Spanish and Italian. He is a Brazilian culture lover and currently is learning Portuguese. 

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