I just finished an interesting journey that took me to the World Social Forum at the mouth of the Amazon River system in Belem, Brazil, and then to Los Angeles and finally home, just in time to attend a presentation last night at CounterPULSE of Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes III. The show consists of rare and obscure footage of life in San Francisco going back over 100 years. A few of the clips are striking reminders of how much the basic "technology" of roads and how we use them has evolved during the past century.
It’s lost to most of our memories, but in the 1890s bicyclists took to the streets (pdf) by the thousands across the U.S. with a shared demand: Good Roads and asphalt! Sometimes you get what you ask for and it doesn’t all work out quite the way anyone imagines! (It is worth noting in a brief digression that as we celebrate and promote the bicycle as an ecological alternative to the private automobile, the early breakthrough that made bicycling what it became was the invention of the air-filled rubber tube. That in turn made it possible to produce a smooth-riding vehicle in early industrial settings, but to produce such a device required a lot of raw material, like any industrial product. Rubber in the 19th century was not yet synthesized from hydrocarbons and the supply was garnered by imposing extremely barbaric slave-like conditions in the Amazon and the Congo, where tribal peoples were violently coerced into gathering ever-increasing amounts of wild rubber from the trees growing in the forest, all to meet the insatiable demand of bicyclists in Europe and the United States!)
By the 1905, patterns of urban traffic were still being developed. Check out this incredible video of a ride down Market Street in 1905 to see how chaotic and multifarious were the uses of the street space. Lanes and signals? I don’t think so! The story "progresses" through the 20th century until we have our auto-centric, "level of service"-dominated, highway engineer-shaped street systems. Many of us are urgently trying to reshape and repurpose these remaining urban commons to other ends than merely housing and moving private automobiles. Some of us are cycling, some are gardening, others are thinking artistically about the redesign of intersections, sidewalks and the roads themselves. My previous posts about the new sidewalk gardening efforts in the Mission garnered some sharp criticisms, emphasizing that these gardens should be coming at the expense of the cars and parking rather than the pedestrians, a point with which I totally agree. Still, I’m glad to see neighbors coming together to start the process of reshaping our shared environment.
In my journey to Belem, I was surprised to encounter a street system that is in some ways normal, modern and even superior to ours, and in other ways, demonstrative of a society that has put a lot less effort into maintenance and making everything accessible. You would simply not be able to get around Belem in a wheelchair. There are no curb-cuts at any crosswalk. Instead, you face a moat-like situation. At most intersections where curb meets street, a small canyon has opened up because the endless tropical rains have dug sinkholes. Different kinds of foliage are reclaiming these spots, and often the 2-10 foot depth combined with a 1-3 foot width is quite intimidating to pedestrians, who must find a way to step or leap over the abyss.
The citizens of Belem aren’t shy about pushing the city for improvements. Here the neighbors were demanding a new traffic signal:
On the other hand, Belem (a city of 1.5 million) has spent significant resources on a system of dedicated ciclovias, or bikeways, that grace the center of 6-lane boulevards, separted by fences and horticultural medians. The citizens of the area are avid cyclists, and it was due to hundreds of casualties from car-bike accidents that the local government finally ponied up and built this system of bikeways, which are in steady use day and night.
After a five-legged trip home (Belem-Rio-Sao Paolo-Miami-Denver-SF) I flew to Los Angeles, the land of freeways and endless street grids, rented a car (a Sebring Convertible! were they trying to say I was having a mid-life crisis?) and promptly got stuck in a 2 hour traffic crawl from Santa Monica to Downtown via city streets (the freeways were blocked too, but locals later told me I’d have done better crawling on the freeway than on city streets). After making my way to the Los Angeles EcoVillage, where I was a guest, I had a much better experience, cycling and walking around their mid-town neighborhood. Being a pedestrian in Los Angeles is not easy though. Unlike San Francisco where I feel I can cross any street any time, in Los Angeles the streets really are always full of traffic, and crossing is difficult without the help of signals and crosswalks. Still, I enjoyed walking around and grabbed this shot of a typical neighborhood scene near where I was staying. The famous Hollywood sign is on the hill in the distance.
Los Angeles is famously a city designed for cars, but as it turns out a lot of what attracted me most there was the vibrant alternative communities, bicyclists and artists and others, who are block by block, slowly reclaiming LA from its badly chosen fate. During crisp winter days it’s a beautiful city, and a future based on its growing rail system, plus cycling and walking, doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Streets are subject to political dispute, thank goodness, and though we often tend to see our built environment as fixed and immovable, the fact is that we are just living in a specific moment in a long history. Our streetscapes are a product of a series of decisions made before this time, and the decisions we make now and the behaviors we practice every day, can and will shape a very different idea of what "Good Roads" are for the generations that follow. Comparing early 20th century San Francisco with today’s Belem and Los Angeles is a good way to get a quick reminder of how malleable and political these processes really are.