Towards Carfree Cities: San Franciscans in the house

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Steven T. Jones reports from the Towards Carfree Cities conference in Portland.
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A Portland street corner.

San Francisco has a large contingent here at the Towards Carfree Cities conference. And judging from the size and engagement of the crowd at the “Battle for San Francisco (1992-2008): From Critical Mass to Congestion Pricing” workshop that some of us just presented, people around the world are carefully watching what we’re doing.

I moderated a panel made up of author and activist Chris Carlsson, geography professor Jason Henderson, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition executive director Leah Shahum, and Dave Snyder, the transportation policy director for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Other San Francisco area presenters have included architect David Baker talking about “Better Living through Density,” Mike Smith with NextBus, activist Jason Meggs on trolleys, Henderson of freeway revolts, and Gus Yates of Berkeley-based Carfree USA, who gave a fascinating presentation on how Treasure Island could be a carfee project and what he was told by the developers when he presented the idea (I’ll do a post on that later).

In our session, Snyder described how and why the activism of cyclists has driven the larger carfree movement: “The bicycle movement is where it’s at in terms of community organization.” But all agreed that promotion of the bicycle as a viable urban transportation option is a means to larger ends. As Carlsson said, “Bicycling is not the end, but it’s a piece to the larger movement.”

The discussion was really interesting and I hope to include a link to the audio from the session in the next few days. But in the meantime, here’s a report on the conference from Snyder, who has been working within this movement for more than 15 years.

By Dave Snyder
The themes of the Towards Carfree Cities conference are about rebuilding from the impact that cars have had on cities in the past century.

There’s a real sense that cities have existed for thousands of years, and the last hundred have been hard for cities because of the damage that cars have caused, and that the task of the 21st century is to rebuild cities from that impact. The first decade of the 21st century has seen oil prices quadruple.

Where can we cut back?

Despite the transformational implications conjured by the idea of a carfree city, the theme of yesterday’s presentations was completely incremental. Panelists and speakers shared hopeful stories about the work of urbanists in the 21st century: rebuilding the city from the injuries inflicted on it by automobiles. Oil prices have quadrupled http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Oil_Prices_Medium_Term.jpg already in the first decade of this year, so urban real estate is much more valuable as common space than it is as space for the movement of automobiles.

Our work, conference attendees agree, is to begin to reclaim this real estate, and judging from the presentations here, that work will happen incrementally: freeway removed here; traffic calmed there.

Gordon Price explained how Vancouver avoided many of those injuries through a pleasant coincidence of circumstance and political organizing, and how the city continues to reduce vehicle miles traveled within the city through land use and the improvement of transit, bicycling and walking.

A workshop on freeways discussed the successful recent efforts to reclaim urban land from freeways here in San Francisco, in Milwaukee, and Portland. Gil Penalosa talked about the ciclovias that started as street reclaiming in Bogota and have since spread throughout the world including New York, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco.