Thursday, 30 June 2011

Green and Red: Not Just for Christmas Anymore

Came across this article in a recent New York Times edition, titled as "Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy."  The alpha and omega of the story is that many urban governments in Europe are intentionally adopting policies designed to make it difficult to use a car within their cities.  Apparently, it's part of a conscious effort to discourage the use of cars and steer people towards public transit, walking, and/or bicycle use.

It's all ostensibly part of the so-called green agenda, you see.

European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.

Now, whilst I tend to be pretty right-wing in much of my politics, I here put some distance between myself and many of my fellow-travellers, in that I accept the science that indicates that climate change is real, and that there is a very, very good chance that human activity is at the least a significant factor.

I believe that the goal of reducing pollution is a good one, and I support improving the quality of life in our cities.  People should make the effort to walk more for their own health, and the more people on buses, trains, and other public transport, generally, the better.

But this story indicates to me a couple of things.

First, the "green movement" in no small part mixes significant amounts of red into the tint; and by that, I mean much of what it is attempting to accomplish is less about the environment, and more about giving government more control over our choices and behaviour.
As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, (Zurich's) city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
In the San Francisco Bay area, the city of Menlo Park has for decades used similar thinking to hobble traffic flow and block development.

Second, I live near New York City, where automobile transport is essentially impossible, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying for some time to implement "congestion pricing" to drive up the cost of bringing a car into Manhattan (note: it's ONLY Manhattan, and ONLY upon entering Manhattan, so if you live in an expensive converted loft in TriBeCa, the toll would not apply to you).  We also recently returned from London, where just such a scheme already exists.

I wonder if there is a somewhat subtle subtext here about turning urban centres such as Central London or Manhattan into sorts of Disneylands for self-selected urbane elites.

Put simply, as it becomes increasingly difficult to get into and around city centres (whether to work, shop, visit a cultural attraction), there will be increasing pressure on the housing stock in or near these attractions.  I am sure that there are many, many people who would LOVE to ride a bicycle to their jobs in lower Manhattan or walk around shopping in Knightsbridge.  If you happen to be Leonardo Di Caprio and can afford to live in TriBeCa, that's an option.  If you're a mid-level manager, it's not.

No; you will have to ride two hours from your affordable suburban home.

Walkable cities is a terrific idea in theory.  But far too often, putatively "enviromental" restrictions such as zoning laws are pushed quietly behind the scenes by people who own land and property that will be made more valuable.  It's a sort of perverse win-win: the government gets more control.  The connected get more money.  And the elite get to filter out the people from their urban playgrounds whom they deem as undesirable.

All for the good "of the planet," of course.

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