The City after the Automobile:
An Architect's Vision

188 pages,
ISBN: 0773729836

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Cars without Cars
by Ian Allaby

Since ancient times the city builder's sacred duty has been to wrest order from chaos. The architect Moshe Safdie takes up the torch here, to examine North America's most conspicuous urban form, the dispersed megacity. Such creatures typically consist of a towering historic nucleus surrounded by vast anarchic sprawl. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver fit the category as readily as Houston and Los Angeles.
The paramount catalyst of sprawl has been the private automobile, mindless slayer of the traditional close-knit urban streetscape. Car-oriented development consumes twice as much land as development geared to foot or mass transportation. The Main Street of suburbia is a roaring freeway lined with detached homes, scattered high-rises, monster malls, and oceans of parking. To restore order and aesthetics to urban form, Safdie proposes no less than a transportation revolution-but more of that later.
The dawn of mass automobile production early in this century inspired certain visionaries in rose-coloured glasses to develop an ideological basis for urban sprawl. For Le Corbusier, the car, by extending the practical distance between home and work, could improve the quality of life by transforming the crammed cesspot city of the Industrial Revolution into an airy plateau of stand-alone structures interlaced with greenbelts and exhilarating autoroutes. To Frank Lloyd Wright, the prophet of suburbia, the car ("the most democratic mode of locomotion", he asserted) heralded an egalitarian, decentralized society. The future city, Wright proclaimed, would be everywhere and nowhere.
Wright's view is fairly convincing today, when from our living rooms we live in virtual camaraderie with the entire global village. Who needs the city's hypertense warrens, cattle-car transit, and layers of human detritus? Safdie answers that the compact city economizes on land and energy use. Above all, the myriad encounters and collaborations of everyday city life grease the wheels of culture and commerce. The essence of the city is the bringing together of people and "as our roles in society become ever more specialized (and thus more isolating), our basic need for interaction increases." Safdie recoils at the prospect of a car-dependent future world that would be an endless no-man's-land connecting a series of privately controlled malls and gated communities. Sprawl portends the dissolution of civilization.
Of course, it's a fallacy to blame automobiles. One means to blame automobilists, who cling to their cursed chariots despite the expenses, gridlock, highway mayhem, and constant quests for parking. To be sure, the car mesmerizes us: the car as trophy, raiment, armour, rocket, theoretical liberty to split for the coast. For many people the car has also become a practical necessity. With workplace here, home there, shops elsewhere, "we can no longer conform our individual paths of travel to the fixed lines of mass transit." As cars shaped the city, says Safdie, the city is now shaped to require cars.
There are almost six billion humans on this planet, and more coming. Megacities spread everywhere, devouring field and dale, farm and village. Tokyo leads with twenty-seven million people. Mexico City is catching up. Their sprawl zones can stretch a hundred kilometres. Congested, polluted, they are ecological basket cases. Safdie sees it as his moral duty to salvage something of the traditional human-scale city. Architects must "intervene in search of a more humane, spiritually uplifting, and unoppressive environment."
Problem is, how can we zap the private car so that vast-hearted architects can design edifying cities to preserve humanity through the approaching mega-madness?
Eureka! How about a time-shared publicly-owned electric "utility car" so people won't need their own cars? Call it a U-car, give it some pizazz. You come along, stick your plastic card in the starter slot, and away you go. Dump the U-car at a depot where you arrive, let someone else take it. Because of sharing, fewer vehicles are needed. Your cost per kilometre is low. No worries about maintenance or parking. And since idle U-cars park in tight ranks like shopping carts, you just grab one off the head of the line; car depots demand far less space than private cars. Imagine! There could be Camry U-cars, Lamborghini U-cars. "Who has not fantasized about owning a whole fleet of different vehicles to indulge his or her daily moods?"
There are wrinkles to iron out. How does the system reconcile surplus U-cars downtown and shortages uptown? How do you summon a U-car to your door in the morning? Electronic guidance, maybe. What if it doesn't show up? Finally, do people want a shared car? Taxis and rental cars fulfill the U-car's functions today without threatening the private car. But in a world short of space and resources Safdie contends we have little choice. It's U-car or no car.
Okay, fine. Now Safdie can construct his ideal twenty-first century city region. It turns out to be like today's megalopolis except much better. The suburbs remain; after all, many people covet a detached home and big sky. But Safdie's burbs are verdant and aesthetic, thanks to the invention of the eco-friendly space-saving U-car. When the suburbanites grow restless, they can zip over to one of the high-density concentrations ("interactive centres", Safdie dubs them in socio-architectural-speak) that sprout at pre-meditated points throughout the region. Unlike the haphazard hubs dotting today's suburbs, Safdie's sub-cities are places of panache, engineered "to foster the spontaneous encounters so central to urban life".
Each sub-city contributes its special charisma to the mega-urban experience, yet each obeys the same plan: long and slender, built along a car-free main street stretching a mile or more under a retractable glass roof. You debark from a train or U-car at gates at either end. Inside, without fear of traffic, you stroll through a grand corridor vibrant with shops and theatres and groovy apartments. Or you hitch a ride on a glass-encased conveyor belt that slides along the fašades.
It's like a mega Eaton Centre. As Safdie argues that the shopping mall should be more like a traditional city street, paved with stone, integrating schools and libraries, he also believes a city should be more like a mall. Still, what would the reality be? A steamy main street packed with wretched hordes under a malfunctioning, dripping roof?
A friend tells me this book has soared to the top of the half-price shelves already. Actually, it deserves better. True, Safdie's preoccupation with the U.S. scene shifts his discourse somewhat off-centre. When he laments the "white flight" to the suburbs to escape racial discord in "our ravaged inner cities", he's not describing us-not yet. Or not as much. Still, in the end Safdie delivers a stimulating read that reveals some issues that thinking architects wrestle with as they build the man-made world.
Aspects of Safdie's vision may come true. Though the U-cars are half-baked, some day there may be something fully baked: rentable electric buggies, I expect, plying their course inside tomorrow's mega-plexes and along the indoor main streets (alas, not vehicle-free after all) of tomorrow's gated, leaky-roofed sub-cities.

 Ian Allaby is a freelance writer with a particular interest in transportation.


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