Why, as a non-driver, I wish the car all the best

An aerial view of traffic on the Curling Freeways outside of Los Angeles
Heavy traffic at the intersection of the Interstate 10 and 110 freeways near downtown Los Angeles © Getty Images

A revelation of life in Los Angeles for some time was the beauty of the smog. It softens and diffuses sunlight, making a view of the city from a Silver Lake terrace or a rooftop in Koreatown more like an impressionist painting than a photograph. How I got traffic on Interstate 10 to keep those nasty particulate matter going.

I’ve never sat behind a wheel, not even for a driving lesson. My interest in cars doesn’t extend beyond noticing their increasingly generic design. (What do manufacturers have against right angles?) I fit the profile of someone who would support bike lanes and pedestrian supremacy: the world as Copenhagen. Then why not me? The Monet Effect of Southern California’s smog cannot account for such high hopes for cars surviving in the urbanized world.

It wasn’t until lockdown that I realized how much of a city’s energy comes from traffic. The environmental noise, the compaction of space, even the trace element of danger: all contribute to the storm. Carless streets are well suited as enclaves. Let them set the tone of a city and the effect is sluggish. Don’t be Houston, a place of deep (and bold cuisine) let down by its war on walkers. But don’t be a campus either.

Last month I had an architect friend show me the developments in and around Battersea Power Station while fighting my prejudice against SW postcodes. This giant upside down pool table is almost grand now. The adjoining apartments and shops are beautiful in a glassy way. Green space rolls down to the river. None other than the US government has moved its embassy nearby from stately Mayfair. So why is it so deadly? No through traffic. Actually only a few cars. This is a campus. King’s Cross never-ending regeneration is a better version of the same problem. Note which companies are headquartered in these locations. Google, Facebook, Apple: Members of an industry whose home, or at least its cradle, is green Santa Clara County.

Unless a city is borderline uninhabitable, I doubt its size. So write me off as a zealot on these things. Just don’t assume that the average city dweller will enjoy the post-car site much more. guess not she Will. What people like and dislike about cities are more interconnected, even interdependent, than they realize. This liberating anonymity emerges from the noise and tumult. Stress creates a feeling of being the center of things. In August Bangkok traffic made me nearly two hours late for dinner with a revered novelist. And still the city holds London and Paris in the eye as one of the top three most visited in the world. People don’t go for traffic, no. But they partially go for the energy, the 24-hour roar of the place. And the traffic is not irrelevant.

It’s closer to home where my argument will be tested. Anne Hidalgo’s Paris strategically turns against the car. Maybe their plan stays on the right page. The risk is that it suggests a city accepting its long-term destiny as a more diverse Vienna. There is a kind of urbanism designed by and for people who might be happier in the countryside. Journalist Matthew Parris has identified support for the streetcar as a key feature. Bike lanes are another. Planners and builders rely on a village atmosphere. But imagine the truest urban villages, from Echo Park to Victoria Park. How many are carless?

Remember that we have lived through more than one type of “energy crisis” in recent years. In the spirit of pace, not fuel, lockdown drained cities of energy until they were medieval in their silence. It is flattering to attribute last year’s resurgence to human traffic alone. It’s more correct to give the cars next to us their share. Lamb’s Conduit Street is a gem. A whole downtown as if it felt static and spooky. As General Secretary of the Union of Flaneurs and Flaneuses, I believe that traffic is part of the sensory experience of a stroll through the city. Given the plight of city drivers, I get more out of the car than they do.


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Adam Bradshaw

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