Ulrich Franzen’s Street: Radical Urban Planning from 1969

Watch the whole thing. Or at least the first 12 minutes. Its worth it. Fascinating. It is so familiar that I feel like I was shown this in grade school… alongside Powers of Ten.

Some things have changed since Ulrich Franzen made it: waterfronts are now viewed as more precious potential parks than he views the street. Putting a two mile long building on any waterfront would not work these days. Also, his vision of shared cars is starting to come true, with shared rentable cars now available in most cities, and bicycle share programs across Europe and heading stateside. I wondered if today’s political and economic culture could handle he importance and respond to the difficulty of such massive change; a review of Boston’s tragically executed and financially draining Big Dig would be a good case study in what can go wrong. All that said, I felt there were two things missing: Subways and Bicycles.

He never addresses subways: do we keep them, do we make more, are they better or worse than busses (electric or otherwise)? Which really is a question of fixed route transportation: you can put a bus in anywhere you want when you need it, but you can’t just add or take away a subway. There are vast swaths of Brooklyn and Queens that are underserved by Subways because in the first half of the 20th Century, either no one lived there because they were factories and are now living lofts, or (I would guess) the people that lived their lacked the political or economic power to bring the subway closer to them.

The other absence is any discussion of the bicycle. And while the bicycle is not the cure-all, for every transportation woe, having spent time in cities like Amsterdam, Portland, and even Shanghai & Beijing, it is clearly a hugely important part of removing strain on existing private and public infrastructure.

Just for comparison look at Shenzhen. Located just north of China’s border with Hong Kong, Shenzhen was designated China’s first Special Economic Zone roughly 30 years ago. At the time, it was rice patties. Now it is a city with the same population as New York City. It is the location one of the countries two stock exchanges, has remarkable skyscrapers, but has almost no urban planning to speak of. Much of the development has been dictated by the swaths of land set aside for corporate factories made possible by huge foreign investment. A subway was opened sometime in the last ten years, and it is in the process of being expanded. But it is one line. Running east to west. And only covers a small percentage of the width of the city. Running above this subway from the water to the city center is the main thoroughfare. When I visited we drove in my host’s car through this mostly-stoplight-free congested two lane road at a mere 25 MPH; all because of congestion, a disproportionate number of accidents by new drivers, and a lack of any other east west transportation mode. In Shenzhen new wealth lead to massive purchase of cars by first time drivers as a proud sign of their rise into economic power. At the time I was there, Shenzheners were purchasing 200,000 new cars per year. All this in a city of roughly 10 million. It corresponds with a Los Angeles like breakdown of the transportation system.

Inversely, the much much older Shanghai and Beijing have established subway systems, and a long standing bicycle culture. Despite being much larger cities traffic moves much faster, even though more people moving from one place to another. The citizens of Shenzhen do not commute far, as much of Shenzhen is made up of large and small factories that usually contain their own workers housing, which ranges from formal dormitory style high rises, to informal ramshackle wooden bunk beds in unlit rooms divided by curtains.

All this always interests me, but I am especially interested in these questions right now, as I am about to participate in the New Amsterdam Bike Slam a Transportation Alternatives co-sponsored bike related three think-tank as poetry-slam. I’ll be on one team, and some of the participants are listed here.

And while the focus of this session is on bikes in the harbor area (something dear to my heart as I commute to teach at the College of Staten Island/CUNY by bike and ferry), seeing (or maybe re-seeing) Franzen’s film has spurred my thinking in a different direction.

(via Urban Omnibus)