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Are Slower Cities Better for Bikers, the Air, and Our Mental Health?

Cities around the world are considering radical new speed limits on cars -- slowing down in the name of progress.
 
 
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This story originally appeared at Salon.

In Hollywood movies, the cities of the future have speeding monorails and flying cars, everyone careening toward their destination at a zillion miles per hour. (The future always looks surprisingly like “The Jetsons,” which turns 50 next year.)

It makes for great CGI. But does it make for a great city? For generations, velocity has defined the urban experience: screeching subways, maniacal taxis, hustling crowds. Life in the fast lane. A New York minute is no minute at all. Even as our roads become clogged with traffic, we think of cities as most city-like when they move at a blur.

But look around (if you have a second) and you might notice that a lot of the new ideas seeping into cities are aimed not at making them faster, but slowing them down. The buzziest mode of transport now is a bicycle. Streetcars, a pokey throwback, are  returning. Walkable neighborhoods, traffic-calming measures and  “slow zones” are catching on, and  freeways are being torn down and replaced with lower-speed boulevards. Even things like sit-down pedestrian plazas and pop-up cafes seem to indicate a desire to slacken the pace.

Slower cities have a lot to recommend them. “It’s not just a road safety issue,” says Rod King, the creator of  “20′s Plenty for Us,” a movement to reduce London’s speed limit to 20 miles per hour. “There are a lot of peripheral advantages to slowing down traffic.” The advantages include increased biking because roads aren’t so scary, the need for less infrastructure like speed bumps, and better air quality (racing from one traffic light to the next burns more fuel). Add in the public-safety benefits of slower cars (which are hard to overstate — a few extra miles per hour can literally kill) and putting on the brakes starts to look like a no-brainer.

For this reason, speed may be the next battleground for urban streets. Advocates for safer, more walkable and bikable cities have spent the last decade agitating largely for infrastructure: bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, curb bulb-outs and other concrete improvements. Now, they say, the fight is turning to “enforcement” — a demand for cities to crack down on dangerous driving.

Such efforts are already getting results.  Seattle’s mayor wants a 20 mile-per-hour speed limit on some city streets. Last month, Washington, D.C., was  talking about 15. Advocates are starting to pressure police to ticket urban speeders. There’s a growing awareness that cars could be a  bigger urban menace than guns. (In a future column, we’ll look at the push to get tough on drivers who kill pedestrians.)

But the slow-city movement  isn’t just about cars, nor is it always about safety. There’s a growing sense that getting around — even if it is slower — can become a joy in itself.

The streetcar resurgence is a prime example. Streetcars are sometimes slower than the bus lines they replace (some of them aren’t much faster than walking) and yet they’re wildly popular. “There are two things people say about the streetcar” in Portland, Ore., says Michael Andersen, creator of the publication Portland Afoot. “One is, ‘The streetcar is  soooo sloooow.’ And the other is, ‘I  loooove the streetcar.’”

The benefits and drawbacks of slow-mo transit have become a hot topic among planning geeks. In 2008, urbanist Patrick M. Condon  asserted that slow streetcars would be better for Vancouver than faster rapid transit. His argument: “A high-speed system is best if the main intention is to move riders quickly from one side of the region to the other. Lower operational speeds are better if your intention is to best serve city districts with easy access within them …” In other words, in dense urban neighborhoods, slower transit with more places to hop on and off can be more useful than a fast subway that makes a single stop.

 
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