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What Did We Learn from the Pope Ride?

Photo from Pope Ride Facebook page

During this weekend’s Papal visit, Philadelphians got a taste of what life could be like without cars. Kids played freely on the streets, bikers rode without worrying about cars, and the city had a block party-type feel to it. Was this utopia for Philadelphians? I’m not so sure.

I took part in the Pope Ride on Saturday with about 3,000 other riders. It was a fun way to celebrate the closed roads and the Pope’s visit. A lot like a snow day but one where you could miraculously move around everywhere.

This ride – and the feel of the car-free streets – made some ponder what it would be like to take back our city from cars and traffic.

Inga Saffron’s article on Philly.com says, “From the moment the fences went up this week it was as if we had won a long war we didn’t know we were fighting. Liberated from the tyranny of traffic, pedestrians walked their dogs in the roadway. Bicyclists and skateboarders traveled in the wrong direction just for the thrill of going against the grain. People played touch football on Arch Street and restaurants on Callowhill set up cafe tables set up tables in the street. The streets were ours and it felt like we were having a giant citywide block party.” She went on to suggest that permanently shutting off car traffic in parts of Center City might be a good idea.

I think that oversimplifies what constitutes a strong urban center.

Cars and cities can live together as long as the cars don’t take over. Great cities are made by being inclusive: they accommodate all types and all modes—even the ones we don’t like. The more activity packed into a block, the more active it gets. Beyond that, cars can serve more than one purpose in a city. Parked on the street, for example, they’re great buffers between pedestrians and traffic. And the knowledge that you can take your car into town, even if it’s impractical, is important for Americans. It’s a problem if the streets are sized to make everything easy for cars, for there soon is no active city to visit. It’s a huge step, though, from not pandering to cars to banning them altogether.

I ran into Inga, who’s a neighbor, on the ride, and she asked me if I thought the event pointed the way to a carless city. I was quoted in in her article as saying the Pope Ride looked “like a regular commuting day in Copenhagen.” What I was getting at is that in Copenhagen vast numbers of people get around on bikes. However, Copenhagen has developed a highly functional, healthy balance between transit, cars, bikes, and pedestrians, in a way that Americans, even in Philadelphia, aren’t quite up to yet. It’s certainly true that Copenhagen, like many European cities (Bologna and Seville come to mind), has healthy pedestrian-only shopping streets. But because Americans don’t shop, commune, commute or recreate like Europeans, we can’t expect to just import the physical idea and expect it to work.

Letting the automobile dictate urban form is indisputably a bad idea, but I also believe it’s poor urban planning to ban all cars. We surely know that here in Philadelphia, because we already tried it. Inga’s post mentioned, but significantly downplayed, the Chestnut Street Transitway disaster. We shouldn’t understate the problems it created: Chestnut Street was essentially killed by access strangulation. By creating the perception that access to retail was restricted, the Chestnut Street mall drove retailers away in droves, and when the retail left, the street crashed. It is just now recovering, more than fifteen years after the access restrictions were dismantled.

It’s not just about how you get around, it’s also about the delicate interplay between ALL of the things that happen in a healthy city. In America, anyway, it turns out that vehicular access is part of the magic mix that makes a street work.

Alan Razak is a Principal at AthenianRazak.