The Cycling Professor on Twitter often says, regarding bicycle infrastructure, “we have no lack of space, just a lack of imagination.”
This is a refutation of the argument that we can’t build bike lanes because we have no space for them. Any street can be made bicycle friendly as long as we discard our assumption that public space’s prime directive is car transportation. The problem is that most of us have trouble imagining what that would be like, so it seems impossible.
The vision that created car culture
It sounds cliché, but imagination is powerful. A couple of generations ago, people imagined that all of our communities could be connected by giant highways. There was no space for that either, but they did it anyway. They tore down neighborhoods and forests to make way for interstates. Within a few decades, our entire culture was realigned in service of car infrastructure.
To people today who were born into this environment, this status quo may seem normal and natural, but it never was. It only exists now because our grandparents believed that the society of the future needed to be oriented around cars.
The problem with our current discourse
A lot of our transportation and urbanism conversation revolves around cities that have existed since before car culture began. Advocates talk about tearing down highways and restoring city streets to the human-centric environments of their past. That is a good conversation, but it doesn’t resonate everywhere. I’ve lived most of my life in the southeastern United States. Almost all of this region’s growth occurred after interstate expansion became the norm. The historic city centers here are hollow kernels amidst sprawling developments that were never walkable. To the generation that grew up here, a walkable and bikeable community seems like a fantasy world.
Urbanists use terms like “traditional development” to refer to the way towns were built throughout history until the suburban experiment. But I’m always cautious using those words. Where I’m from, words like “traditional,” “old school,” and “classic” evoke the opposite images. People think of highways, malls, and drive-thrus. The communities here are young, and the only “tradition” that ever existed for them is car culture. Human-centered design, including walkability and bicycle lanes, feels like a newfangled modern invention.
If you’re tempted to just sneer and dismiss the opinions of people who feel that, then I challenge you to put yourself in their shoes. Pick almost any populated area in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, or any other southeastern state. Drop yourself there (you can use Google Maps) and look around. Can you imagine what it would look like if it was walkable or bikeable? And if you are able to imagine that, do you think you can communicate that vision effectively to someone who lives there?
Imagining a future for people, not cars
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, just realistic. The obstacles we face from our culture are arguably even bigger than our engineering problems. Too often, urbanists only talk to other urbanists, and their message just flies past the rest of us. To make lasting change, we need to invest in the public’s imagination. People need to be able to imagine what a walkable and bikeable life is, and why they would want it.
In fact, I think that this is a great time to be more optimistic than ever. The past hundred years, even the past decade, has been filled with changes that seemed beyond the imagination to a majority of the population. No part of life has been safe from this effect: technological, political, social, and so on. People with great imaginative creativity, who are often a minority, have successfully made their visions into reality again and again. Our status quo is never as stable as we like to believe. We need to foster the imaginations of people who can create the change we need.