Changing cities – brick by brick

(Warning: spoilers ahead) At first, I was a bit disappointed. Watching the opening sequences of the new Lego Movie, with the mammoth Bricksburg Freeway snaking through the city and tall Corbusier-style skyscrapers looming over the Lego-scape, it is truly an impressive creation. However, it reinforces decades-old ideas about urbanism which are proving to be automobile-centric, harmful to pedestrians, and unsustainable. Is this truly a vision of an utopian city?

There is hope however, in that our ordinary hero Emmett takes the time to greet his neighbours on his way out of his apartment, and the city appears to be bustling with activity – people of all demographics walking throughout the downtown to various shops and places of work, reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet”. The elevated rail mass transit system (all jokes about monorails aside), is bursting with people. And even the traffic on the congested roads and freeways is flowing (perhaps they have successfully implemented congestion pricing in Lego-land).

There were some points glossed over, of course. Emmett is inexplicably able to easily find a curbside parking space right near his place of work (and does not appear to pay for it), which would be a certain fantasy in such a busy city. Sprawling surface parking lots and imposing parking garages, so common in automobile-dependent cities such as Bricksburg appears to be, are conspicuously absent. And none of the Lego vehicles run on fossil fuels, or generate air pollution.

As the movie nears its conclusion, a possible explanation appears. Bricksburg exists in our human world, where a father has created it as the “perfect” city, created according to the provided instructions and not to be altered in any way. His son mixes and matches different Lego sets, develops characters, and allows creative, spontaneous interaction and exploration which is utterly at odds with the static, prescribed nature of the existing Lego sets.

It reinforces the struggle between old, conservative ideals of the city as a place for automobiles and massive buildings and infrastructure, contrasted with a progressive vision of the city as a creative space primarily intended for people. As the father eventually embraces the more progressive, creative ways of his son, there is a tacit acceptance of a more enlightened style of urbanism (albeit in just one dimension: people-centred).

And given the movie’s underlying thematic importance of “thinking for yourself”, perhaps this is an encouraging sign that regardless of our preconceptions, we can move toward exploring livelier, more progressive, and healthier cities.

Peak car: where are we moving to?

Like a sleek convertible cresting a windy mountain pass and carrying its momentum down the other side, so goes the overall trend in driving. Over the last decade, at least in North America, people are driving less. Building throughout the 1990s to a peak in the mid-2000s, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has maxed out and is decreasing, at different rates depending on demographics and locations. Some people are driving shorter distances, some are substituting car trips for other modes, and some are not driving at all.

What is the driving force behind this peak, and subsequent reduction in driving? Moreover, is it a good thing?

There are several reasons, depending on where you live and how old you are. In vibrant, fast-growing cities such as Vancouver, local policy favours building infrastructure and developments for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit ahead of motor vehicles. Incredibly, despite some antagonism towards cyclists and other “alternative” modes, Vancouver is a success story. ¬†Although Vancouver’s population has grown considerably over the past two decades, it is the only city in Canada where the average car commuting time has not increased over the same time period. Vancouverites (motorists included) are able to move around as efficiently, and often moreso, than in the early 90s.

What about age? Younger demographics (16-24) today are less likely to hold a driver’s license than in previous generations. Cost is a consideration: vehicles are more expensive to maintain and operate now, and younger peoples’ incomes are stagnant or decreasing, compared to previous generations. While some young people may choose to live in transit-oriented areas (which are often also amenable to cycling and walking) for environmental reasons, there are also social benefits, as these areas have an abundance of cafes, bars, restaurants, parks and other areas for socializing.

This reduction in driving is beneficial in many ways. Alternative modes of transportation (transit, cycling, walking) consume less energy and are more environmentally sustainable (both from reduced fuel use and more dense development). They also increase opportunities for exercise and social interaction. After all, it’s much easier to chat with your neighbours when you’re on the bus or walking around, than when you’re whipping past in a car.

And there’s an even broader implication: although people are driving less overall, they are still able to go about their daily lives – work, chores and leisure – much as they did before cars became widespread in the post-WWII era.

Shouldn’t the goal be to allow people to move around freely, whether they choose to use a car or not? After all, prioritizing transit is “not about making it hard to drive, but about giving people options other than driving their car.”¬†Shouldn’t people feel empowered to use the mode that best suits their needs, rather than feeling compelled to drive? Shouldn’t we be aiming to move people, rather than cars?