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Book Review: Reclaiming City Streets for People: Chaos or Quality of Life?

This book is available for free online in PDF format.

European Commission, Directorate-General for the Environment, 2004, 52 pages, ISBN 92-894-3478-3

By Stephan von Pohl

[This book review was published in: Car Busters, Jan-Mar 2005.]

Although this isn't exactly the kind of "book" you expect to read about in our Book Review section, it is surprisingly worthwhile and useful for carfree activists, and not just those in Europe.

Reclaiming City Streets is what I would call a layperson's guide to city repair - it is written and illustrated in a way that the average citizen can understand. It reminds one of another EU book published several years ago that also was a user-friendly guide to alternative transportation.

That book, Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities, was full of great ideas and examples of putting a bicycle infrastructure in place.

Like Cycling, this book is filled with positive examples of city buidling. One interesting thing is the title: has the EU been unconsciously influenced by the "reclaiming the streets" slogan? Whatever the case, someone over at DG Environment has got their head screwed on right, I guess.

Reclaiming city streets shows successful examples of cities removing cars from entire neighborhoods and (re) pedestrianising certain streets. The focus of this book is urban traffic, and effective ways for reducing car trips made within cities.

The book starts out with figures that shouldn't come as great shock but still are frightening. Every year, three million new cars are added to the car fleet in Europe. Total traffic in urban areas will grow by 40% between 1995 and 2030.

But that's just a little bit of negativity to remind us of how urgent the situation is. Despite steps in the right direction - especially in Western Europe, where pedestrian zones have been expanded, congestion changing is now a serious topic, and traffic calming, play streets and beautification programs are widely accepted - our cities are still overrun by cars and the situation will only get worse before it gets better.

The book is divided into four chapters: Identifying the Issues, Finding Solutions, Case Studies, and Guidelines. These are organized in such a manner as to give readers a clear understanding of the issues involved and what they can do in their own hometown. Common terms, such as "traffic evaporation" or "traffic induction" are explained comprehensibly.

The concept of traffic evaporation, in fact, is a major theme in this book. (For a comprehensive look at this phenomenon, see the study Evidence on the Effects of Road Capacity Reduction on Traffic Levels, by Phil Goodwin, Carmen Hass-Klau and Sally Cairns; we also discussed this topic in Car Busters #4.) Experience has shown that in many cases where traffic-limiting schemes have been implemented, some of the traffic that had been in the area before simply disappears ("evaporates") as drivers adjust their behavior.

If there is one conclusion to take away from this book it is that nay-sayers who predict traffic chaos once such schemes are implemented are usually wrong.

Newcomers to the carfree movement will find much useful information that they can use as an argument for limiting car use within cities. Noise, visual intrusion, accidents, loss of living space, economic efficiency are all negative effects that can be effectively used when making a proposal to your own town council or representative.

Perhaps best of all for convincing sceptics are the many visual aids found in the book. Many of us have seen posters showing, first a street full of cars, then the same number of people that were in the cars standing on an empty street. This is a very effective way of showing the visual impact cars have on our city streets.

Other good photographs show before-and-after images of city streets, such as Copenhagen's main street in 1962 (filled with cars) and 1992 (full of pedestrians and sidewalk cafes).

The case studies presented range from the simple (closure of the main street in Kojooni, Finland) in the visionary (the gradual pedestrianisation, over many years, of almost half of downtown Copenhagen).

In light of the fact that this book was published by the European Union and contains excellent statistics and concrete examples, it is a must for anyone looking to convince his or her elected representative that carfree solutions are not only in the realm of the "lunatic fringe." It is a must read for all town councillors and mayors as well.

A final note: A new European Commission was recently appointed, meaning that Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, under whose watch this book was published and who was truly open to promoting sound environmental planning, will no longer head the Directorate-General for the Environment. Let's hope that her replacement will continue on the path Wallstrom has forged.

The book can be ordered for free from the EU Directorate General for the Environment - info. At <europa.eu.int/comm/environment/pubs/urban.htm>. It is also available for free online in PDF format at: <europa.eu.int/comm/environment/pubs/pdf/streets_people.pdf>.

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