Contested Streets

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The history of the streets in an urban landscape seems to be intricately tied in with the automobile and we wouldn’t envision a road without cars plying on them. But frankly, it never was that way to begin with. Streets and roads have always existed as a means to travel but the total dominance of cars on them is a recent phenomenon. Contested Streets: Breaking New York City Gridlock, a documentary highlighting the history and culture of New York City examines the role of the street from the pre-automobile era to the current gridlocked scenario. A recent report suggested that the city will face an all-day rush hour by 2030.

The influx of people streaming into the city simply adds more and more vehicles onto the street and although New York has a fairly efficient public transit system, the number of cars has steadily increased.

The documentary compares the city of New York to its European counterparts like Paris, London, and Copenhagen. The intermingling of the street into the city’s social life is undeniable as it seamlessly weaves into the urban fabric without causing undue duress. Effective planning by segregating the streets for various modes of transportation like cars, buses, and even bicycles gives proportionate space and makes traffic more smooth. This eventually leads to less congestion, minimized noise and air pollution, and enriched commercial and retail interaction that eventually leads to a enhanced sense of place.

However, it is not as simple as adopting one approach over the other. Context and culture of a place is paramount in understanding the auto dependence of a city. People who have grown up driving around in cars and being distant from the community have developed a wider personal space bubble and forcing them to live densely and taking their cars away will not necessarily work. It might just lead to an infringement of individual rights and personal choice.

However, what might be feasible is attaching a economic disincentive while offering a enhanced public transit system as a likely alternative. American cities are famously sprawling and regions like Houston might be well beyond repair but still other cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Boston, community and public transit go hand in hand. A better understanding of the community in the context of its culture and community values will go a long way in proposing a solution for bettering the relationship between the people and their much-loved cars.

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