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Sam Hall Kaplan

Europe Cities Stand Up to Autos

July 20, 1986|SAM HALL KAPLAN

The only terrorist I observed in Europe during a two-month sojourn there were drivers; the only acts of terrorism--traffic.

And the traffic, brought on by increasing car ownership, threatens to hold hostage the architecture and ambiance of Europe's historic communities and city centers.

The sorry situation exists despite most cities having accessible and, generally, efficient mass transit systems, serving in particular center city areas. It seems the car culture there is as pervasive as it is here. Such is human nature, spurred on by multinational values.

Unlike here, however, many European communities have not surrendered to the car. After years of mimicking America's perverted planning practices and bulldozing, urban renewal efforts that threatened to lobotomize their cities, they are standing up to the terrorists.

To be sure, they have built freeways, ring roads and ugly parking garages, as we have. But with increasing conviction, and in increasing numbers, they are balking at the continued shredding of established neighborhoods and historic districts in the name of progress to accommodate traffic.

Under different names and different programs, and to varying degrees in various countries, the planning and design emphasis these post-urban renewal days in Western Europe is on human-scale, people-oriented, pedestrian-encouraging development.

Instead of cutting down trees and widening streets, the usual bureaucratic knee-jerk solution in Los Angeles, European cities are planting flower beds and widening sidewalks, installing benches, approving sidewalk cafes, encouraging vendors and generally trying to expand pedestrian zones and creating humane environments.

At the same time, particular care is being paid to preserve historic sites and buildings from the ravages of the automobile and tourist buses. The practice appears not just to be a case of preservation being good for tourism, and therefore business, but of genuine pride.

In select neighborhoods, streets and alleys are being made into landscaped cul de sacs, odd shaped lots into playgrounds and sitting areas, parking patterns are being changed to widen sidewalks, and everywhere landscaping is being encouraged. Making a difference is the concern for details, on a human scale, on a block-by-block basis.

Remarked a planner-politican in Barcelona, Spain: "We have had enough of grand plans, along with the thick reports and long speeches. It is time to go to work and look at each block, each district, and see what can be done simply to make life for residents there better."

As for the harsh realities of the increase in driving, planners have come to understand a basic traffic engineering principle that contends that traffic abhors a vacuum; that the easier you make driving through a particular area (as opposed to around it), the more cars it will attract.

Therefore, for example, even if an extra lane or two for cars could be created easily along, say, the Champs Elysees in Paris, traffic there would not necessarily be eased. And, of course, in the process, the magnificent scale and special ambiance of the grand boulevard would be irreparably harmed--just as sections of Wilshire Boulevard or San Vicente Boulevard would be if their center malls would be whittled away. (The latter from time to time has been proposed--in the name of progress, of course.)

The conclusion of the years of debate in European planning and political circles on how to resolve the war between cars and people in neighborhoods and city centers is that, given human nature and love of the automobile, a truce is impossible; that in areas of conflict, the pedestrian environment must have priority and vehicles the responsibilities.

This shift in policy favoring pedestrians has resulted in traffic jams on the edges of these districts approaching gridlock, with honking horns, fender benders, fights for parking spaces and chaos. For pedestrians, it is a wonderful comic opera; for drivers, frustration.

The reaction of officials, and residents, has been to generally shrug their shoulders, smile and, in effect, to say, "Too bad, if you don't like it, don't drive, or change your driving habits. But we are not going to knock down any more buildings, cut down any more trees, narrow any more sidewalks so you can drive a few miles faster."

Western European cities appear to be taking a tougher line in their fight against traffic terrorism, while not incidentally, better preserving what they have and creating much more inviting and livable communities. It is a dramatic and welcomed shift from what I had observed five years ago, when freeways, large urban renewal efforts in cities and antiseptically designed new communities in the suburbs--ideas that had been in vogue in the 1960s--were still being pursued.

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