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Legpower aloft

If we were serious about getting the best value from our expensive paved surfaces, we would rethink crossroads.

Using timelapse photography, the 1982 movie Koyaanisqatsi pasted to my awareness the image of city traffic in peristaltic motion at stoplights.

The freeway solution of elevated crossings is too cumbersome and expensive to implement for most city intersections. But in rush hour, beyond the probably unavoidable delays for crossing motor streams, whole lanes of traffic a block long are also forced to wait time after time for the slowest actor in the flow to walk across the street before a driver can make the turn. Here peristalsis succumbs to constipation….

The pedestrian experience itself is also hardly optimal. Walking downtown entails endless tiresome stop-and-go, and the conscientious transit rider routinely faces the choice between jaywalking or missing the bus–perhaps no small matter going to work in traffic, or late at night on a thinned-down Metro timetable.

And as someone who uses all modes of travel, the contemporary drama around cycling is the most pathetic. Here the customary practice holds sway–finetune the mutual blame-structure rather than seek a design solution.

I do appreciate the effort put into fighting for precious maintenance dollars to address an often disregarded problem. But when cycling, I don’t experience highway paint as much of a solution. Since it now concentrates nails and broken glass into bike lanes, it’s not clear that it’s going to protect me from drunks and assholes, nevermind the occasional psychopath. And I still don’t get there much faster.

Memory, accurate or not, gives me the germ of a design principle.

In my early teens going every term to boarding school, I had a long wait between trains in Chester. Over half a century later the picture in my mind of the city center is of a crossroads where four covered bridges connected elevated shopping walkways on both sides of the two intersecting streets.

There is general agreement now that the only way to preserve access to open space is to increase urban density. But as our buildings rise, and major roadways (also to some extent light rail) take the high road across conflict, all footpowered motion must still share the valuable rightofway with those motorwheeled payloads that still truly need direct groundlevel support. Massive concrete structures and astronomical budgets are necessary to elevate freightways. But pleasant, publicly owned, all-hours elevated walking environments downtown, and intelligently-conceived, contour-following unstoppered cross-town cycletracks (spokeways?) could be built above them for relatively asteroidal cost.

I saw the pedestrian segment of this partly implemented in an informal mall in China’s Dujianyang, rebuilt after the dreadful Sichuan earthquake. Nobody seemed to have any difficulty walking and shopping in a fairly-sheltered openair space with unenclosed flybridges at second floor level.

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I also treasure the memory of an old and still-vibrant streetscape nearby, with children playing between the sidewalk and the roadway in a shallow stream from the corralled river that gives the city its fame.

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And a lot more people would ride bikes and reduce congestion, if it were easier, safer, quicker, less aggravating and more practical with a payload.

What if Seattle’s now-doomed Alaskan Way viaduct could be replaced with an elegant cycle- and walkway, the length of the waterfront, at about the current elevation, restoring the wonderful view that a driver currently dare not spare the attention to enjoy? It might even divert a little congestion from around Greenlake….

From the air, cities have an odd resemblance to a (now old-fashioned!) computer tower with its cover off. One sees regular, if oddly patterned mostly rectilinear elements rising from a flat surface–the motherboard. This base, a printed-circuit board or PCB, was an imaginative advance from the old aluminum chassis with wired components of my boyhood. The surfaces of its insulating laminate have etched and deposited metal patterns to replace wires. Now multiple customised circuits are built into the interior of the board: a casual Google search now pulls up specs of from 1 to 12 bus layers.

When will cities–more precisely our idea of cities–abandon congestion and the feeding of courts, ERs, and morgues to follow hightech and properly match transportation infrastructure to their own massive increase in density?

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