The idea of slowing top speeds on traffic in the city to reduce accidents and achieve other important systemic benefits would seem like a pretty sensible, straightforward and affordable thing to do. For a lot of reasons. Let’s have a look.
* You may also want to check out our Slow City 2017 Reader and Slow City: Start here.
Slow City – Notes for a Thinking Exercise
– Eric Britton, Institut Supérieur de Gestion, Paris, 6 June 2017
The core goal of a Slow City Speed transition project is to substantially and strategically reduce and rationalize top speeds of motorized traffic in the city, in a first instance targeting to reduce significantly the number and severity of accidents (As for example we can see in the numerous excellent Vision Zero projects that follow the original Swedish model — with the non-trivial difference is that while VZ sets out to cut back accidents radically (“No loss of life is acceptable”), SC targets specifically to reduce speeds. Similar certainly, but strategically not quite the same thing. In the event there is a great deal to be learned from the numerous experiences around the world with VZ since it first entered Swedish law back in 1997)
But beyond this initial goal such a Slow City program has all the advantages of an especially good idea, to the extent that it is: (a) a straightforward, non-abstract, easy-to-remember concept which can be readily understood by all. Moreover it is (b) entirely feasible since it has been achieved with success in different cities, (c) readily achievable and (d) affordable, . It also has one very strong advantages, and that is (e) that it is measurable (if you can’ measure it, you can’ manage it) and (f) the results will be immediately and palpably visible and open to public scrutiny.
There is also the considerable advantage that (g) this particular approach has a strong track record of successful on-street experience in a substantial cross-section of real-world cities. It is not theory. So we and all can readily see that managing such a transition is possible and there have been numerous examples of how this can be made to work at the level of the city or the neighborhood.
While there is ample evidence showing that this can be done., one lesson that we can take from this experience is that every city has to find its own path and unique combination of related policies and tools. There is no one-size-fits-all or off-the-shelf solutions to their problems. But the tools, practices, examples and proof are there and simply waiting to be put together by engaged and prepared policymakers, scientists and civil society in a coherent policy package for their city and its neighborhoods, with deep technical support and understood and supported by the people of the city.
Once a city, its administration and its citizens sign on for such a transition project, it sounds the beginning of a new era, a major change in ways of thinking, doing and behaving in the mobility sector,- -and in parallel with that in terms of the way in which the city values and treats its public space.
Such a policy signals a major pattern break and opens up a whole range of new, potentially linked range of sustainable transport innovations for the city which can become part of a far more extensive program. There are numerous advantages that accrue directly as a result of strategic, sharp speed reductions, and all the more so if the program is supported by additional cost-effective innovations and measures which can be brought into the overall policy package.
Let’s consider just one example of the potential for synergies:. What happens if we link the low-speed program with a complimentary effort which has as its target to achieve significant reductions in stop-and-start driving. Stop-and-start is the worst way to get around in a city. It lowers overall traffic efficiency and travel times at very high cost to the city in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, pavement ware, fuel consumption, vehicle wear and tear, and driver irritability and aggressiveness. So if we can find parallel measures (and they do exist) which help us to smooth the overall traffic flow, this will also have the advantage of reducing overall travel times and costs.
And that is just one example of the kind of synergies we can now build into a slow city program. There are many others which we and others shall be exploring in the weeks and months ahead. We haven’t even stated to talk about the role of walking, cycling, playing, wandering, shared mobility, taxis, Uber, security, equity, gender, noise, public health, obesity, respiratory infections, isolation, loneliness neighborly behaviour, shifts to electrification, parking, VKT, last kilometers, school trips, and more . . . but these are definitely part of the greater puzzle, challenge and opportunity.
The transition to a Slow City opens up opportunities which are not only numerous but also clearly related to the overall central thrust of the program — as opposed to the ad hoc policies currently practiced by most cities around the world. In a way the entire concept of moving over to a slower city provides a new and exciting — and above all consistent — framework for innovation and change in a way which is clear to all.
It is likewise important that the planning, decision and implementation process needs to be supported by first-class scientific analysis and in due course technical modeling and simulations in order to see where the change package is going to take the city and its people in their day-to-day lives.
“We are the inventors of a New World, my Sir”
To round out this first introduction, let us point you to a short film (90 seconds) recorded on the occasion of his first visit to Groningen by an old friend Robert Stussi, an eningeer and policy wonk who has worked in cities around the world on these issues for decades. The title of the video is “Homage to Hans Mondermann, himself an early hero in the Slow City revolution. (See http://wp.me/psKUY-4Su for more.)
As you viewed the film I very much hope you were able to make out the short welcoming message from a man in the street, the affable gentleman with his bicycle, whom we did not know but later learned is an architect living and practicing in Groningen. More than a decade later his words still ring very true. Let us repeat them here.
Hello. Welcome to Groningen?. The best town of the whole world. Because we are so far away from everything that we can be very creative and nobody cares about our creativity, because they don’t know about our creativity.
We are the inventors of a New World, my Sir. And statistically you can prove it.
Quite right. And statistically you can prove it.
Incidentally, for those of us who may tend to see cycling is a strategy appropriate for lower income people and places, the average income Groningen is close to €50,000 per capita. Just in case you were wondering about that.
Fast and Slow / Reflections
ABOUT “SPEED” (REMINDER): (a) Speed kills. (b) Speed (predicating distance) eats up public space. (c) Speed pollutes. (d) Speed is inefficient in a tight, populated urban geography. (e) Speed is by nature inequitable. (f) Speed separates people and communities. (g) Speed increases social indifference. (h) de facto increases distances (sprawl). But speed also has deep psychic roots in mankind, which we must understand if we are to make wise policies.
ABOUT “SLOW”: “Slow” is more often than not treated as a negative value: a slow child (not too bright), witless, obtuse, stupid, unperceptive, bovine, stolid, slow-witted, dull-witted, etc. . . . not necessarily despriptive of the qualities of a well working, many-layered 21st century mobility system
In the context explored here however “slow” means or suggests: gentle, unhurried, calm, leisurely, long-lasting, relaxed, unrushed, sedate, measured, peaceful, deliberate, careful, cautious, and more along those lines. (It is important to get this straight from the beginning, that is to say we explore it here as a positive human concept in a world all too often obsessed with speed at all costs.)
What is more important to you this morning? That your trip is fast? Or quick?
Selling your good idea
How easy is it to sell to the public and all the concerned actors this idea of a more effective and beneficial speed policy for the city? The answer is: it’s a real challenge!
No matter what and how strong the justifications – safety, public health, amenity, equity and many other — the hard fact is that people, all of us, are change-resistant and in particular when it comes to anything that is important in our day to day lives. And when it comes to cars, for those of us who have them at least, the resistance is visceral and often very strong. So, given this, we can be sure that there will be plenty of opposition to such a strong policy shift, and moreover that it will not go away at the first challenge. This needs to be brought into the core of the strategic plan.
How does one deal with this? First of all, you need your well thought out plan, reinforced by strong and science-supported arguments for both costs and benefits. And then, once you have your strong technical project in hand, comes the challenge of selling it and keeping it sold to the voting (and driving) public. This requires very strong media, communications and leadership skills. (One might even say exceptional media, communications and leadership skills). Good intentions will not be enough.
What you have to your advantage as an agent of change is that you know that there will inevitably be fierce resistance, — and if you have done your homework and have listened to enough people in your community, including those who object to the plan, you should be totally prepared to take into consideration, deal with and parry these objections and arguments. Not ignore them, but listen to the opponents with respect. After all you just may learn something from them. On the contrary if your tendency is to become impatient and close off the debate, the odds are you are going to run into some heavy traffic later and .quite possibly not reach your desired destination.
Better Choices (This is your key.)
The final bottom line of the program is that your plan must offer the great majority of people a wide variety of BETTER CHOICES. Nobody on this planet wants to trade down in terms of quality of life, and passively accept something that is going to leave them worse off. So it is your job as planners and policy makers to make that crystal clear to the voters and all involved.
So not every city, not every government is going to be able to make such a major policy, such a major idea change work, no matter how desirable it may be. And if the already hard enough first step is to develop a careful well thought out plan for moving ahead, the second and every bit as challenging is to have the foresight, tenacity and political skill to make it work. So good luck to you.
First quick references to get you started:
- Slow City on World Streets – https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/tag/slowcity
- Slow City on Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/SlowCity2020/
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About the editor:
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France
Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton