Happy City: When Participatory Democracy Works

In the late spring of 2012 the diligent editor of World Streets was visited by a young Canadian writer who announced that he was working on a book about “Happy Cities”, and in this context wanted to talk  about my experience in and thoughts on the happiness arena, with particular attention to issues concerning ordinary people, people like Thee and Me in our day-to-day lives: issues of mobility and public space, needs meet and unmet, time and distance, behavior and equity,  economy and democracy . . .  in Paris and around the world. Why not?  Maybe I will learn something from him.

velib-no-brainerWe agreed that I might be able to make some small contributions, subsequent to which Charles Montgomery’s grilling interrogation lasted a full day and was followed by extensive correspondence over the course of the next year.  Toward the end of 2013 “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design” was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. One year later the 368 page book has just appeared in an affordable paperback edition, and is now widely available in bookshops, and of course the Internet. (PS. Support your local bookshop, it is a happier experience!) We thank the author and the publisher for permission to share the following extracts with our readers to celebrate the low-cost editions now available.

The following excerpt has been taken from his Chapter 9, entitled  “Freedom”. (We’ll come to that in a note at the end of this chapter.)

 Happy City: Transforming Our Lives for Urban Design

 –  Charles Montgomery

Chapter 8: Freedom

 

Possession is becoming progressively burdensome and wasteful and therefore obsolete. — Bucktminster Fuller, 1969

In 1969 a consortium of European industrial interests charged a young American economist with figuring out how people would move through cities in the future. There was a lot of money to be made by whoever could divine the single technology most likely to capture the market in the coming decades. It was the era of James Bond gadgets and the Apollo Mission. Everyone was sure that some fabulous new machine would emerge to change everything. Eric Britton dove into the task. He gave his clients a thorough accounting of even the most fantastical possibilities. He keeps the faded report on a shelf in his apartment, a few blocks from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris’s Sixth arrondis­sement.

In hundreds of tables, Britton soberly catalogued and assessed the capacity, the energy consumption, environmental impacts (very roughly) and the maximum range of freight monorails, mini-monorails, carveyor belts, hydrofoils, multiple-speed moving platforms and telecanapes, trains that slowed for boarding without coming to a complete stop. He estimated the congestion that might be caused by passenger bunching on high-speed walkways, and the energy required for magnetic suspension. He rated technolo­gies that seemed fantastical at the time, only to reemerge decades later, such as hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel cells.

Britton was swept up in the excitement of the possibilities, but as he shared his dossier of futurist ideas with the people who were actu­ally trying to solve the problems of cities in both the rich and developing world, he was forced to wipe the stardust from his eyes.

‘I realized that none of these technologies was going to solve the problems of cities, not in Europe, not in the USA, nor anywhere else in the world’. Britton told me as he and I perused the reports in his Paris apartment. The future was not going to be defined by some kind of deus ex machina Big Bang solution to all of our problems, but rather by step-by-step innovations and improvements applied to the tools we already had to work with.

‘What heteroscedasticity tells us is that everything in cities is going to be a little bit complicated, a bit chaotic,’ said Britton. `So the first thing you have to do is say, “Okay, I gotta be able to deal with chaos. There is no single answer to any problem in the city. The solution comes from a multiplicity of answers.’

Britton’s clients were surprised. In the age of the Jetsons, it was unfashionable to suggest that after a couple of generations, people would still be getting around pretty much the same way they had since the dawn of the internal combustion engine, using trains, buses, cars, bicycles, motorcycles and, as always, their feet. But history has proved him right. After the decades-long devilishly costly experiment with automo­biles as the universal answer for all, governments simply do not have the money to completely transform urban infrastructure to suit any one radically new technology.

Moreover through this process Britton came to realize that the question of mobility was not merely a matter of technology or economics, but of culture and psychology, and of the vast variation in our preferences.

To depend on just one technology for urban mobility would be to deny human nature itself. Each of us has a unique set of abilities, weaknesses and desires. Each of us is compelled and thrilled by a unique set of sensations. Every trip demands a unique solution.

Britton likes to begin his journeys around Paris with a stroll down the glorious formal parterre of the nearby Luxembourg Gardens, where he can feel the bone-coloured gravel crunching under his brown Rockports and cast his gaze on the patch of grass where he secretly buried his late mother’s ashes a decade ago. His neighbour prefers just to hop in a car and go. Another prefers to dash straight to the Metro. Another carries an iron bicycle down to the street, but walks it for a block before mounting it.

Each need, each journey, each aspiration, distinct. This, says Britton, illustrates the essential condition of society and of cities. We are all much more unique in our preferences than planners acknowledge.

‘You may think that French people are very different from Americans. But if you look at statistics of their choices and preferences, you see that French people are more different from each other than they are from Americans:

The word for this condition, he proposes, is heteroscedasticity. It suggests that the bigger the size of any group, the harder it is to predict the variation in its characteristics or to find one solution to a problem involving huge numbers of independent variables and actors.

‘What heteroscedasticity tells us is that everything in cities is going to be a little bit complicated, a bit chaotic,’ said Britton. `So the first thing you have to do is say, “Okay, I gotta be able to deal with chaos. There is no single answer to any problem in the city. The solution comes from a multiplicity of answers.”‘

It helps to compare cities and their transportation systems to forests. Rich, diverse ecosystems are always healthier and more resilient than monocultures. Just as a mixed forest can better survive a beetle infestation than a tree farm consisting of one variety of pine, a city that enables endless combinations of mobility will be much more resilient than a city that organizes itself around just one way of moving.

It will adjust more easily to shifts in economics, human taste and energy supply. It will fill in the blanks that master planners cannot see within the tangle of the complex urban system. It will make the most of technologies that can solve the problems particular to cities: tight spaces, congested streets and, most of all, people with wildly varying preferences.

Cities should strive to embrace complexity, not just in transportation systems but in human experience, says Britton. He advises cities and corporations to abandon “Old Mobility”, a system rigidly organized entirely around one way of moving, and embrace New Mobility, radically different transportation paradigm and future in which we would all be free to move in the greatest variety of ways.

`We all know Old Mobility; Britton said. ‘It’s you sitting in your car, stuck in traffic. It’s you driving around for hours, searching for a parking spot. Old Mobility is you devoting a fifth of your income to your car and a good chunk of your tax dollars to road improvements, even as the system performs worse every year. Old Mobility is also the only choice of the fifty-five-year-old maid with a bad leg, waiting in the rain for a bus that she can’t be certain will come. It’s your kids not being able to walk or bike to school. New Mobility, on the other hand, is freedom distilled.’

Britton is one of those people whose ideas may seem too theoretical,too pie-in-the-sky to matter, until suddenly they change the world. In 1994, for example, frustrated with planners’ myopic view of mobility, he proposed a modest experiment in which cities would simply aban­don cars for a single day each year. It would be a way to break old patterns of thinking about streets. ‘A collective learning experience,’ is how Britton framed the proposal.  And thus began the great experiment of Car Free Days, starting with the first three city projects just months after the EU conference in Toledo Spain, during which he set out the proposed approach in a keynote speech entitled “Car Free Days 2014:  A breakthrough strategy for reducing car dependence in cities.  The first CFD was organised by the City of Reykjavik in Iceland, followed in short order by Car Free Days in Bath, UK, and La Rochelle in France.  Three very different models had now been established, and in less than a year the floodgates were already opening.

He’s the one who worked with Mayor Enrique Peñalosa to organize and pull off the first big-city car-free day in Bogotá on the first Thursday of February in 2000: Día sin coches. On that day some 850,000 cars were kept in the garages while the people of Bogotá flowed onto the streets to claim them for pedestrians, cyclists, unencumbered public transport, while adults stroll and talk and children play safely in the street.  And ever since then on every first Thursday of February each year since 2000, the Bogotá car free day is repeated.  It has, no less, become part of the city’s culture.

Since then thousands  of  cities around the world have followed suit. As with the Ciclovia, each city that tries the experiment learns that streets can serve many more purposes than once imagined. People adjust. They find other ways to move. They surprise themselves.  As Britton put it: ‘Hey, people are smart’.

 

OWNERSHIP: IT’S YOUR SYSTEM

But merely banning cars, Britton admits, is just as simplistic as depending on them entirely. His theory of freedom is better embodied in a proposal he made to the French Ministry of Environment in the mid 197os. At the time, moving by transit in Paris was a bureau­cratic nightmare: you had to purchase as many as five different tickets simply to get across town. So few people took buses in that the city was considering abandoning the service. Britton suggested in a study carried out for the then-new Ministry of Environment under the title «Points de pression pour la gestion de l’environnement urbaine» (Pressure points for Urban Environmental Management),  giving everyone in the city a magic card that would automatically allow them passage on the Metro, trains and buses. Just as proponents of Motordom once worked to reduce the friction of city roads that slowed cars down in the 1920s, Britton reasoned that by reducing friction and hassle, public transit would become a little more like driving, hop in and hop out.

Within a couple of years, Paris and many other French cities introduced the Carte Orange, a combination transit pass and identity card that gave its holder unlimited access to all of the city’s public transportation for a flat monthly rate. The system did not make rides much faster or cheaper, but it chipped away at the anxiety and effort associated with each transit trip. No more fumbling for change or waiting in line for surly ticket agents. Within a year, bus ridership jumped by 40 per cent.

Gradually, the card underwent a series of dynamic upgrades, evolving by 2008 into the Navigo pass, a chip-embedded ID card. With a wave of your Navigo card over an electronic reader, you can ride any Metro, bus, airport shuttle, regional train, express train or tram in the city.

‘The system transforms the city by transforming our choices, and ultimately transforming each of us, the same way a disabled person’s life is transformed when they can wheel their chair onto a bus; said Britton. Indeed, the Navigo pass has become a passport to the city, and a powerful distillation of the idea that everybody should be free to move across it. The unemployed get free access to all of Navigo’s shared modes. ‘If you are poor, you can travel right across the city; you can go way the hell out to the suburbs to look for a job. It’s all based on a philosophy of how to live — Freedom! Mobility for all! — and it has become part of our daily life now. That card is shaping the culture.’

Transit smart cards have  since proliferated around the world. The smartest of all is Hong Kong’s Octopus, a contactless electronic payment card launched in 1997 to collect fares for the city’s mass transit system. The Octopus gets you on virtually every public transport in the city. Load it up with cash, and it also works for parking meters, car parks, supermarkets and service stations. You can even set it to open the lobby door of your apartment building. Most American cities still occupy the old universe. Seattle, for example, has no less than three transit providers, each requiring its own fare either at the beginning or the end of your trip. The city has to post flow­charts explaining when and how you pay to ride.

 

FEELING FREE IN TRANSIT

A small club of economists and psychologists devote themselves entirely to the study of how transit makes us feel and behave. They have found that the difficulty we associate with commuting on public transit can have as much to do with mental effort as physical effort. The less you have to think about your trip and the more in control you feel, the easier the journey. This explains part of the magic of the Paris Navigo card, but also its limitations. Although the smart card helps erase mental effort when jumping between modes of travel, it can only go so far in improving the experience of moving by transit, which depends on a matrix of predictability, comfort and the percep­tion of passing time.

In central Paris, riders need not worry about traffic delays. The Metro and commuter rail systems are woven tightly under the surface of the city, while shared transit has been gradually recolonizing road space. New trams run along grass medians planted down the middle of arterial roads, and a network of road lanes have been handed over to beautiful city buses, which they share with taxis and bicycles.

But speed alone cannot ease all of transit’s psychological burden. When you ride a bus or train, your travel time includes the minutes you spend doing nothing but waiting for your ride. Planners spend a lot of time debating the question of ‘headway elasticity’ — or how frequently buses and trains need to come in order to draw the most passengers. The behavioral economics of headway elasticity are impossibly arcane, but the first principle to remember is that if you show up at a stop without checking transit schedules, you will have to wait, on average, half the interval time between buses before step­ping on board. So if your bus comes only every twenty minutes, your half-hour journey to work will probably become a forty-minute journey.

But it will feel much longer than that.

Inaction has a warping effect on time: a minute spent waiting seems to pass much more slowly than a minute spent moving. So most trans­portation planners agree that a bus needs to show up at least every fifteen minutes on any route for people nearby to use it effortlessly — i.e., without feeling as though they need to plan ahead. Cities such as Paris solve the headway problem partly by virtue of density: on most routes, there are enough riders to support bus and train arrivals every few minutes. (This also helps explain the vicious cycle of crummy tran­sit service out in suburbia. Dispersal makes frequent service just too costly to provide, but infrequent service sends potential riders back to their cars.)

Frequent service alone doesn’t erase the anxiety of waiting. Just as time decelerates while we are forced to wait, it slows to a crawl when we don’t know exactly how long we have to wait. Anyone who has ever stood at a bus stop in the rain or on a train platform, peering into the distance for headlights that refuse to appear, knows that the anx­iety produced by delayed service has a very long tail. If your ride is delayed today, you cannot be sure if it will be on time tomorrow. You will carry a little more stress into every trip.

traffic-paris-choices

But simply getting more information about the journey can speed the clock back up again. Take the express bus station on Boulevard du Montparnasse, just a couple of blocks from Britton’s apartment. There’s a covered seating area, but also a prominent screen at the entrance, showing exactly when the next two express buses will arrive. This subtle change in infrastructure is a powerful psychological intervention. Just having access to real-time arrival data causes riders to feel calmer and more in control. After arrival countdown clocks were mounted in the London Underground, people told sur­veyors that the wait time felt shorter by a quarter. The clocks also make people feel safer travelling at night, partly by giving them more confidence in the system.

When New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority installed LED boards displaying train arrival times on some train platforms, the effect was fascinating. People at light board-equipped stations were less likely to lean precariously out over the track, peering down the tunnel. Everyone could make a logical decision whether to wait or head up to the street to walk or catch a cab — becoming, in effect, slightly more like the rational, informed actors that economists tell us we are.

Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant and author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, points out that an experiential gulf often separates the people who plan transit services from the people who use them. Take a typical transit map like Seattle’s, which until recently featured a latticework of basic lines showing every bus route in the city. Although that map was factually correct, Walker argued that was functionally wrong at various times, since only a fraction of bus routes offered frequent service. A map-inspired traveller could end up waiting an hour or more for a bus — enough to convince any­one that public transit is a well best avoided. Luckily, Seattle took Walker’s advice and cleared the cognitive fog with new maps that highlight the real frequent routes.

But now that the air around us seethes with data, no traveller need be left in the dark. Portland, Oregon, has proved it. In 2005, the city’s transit authority, TriMet, opened up access to the digital information produced by its buses, trains and trains. Since then, independent developers have produced dozens of smartphone applications offer­ing real-time transit data, arrival times and maps. For those without a smartphone, a service called Transit Board allows any business with Internet access and a cheap monitor to stream bus or tram arrival times for the stop outside its window, so travellers can duck inside for a microbrew instead of waiting in the drizzle.

It’s cheap, it’s good for business, and it takes the anxious edge off the shared ride. Of course, these innovations tend to take place in cities where the policy makers actually ride public transit. When transit is seen as a handout to the poor, politicians tend not to invest beyond the most basic levels of service. (People in jurisdictions like Clayton County, Georgia, where transit was cut entirely in the great recession, know this too well.)

 

FREEDOM FROM OWNING THINGS

Forty years after Britton’s futurist investigations, cities are indeed finding the technology to reshape the future of mobility. As it turns out, that technology has nothing to do with fantastical new devices for moving and everything to do with new ways of thinking, sharing information, and adjusting the way we use the machines we have been using for years. Through open data, smart cards, wireless ccommunications and geographic positioning systems, familiar machines are being reenergized and woven together into complex systems that are more powerful than the sum of their parts.

To demonstrate how radically urban systems can build freedom in motion, Britton led me down from his office out onto Rue Joseph Bara. From here we could walk two blocks east to a commuter express train station or a couple of more minutes west to the Vavin Metro station, or we could saunter down to the rapid bus station on Montparnasse.

Instead we wandered north, up immaculate pavements and through the iron gates of the Luxembourg Gardens. We followed the wide promen­ade beneath the shade trees towards the cream facade of the Luxembourg Palace. Chrysanthemums exploded from great stone urns, catching the early-fall light. Model sailboats drifted across the great octagonal pond. If we happened to be short on time, we could maximize our time in the park to the second, Britton said, because we were never more than a three-minute walk from a personal metro device.

cropped-france-paris-velib-station.jpg

It was hard to under­stand what he meant until we had skirted the palace, crossed the rue de Vaugirard, and paused by a row of sturdy-looking bicycles. Then, with a theatrical flourish, Britton swept his wallet above a metallic post. I heard a click. He pulled one of a dozen bicycles free from its berth.

‘Et voila! Freedom. Liberté, j’écris ton nom!’ Britton said again, grinning from ear to ear. A sensor in the post recognized Britton’s Navigo card and unlocked a bicycle. Now it would track his time with that bicycle and note the location of the post where he would lock it again.

That bicycle is the most revolutionary item on the new mobility menu. It is a system whose name —  a fusion of vélo (bike) and liberté (freedom) — encapsulates its remarkable philosophy and utility. ‘Yes, a personal metro system that we can take in any direction we want.  This changes everything!’ said Britton.

Hundreds of cities, including Lyon, Montreal, Melbourne, Boston, Washington, New York and Chicago have now launched modest shared-bike programmes. In 2010, London introduced a system sponsored by Barclays Bank that has grown to eight thousand (dubbed Boris Bikes, for the city’s bike-mad Mayor, Boris Johnson.)

But no system in the western world matches the ambition of Paris. The Vélib’ is everywhere, all the time. More than 20,000 of these bicycles are situated at 1,250 stations around the central city. In most places, you are never more a quarter of a mile from a station. It is, in effect, your  Personal Metro system: with stations (left) never more than a five-minute walk away, the Vélib’ bicycle share has become a personal metro system for Parisians. But on streets with no bicycle lanes (right), this is a freedom reserved for the brave. (e.g., Charles Montgomery.)

Unclick a Vélib’ from its hitching post and it’s yours for half an hour, virtually free. Subscriptions to the system cost one euro per day, five euro per week, or  twenty-nine euro per year. After the first (free) half hour, the system begins to charge an incremen­tally higher rate for each additional half hour, in order to keep bicycles in circulation.

With just three gears, and the industrial heft and curvy, solid gray aesthetics of Bauhaus sewing machines, the bikes are certainly not fit for the Tour de France. But since they were introduced, in 2007, they have utterly changed the face of mobility in central Paris.

Each bicycle in the Vélib’ fleet gets used between three and nine times every day. That’s as many as two hundred thousand trips a day. The flood of bicycles in the streets has risen even higher as newbies try the Vélib’, realize the ease of city cycling, and buy their own bicycles.

The Vélib’ is more than a tool for convenience, it embodies a pol­itical philosophy that many Americans will find radical. It was created to help Parisians simultaneously save the world and become more free by owning less stuff.

 

BICYCLES AND PLANETS 

Denis Baupin, a Paris Green Party leader, spearheaded the Vélib’ plan as the city’s transportation chief. ‘If everyone on the planet lived like Parisians did,’ he told me, ‘we would need three planets to supply all the required energy, materials and garbage space.’ Following the chilling maths of the environmental footprint theory, the Parisian footprint was a third the size of that left by Americans, but Baupin insisted that Parisians had a duty to shrink their ecological footprint by two-thirds. Baupin, who wore a white linen jacket and had the cheery face of a cherub, didn’t see this as a depressing message at all.

‘Do we say to Parisians, we must agree to be three times less happy than now in the future? Of course this is impossible! We have to explain that when we restrict our consumption, our waste, and so on, we can be even happier than today:

For Baupin, the shared bicycle is the ultimate post-consumer machine. It offers a new kind of liberty for anyone willing to share space and equipment. ‘What is really special about the Vélib’ is that you don’t own it. Like a park, the bicycle is for everybody to share”; he told me. ‘We don’t take shopping carts home after using them at the supermarket. We don’t cart around our own elevators or restaur­ants or airplanes. Why should we be forced by urban design to own cars and bicycles?’

For most people living in capitalist societies, the ‘right not to own things’ sounds a bit like ‘deprivation’ in disguise. The idea can be especially challenging for Americans, who have been advised by heroes, pundits and presidents that they will risk democracy itself if they stop shopping.

I told Baupin that where I come from, not owning things generally means you are poor. And when you are poor, you are not free. You are stranded. No, no, he said. In the new Paris, the opposite was true. There was simply no room for everyone to drive. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to park. For residents of central Paris, ownership was a tremendous burden. If you owned a car, not only did you have to pay for it, but you had to take care of it and repair it and spend hours on end searching for parking. Ownership could be equally arduous for bike owners, who had to lug their vehicles to their apart­ments in Paris’s six-story walk-ups, or risk having them stolen.

The Vélib’ was a way to break free of those chains. You didn’t have to worry about storing the bike at home, or parking it at your destin­ation. You didn’t have to fix it. If you got a flat tire, or if it rained, you just clicked it back into a station and hopped on the Metro. You just kept moving.

Ironically, Baupin’s postconsumer bike system was built and paid for and is now run by JCDecaux, the biggest advertising company in France. In a complex deal, the city gets all the rental fees, while JCDecaux gets revenue from the ad space it sells on more than six­teen hundred on-street billboards throughout the city.

So while riders experience the joys of non-ownership, their public space is plastered with messages tweaking their status impulses, reminding them that they would be happier if they bought more stuff. (This was a com­promise between Baupin’s Greens and the French Socialist Party, who made up the city’s coalition government at the time

The lesson, of course, is that while the sharing culture may be an attractive vehicle for corporate capitalism, it won’t roll unless it is built and nurtured as a complete system, rather than merely another product to be marketed.

 

EXTREME SHARING

What is true of many purchases — that we don’t want the thing so much as we want what it can do for us — is especially true for transportation. Whether it is a train or a bus or a bicycle or a car, any vehicle’s utility begins when it starts to move. Most private cars spend the vast majority of their life span sitting, doing nothing but costing their owners money in insurance, lease payments, parking and depreciation. Not only do we work more just to be able to afford to drive, but we work in order to drive to and pay for fitness facilities to get the exercise that should be a side-effect of the daily journey.

Any honest assessment of travel time has to include the hours you spend working to pay for your vehicle, as well as the time spent on your journey — a concept known as effective speed.

In Paris, and around the world, new systems of sharing are setting drivers free.  In some ways, these peer-to-peer systems work like oxytocin, the trust hormone: they offer an inducement and immediate reward for behaving cooperatively with other people. The cooperative impulse manifests in subtle ways: Frequent’ users in Paris have adopted the cus­tom of twisting bike seats sideways when they return a damaged bike to a station, so subsequent users won’t choose them and be disappointed. As these systems grow and eventually guide millions of strangers into mutually beneficial transactions, it will be interesting to observe more changes in user culture and in trust among strangers.

 

FREEDOM AND PHYSIOLOGY

Car-share devotees may not need to worry about parking and repairs, but they still contribute to — and get stuck in — traffic congestion. This is the great advantage of the bicycle in dense cities, where, moving at between nine and twelve miles per hour, cyclists achieve the same average speeds as drivers (and even shorter trip times, if you take into account time spent parking) in part because they take up so little room.

Britton insisted that, without actually riding a bike, it was impos­sible to understand how the shared bicycle was transforming Paris. He checked the tires on a second bike. Fine. He adjusted the seat. Good. I poked my credit card into the kiosk, pulled my bicycle from its dock, and we rolled out into the Paris traffic, sans helmet, like everyone else.

I followed Eric down a narrow side street, we hit boulevard de Port-Royal and all hell broke loose. Taxis bounced past like cartoon go-karts. Delivery trucks and motorbikes jostled frenetically. Bus engines screamed as they sucked at the warm air. At first I was disoriented and scared. I had been warned about the pathological aggression of Parisian drivers, and the streets were still full of them.

But Britton and I were not the only ones on two wheels. There were dozens of other Vélib‘ users around us. There were so many of us out there that drivers had to pay attention. They had to make room.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described the ballet that takes place on crowded pavements as people make eye contact and find their way around one another. I felt a similar, if supercharged dynamic coming to life in Paris’s traffic lanes.

With cars and bikes and buses mixed together, none of us could be sure what we would find on the road ahead of us. We all had to be awake to the rhythm of asymmetrical flow. In the contained fury of the narrow streets we were forced to choreograph our movements, but with so many other bicycles flooding the streets, cycling in Paris was actually becoming safer. As more people took to bicycles in Vélib’ “s first year, the number of bike accidents rose, but the number of accidents per capita fell. Britton explained, “This phenomenon seems to occur wher­ever cities see a spike in cycling: the more people bike, the safer the streets get for cyclists, partly because drivers adopt more cautious habits when they expect cyclists on the road. There is safety in numbers.”

*     *     *

Mission accomplished, I left Britton with a high-five, and peeled onto rue Mange, heading towards the Seine.

Between lights and lane changes, through windshields and helmet visors I caught split-second glances of turned heads, nods, angled shoulders — all clues to drivers’ intentions. I found my place in the stampede, waving a hand, pointing, moving into open ground, claiming space as I wound my way downhill, across the Seine. I kept riding as the sun fell and the slate roof tiles turned pink. I barrelled towards Bastille, and the monument to the Revolution of 1830.

There, atop the great copper column, the gold figure of Auguste Dumont’s Spirit of Freedom was leaping into flight, holding his broken chains to the sky. The last rays of the sun exploded from his wings. The round­about beneath the monument was a spinning whorl of headlights. I joined them, pedalling hard to keep up with the circling taxis and tour buses and motorbikes.

It was absolutely thrilling.

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About the author:

Charles Montgomery in traffic - smaller

Can the shape of a city make or break the happiness of its inhabitants? From the field of happiness studies award-winning journalist and urban experiment specialist, Charles Montgomery,seizes on the finding that people are relatively poor at making choices that maximize their own well-­being. From the growing literature on urban design, he infers that the way cities are built is a powerful influence on mood and behavior. Hence his conclusion: If city planners and developers paid more attention to the growing body of knowledge about happiness, they could create cities that enhance the contentment of those who live in them.

For Montgomery, the city is a “happiness project” that exists in part to corral our conviviality and channel it productively.  His award-winning book, Happy City, examines the intersection between urban design and human well-being. He and his team use workshops, presentations, interactive social experiments and interdisciplinary strategies to help people better their cities—and themselves. www.thehappycity.com

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PS.  Why did Charles decided to call this chapter “Freedom”? To find the answer for that we have to turn to the last paragraph in the preceding chapter– “How Moving Feels, and Why It Does Not Feel Better” — which reads like this:

“If you woke up this morning and decided to try a completely different method of getting to work, could you do it? Could you walk there? Ride a bicycle? Or catch a bus or train that would get you there in the time it took to read the morning paper? Could you mix and match your modes? Not take it further. Does getting to a grocery store or doctor’s office or a restaurant without a car seem like a pretty big chore? Can your children walk or cycle to school safely on their own? If you think these are unreasonable questions, then the chances are, real choices have been designed out of your city. You may still benefit from the tremendous utility of your automobile, but the system is impoverishing you and your family and friends in ways you may never have imagined. How do we build systems that truly make us free in cities? Sometimes it takes a radical shift in the urban imagination to point the way?”

liberte jecris ton nomAnd from thence, quite naturally, to Freedom.

 

Liberté, j’écris ton nom 

Sur les sentiers éveillés
Sur les routes déployées
Sur les places qui débordent
J’écris ton nom

Liberté

– Paul Éluard,  Poésie et vérité 1942

About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Trained as a development economist, Eric Britton is a public entrepreneur specializing in the field of sustainability and social justice. 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 and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest work focuses on the subject of equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions and in the process find practical solutions to urgent climate, mobility, life quality and job creation issues. More at: http://wp.me/PsKUY-2p7

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My thanks:

What better place than this peek into my past to express my heart-felt thanks to a small collection of friends who have believed in my work and got behind it to support my research and writing  at times when my  sheer intellectual curiosity and sense of duty fell off the table of the “normal”economy. World Streets, our several thousand readers, and I above all  owe a great deal to the unstinting generosity of these friends: Donald Brackenbush, Allen Damon, Mikel Murga, Alon Rozen, Wolfgang Zuckermann, and above all to the unfailing strength and support in every way of my life companion France Benainous.

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* Click here for thirty seconds of Britton on sharing – http://goo.gl/Bg9cya

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