Editor's Note: This story is republished with permission from the Txchnologist, a digital magazine that follows innovation in science and technology.
In Tianjin, China, a city about 100 miles south of Beijing, urban planners are building an entirely new mini-city from scratch. It is to be China's green city on the hill, an eco-friendly model to the world and a way forward into the future.
Yet with such a forward-looking project, cars aplenty still feature in the design. It leads to an unavoidable question while authorities are thinking big and spending lots of money: Is it really so hard to draw up a future without cars? Many think communities less centered on the personal automobile are an attainable goal.
"Why let cars -- 30 times as heavy as a person, ten times as fast and 60 times the volume -- set the design parameters?" asks Richard Register, an expert on urban design and the author of Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature. "You can replace cars with the design of the city so you don’t need them."
Most cities don't have the luxury of "building right in the first place" because the "first place" happened long before we had cars. In Tianjin, planners have the opportunity to design a solution rather than just updating what’s already there. The ecocity is still under development, but the parts that have been built provide clues about how it will work. As it is laid out, much of the infrastructure will likely initiate a new generation into the cult of the car.
First off, there are huge roads running through the development. Lampposts are rigged with solar panels and windmills for power, a nice touch that deserves credit. But they go on forever in long, straight, uninterrupted lines.
"On a big wide street that runs for three blocks, the tendency is to drive very rapidly and it’s designed to make it easy for people in cars to zip along," says Register, who made a trip to Tianjin as a paid consultant. "It;s sort of a psychological invitation to go at high speeds.” And because there are no side streets cutting in, these wide boulevards discourage bicyclists and pedestrians.
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