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Mixed Media | Deep Thoughts and Oddball Interpretations

Taking Back the Streets | Earth Beat

Taking Back the Streets
Understanding how we get from point A to point B

"Transportation is civilization," Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, a "recognized English authority on traffic problems," told a New York audience in 1912. One of the "greatest problems" of cities, he said, was making "transportation cheap, easy and convenient." Nearly a century later, we're still grappling with the issue. Some technologies have changed—out went the clattering horse-drawn omnibus, in came the nearly silent Prius—and others haven't much (e.g., the New York City subway system), but the challenges of mobility remain. With the world's urban population projected to double by 2050, and transportation emissions soaring, they loom ever larger.

Anthropologists have noted that people throughout the world define a comfortable travel time as roughly one hour, a definition that seems to cross cultures and eras. Ancient Greek settlements could be walked from end to end in an hour. Today, the average American's total daily commute clocks in at just under 60 minutes. As crucial as transportation is, though, we tend not to give it much thought (except when it's not working). Here's a road map to some of the best resources for understanding mobility today.

With roughly 90 percent of Americans' daily trips made by car, automobiles unsurprisingly dominate the discussion. But breathless paeans to the car have yielded to searching inquiries into the consequences of car dependence. In Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez offer a gimlet-eyed assessment of U.S. car culture—the romance that turned into marriage, as the joke goes—noting, among other things, its role in income inequality.

Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007), by historian Tom McCarthy, excavates our fascination with the car and provides good insight on the perverse incentives behind "the riddle of the S.U.V."—among them the tax credit that facilitated small businesses' purchase of Hummers. In Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age (University of Chicago Press, 2008), historian Brian Ladd charts a century of societal ambivalence, observing that car critics "have failed to appreciate the depth of the automobile's hold on ordinary people."

The idea that it is easier to remove the internal combustion engine from the car than it is the driver underlies Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press, 2010), a joint project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Smart Cities group and General Motors (which has long thought about cars and the future of cities, as evident in the 1940 documentary To New Horizons, with all its Futurama fabulousness, viewable at archive.org/details/ToNewHor1940). The book has a wonky policy feel but offers a sweeping, carb-to-curb reimagining of the car and its travels, presenting a compelling case for making our transportation networks as smart as our wireless communication network.

The car is no longer a uniquely American fixation; China's love affair, if measured in sales, now outpaces our own. You won't find a better guidebook to this epoch-making shift than Peter Hessler's Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (HarperCollins, 2010). "In China," he writes, "the transition has been so abrupt that many traffic patterns come directly from pedestrian life—people drive the way they walk." They cluster, they improvise, they use body language more than signals.

Journalist Ted Conover reminds us that roads are also changing us. His The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (Knopf, 2010) is filled with masterful scene-setting from outposts like the thrombotic, "go slow" megalopolis of Lagos, Nigeria.

Two new road books make a compelling pairing: Matt Dellinger's Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway(Scribner, 2010) gives a nuanced, surprisingly poignant history of a roadway opposed by unions, environmentalists, and urban planners, while Eric Jaffe's The King's Best Highway: The Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route That Made America (Scribner, 2010) delves into the story of America's first long-distance route.

Despite car hegemony, the resource-challenged future may look less like contemporary China and more like Copenhagen, where nearly one-third of daily trips are taken by bicycle. Jeff Mapes charts the political travails and triumphs of the ascendant cycling movement in Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities (Oregon State University Press, 2009). Zack Furness's One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility (Temple University Press, 2010) notes that the humble bike is variously seen as "a source of self-empowerment and pleasure, a pedagogical machine, a vehicle for community building, a symbol of resistance against the automobile and oil industries, and a tool for technological, spatial, and cultural critique." And musician David Byrne, in his willfully eclectic two-wheeled travelogue Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 2009), ponders such questions as why some cultures just seem to like bikes more than others. (Que pasa, portenos?)

While driving is largely reflexive in America, cycling requires more commitment, and hence tends to breed a more dedicated set of Web chroniclers. My favorite blogs include the stylish Copenhagenize, the humorously acerbic Bike Snob NYC, and the political Bikeportland. There is no greater place for one-stop "livable streets" shopping than the Streetsblog network, a collection of blogs focused on rethinking America's car monoculture. (And don't miss its sister site Streetfilms—just make sure you're not moving while watching its "livable cities" videos.) And for big-picture water-cooler conversation about transportation, head to the National Journal blog at transportation.nationaljournal.com.

Finally, man's original transit mode: walking. Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001) is the ur-pedestrian text, while writers W. G. Sebald and Will Self also rank as consummate flaneurs. While walking, be sure to carry a smart phone, which in their short life span have become invaluable aids to transport, replete with apps that simulate everything from the city that never was (phantomcity.org) to the urban transportation nirvana of the future (simutrans.com). —Tom Vanderbilt

Adapted from Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (Knopf, 2008)

In the 1960s, a small group of New Yorkers began a campaign to close the street cutting through Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village. Parks were not great places for cars, they suggested. They also suggested not widening the nearby streets to accommodate the newly rerouted flow. The traffic people predicted mayhem. What happened was the reverse: Cars, having lost the best route through the park, decided to stop treating the neighborhood as a shortcut. Total car traffic dropped—and both the park and the neighborhood are doing just fine.

It makes sense, mathematically, that if a city takes out a road in its traffic network, traffic on other streets will have to rise to make up for the lost capacity. If you removed one pipe in a plumbing system, the other pipes would have to pick up the slack. But people are a lot more complex than water, and the models fail to capture this complexity. The traffic may rise, as engineers predict, but that in itself may discourage drivers from entering a more difficult traffic stream.

ON THE WEB Read Vanderbilt's blog at howwedrive.com.


Earth Beat: Life, Highly Defined

Recent nature documentary series like the BBC's Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Life have elicited the sort of buzz normally reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. Rupert Barrington, who produced two segments of the BBC series Life, talked to Sierra about what it takes to find (and show) the wow in the natural world.

What's your favorite bit from Life?
I love the Komodo dragons hunting the water buffalo [in "Reptiles and Amphibians"]. They're unlike any other reptile. They can hunt buffalo 10 times their size. There's also something poignant about such a small population isolated on a small island group [in Indonesia], which potentially makes them so vulnerable.

Do you know which episodes viewers liked most?
A lot of people responded to the monarch butterflies [in "Insects"]. We threw a lot of technology at that. We had cables strung up in the trees that we ran the cameras along, so you felt like you were flying among the swarms.

What's an innovative technology that you depend on?
High-definition slow-motion cameras opened up a lot of opportunities. In the past when we did slow motion, we used film cameras. The problem is that it takes two or three seconds for the camera to get up to speed, so the first few seconds are overexposed. With high-definition video cameras, you're effectively recording the whole time, inexpensively.

How much time does it take to get the perfect shot?
Animals don't behave on cue, so you can wait days and days for a six-second shot. We spent seven weeks filming the Komodo dragon hunting to get seven minutes.

Does the writing follow the footage or vice versa?
In a sense, neither. Before you shoot, you tend to have a good script—the 15 stories you hope to shoot and how they link together. But in the cutting room, you discover new ways to tell the story.

What are the biggest differences between the U.K. version of Life, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and the U.S. version, narrated by Oprah Winfrey?
Attenborough is such an established feature in the U.K. that people would have thought it odd if he weren't narrating Life. He has a scientific background and comes at it from that angle. What Oprah reads and the way she reads it are somewhat different—more personal in a way.

Life reportedly cost $15.5 million to produce. What convinced backers to open their wallets?
Alastair Fothergill, who produced Blue Planet, is very persuasive. He promised to deliver natural history more spectacularly than ever before. That style demands money.

Has your audience changed?
Planet Earth brought in viewers who don't normally watch natural history. The cinematic nature of that series made it feel like it was a big experience that they had to see.

With all the slow motion and close-ups, will people expect the same experience when they visit nature?
It's not a new worry. Attenborough says that he gets complaints from people saying they watched his films, went to Africa, and didn't see anything that he filmed. We're showing a concentrated version of what's out there. It's the only way to show nature in a way that's interesting.

What do you hope people will take away from Life?
A sense of the variety and richness that's out there in the natural world. If people can value it for that, we've done our job.

Why did you avoid conservation messages in Life?
One aspect of conservation education is to simply show people what is out there. There are other vehicles for telling them about the dangers.

How did you get interested in nature documentaries?
I've got a degree in zoology and was always interested in still photography. It's a natural step to TV. And it was the only way I could think of using a zoology degree in a way that I'd get really excited by.

What's your next project?
A six-part series on Africa, which will air in 2012 in the U.K.

What's your environmental vice?
I print out too much stuff in the office that I don't need to. That's a hard habit to kill. —interview by Reed McManus

Planet Earth and Blue Planet (narrated by David Attenborough) and Life (both the David Attenborough and Oprah Winfrey versions) are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.


Tom Vanderbilt and book photos: Sara Stathas

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