How I learned to stop worrying and love the future.

I found freedom long before I ever had my hands on a set of car keys. I grew up riding my bike around the lakes of Madison, Wisconsin, largely on an elaborate network of off-street bike paths. Wind in hair, homemade jumps, spectacular crash landings — the whole bit.  In the decades since then, I’ve saved literally tens of thousands of dollars bike commuting, while keeping myself in damn good shape, if I do say so myself. But for me, bike/ped infrastructure has always had a symbolic meaning that goes way beyond the practical benefits of active transportation.  It’s about liberty: having the ability to choose to get from point A to point B on your own two feet.

Thus,  I once would have the news of the evisceration of bike/ped funding in the transportation bill (America Bikes analysis here) with a mixture of nausea and dread, visions of children with hypertrophied thumbs trapped on the couches of sidewalk-less subdivisions. Throw in some meltwater from that-which-was-once-Antarctica for good measure. Heck, throw in a zombie. In an SUV.

Even if Red-State America is hell-bent on building yesterday’s cities today, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the rest of the world isn’t necessarily stuck on our one-size-fits-all infrastructure model. China is using both the carrot and the stick to address congestion that has slowed traffic in some cities to less than 20 km/hour. The stick is exactly what you’d expect from an authoritarian regime: a quota on vehicle ownership, with Guangzhou as the third city to limit new vehicle registrations. Gulp. Even when faced with the dreadfully democratic alternative — transportation paralysis for all! — it’s hard to imagine that policy taking off anywhere.

The carrot, on the other hand, is exactly what we capitalists are supposed to be good at, except when it comes to building infrastructure: choices. China has launched a handful of eco-cities aimed at beating congestion by making other forms of transit more appealing: plenty of parking and roads, sure, but also organized around light rail, transit-oriented design, and sidewalks. The real deal? Maybe. On the one hand, they tend to look like an office park in Maryland as designed by Le Corbusier — it bears remembering that suburbs and office parks were themselves the mid-20th-century idea for “greening” our cities, and we have long since learned that “green space” is very often, in urban terms, dead space. Plus, anything that says “zero-carbon” and “demonstration”  smells a bit like a distraction from that coal-plant-a-day news that tends to be the conventional narrative from China. And, at least one of these projects has already collapsed.

On the other hand, at least they’re trying.

Which brings us to the  straddling bus, a nifty little idea that may just be the next big thing. . . of the 22nd century, anyway.


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