An urban researcher shows how "mobility space" favors cars.

So many ways to slice the pie. (What the Street?)

In 2013, the urban designer Mikael Colville-Anderson struck a chord with transit geeks via, yes, a blog post. By coloring in photos of familiar urban streetscapes on his Copenhagenize website, Colville-Anderson highlighted how unequally road space gets divvied up between autos, bikes, and pedestrians.

His argument for the “arrogance of space” opened the floodgates for a thousand other data visuals. The latest comes from Moovel Group, a German software firm that produces transit and mobility apps (it’s also an unlikely subsidiary of the automaker Daimler). Moovel restates Anderson’s basic argument with an algorithm-generated, visual inventory of “mobility space” in Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, and 18 other world cities.

A shortage of bike parking is a big problem in places like Amsterdam. (What the Street?)

What the Street?” adds up the square meters doled out to cars, trains, and bikes—in parking areas and rights-of-way—and stitches together the total area that each mode receives. Select one city at a time, guess how much total space is allotted to each mode, then take a gander at the quantified and visualized answer. What emerges for cars in most cities are a scroll of parking lot footprints and a vast skein of street space. For trains, it’s two tidy coils of rail yards and train tracks; for bikes, it’s a pair of skimpy strings.  

The abstracted outlines of parking lots make for an interesting visual taxonomy by themselves. Like clouds, their appearances evoke all sorts of common objects: a monkey wrench here; a cathedral there. A click on each outline transports the viewer to satellite imagery of the real-life lot; for exploring the origins of any curiously shaped lot, this could be a great place to start.

But as a meditation on the priorities of transportation engineers, the visualization’s true power strikes at the bottom of each mode-scroll. The dominance of cars relative to bikes and trains—even in the world’s most famously bike-friendly cities—is striking. That it tests users’ assumptions about how space is distributed at the beginning, and shows how close they match to reality, is an especially nice feature.

You’d be nearly right. (What the Street?)

OpenStreetMap, the ever-growing crowd-sourced Google Maps, measures and tags the dimensions of parking lots, car lanes, train tracks, rail yards, bike lanes and bike parking; Moovel researcher-in-residence Michael Szell and artist-in-residence Stephan Bogner scraped this data within the limits of each of the 24 cities, cleaned up and normalized the data, and then lumped and coiled it together with an algorithm.

OSM grows more and more complete by the day, but What the Street’s data is still limited to whatever it makes available—limitations that easily manifest when clicking through from scroll to map view. Many of the street lengths aren’t completely accounted for. Plus, since Szell hoped to make the mode-to-mode comparison as clear-cut as possible, he didn’t include certain measurements that either weren’t available or would be too clumsy to tease out—for example, street parking space (most cities don’t count this!) and unseparated bike lanes. It’s safe to consider the sum “mobility space” for each mode underestimated.  

Where does your city fall on the triangle? (What the Street?)

If it seems odd that automaker Daimler would be sponsoring work that indirectly argues for cars getting less space on the road, welcome to a pinprick of hope in the year 2017: A number of carmakers are rebranding as mobility companies, providing movement on all kinds of wheels. Partnerships with ride-hailing services, autonomous vehicle development, and investments in micro-transit, car sharing, and bike sharing are part of the formula for Daimler, Ford, Toyota, GM, and other giants.

Cities should be wary of the influence of carmakers (not to mention tech companies) on their future shape and growth. But if rethinking the arrogance of road space serves the agenda of money-minded players, they may be able to help redeem the destructive effects of the last century’s orientation towards the car.

“When you live in an arrogant city, space is readily available,” Colville-Anderson wrote. “It’s right there. If you want it.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A small accessory dwelling unit—known as an ADU—is attached to an older single-family home in a Portland, Oregon, neighborhood.
    Design

    The Granny Flats Are Coming

    A new book argues that the U.S. is about to see more accessory dwelling units and guides homeowners on how to design and build them.

  2. Design

    These Sneakers Are Your Free Transit Pass

    A new BVG-Adidas collaboration means unlimited travel along Berlin’s public transit network for the rest of 2018. That is if you can find a pair.

  3. Life

    The (Legal) Case Against Bidding Wars Like Amazon's

    The race to win Amazon’s second headquarters has reignited a conversation dating back to the late ‘90s: Should economic incentives be curbed by the federal government? Can they be?

  4. Police cars outside the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City
    Life

    The Great Crime Decline and the Comeback of Cities

    Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, talks to CityLab about how the drop in crime has transformed American cities.

  5. Transportation

    On Paris Metro, Drug Abuse Reaches a Boiling Point

    The transit workers’ union says some stations on Line 12 are too dangerous to stop at. What will the city do?