Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
An urban researcher shows how "mobility space" favors cars.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”