Honk! Getting off the ox (when it comes to cars and cities).

There is a bit of ancient Hindu  wisdom that goes, roughly: How can a man riding an ox and looking for an ox, ever find the ox.  The answer being of course, only when he gets off the ox. Thus it is in life, but for many of us it is somewhere between hard and impossible to ever get off the ox of our perceptions and set values. But there are, thankfully, creative people who can do this.

Here by way of a quick warm-up is one quick demonstration of this off-the-ox approach from the lively mind of Jean Tinguely of his Cyclograveur, in short a bicycle that, as you pant and pedal, paints beautiful (?!?) pictures. And now t for your weekend reading pleasure let’s have a look at what our friends over at Streetsblog have just reported on another more timely off-the-ox transportation project, this time by the ever-ingenious Chris Burden with his post-Tinguely road-wrapping machine, Metropolis II.  Off we go.

Metropolis II and the Enduring Delusions of Car-Centric Cities

by , for our friends in yesterday’s Streetsblog

Metropolis II, a kinetic sculpture of a futuristic city by artist Chris Burden that will soon start operating for view by the public, raises some interesting questions about the role of cars in cities.

I saw the sculpture, with its elevated roads wrapping around skyscrapers and other structure, sitting still when I visited the museum over the winter break. It might be worth checking it out in action to see 1100 toy cars and 14 train sets whiz and wind their way through the buildings. Metropolis II is a cool contraption and interesting piece of art, like a matchbox car track, erector set, and lego city mashed together and pumped up to gigantic size.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to burden such a nifty assemblage with political or planning baggage. But the sculpture’s prominent position in a major museum is drawing lots of attention to the work and the possible future it represents.  The artist’s comments about Metropolis II place it in line with some earlier visions of a vertical, car-dominated Los Angeles that had real influence on the shape of the city today. And I think what Peter Plagens wrote about art critics engaging in urbanism when he reviewed Raynar Banham’s influential book Los Angeles: the architecture of four ecologies, still applies:

” if he wanted to run out and paint pictures of the Roller derby or the Stones it’d be O.K. because it’d be innocuous …  But when you get into architecture it’s big casino, real people’s real lives … and here we go with another strangling round of MacDonald’s, freeways, and confectioners’ culture palaces.”

In a YouTube video showing the nearly completed work, Burden commented: “I love hearing that the cars are going 230 miles per hour. That makes me feel very hopeful for the future. That’s about the speed they should be running. Not 23.4 miles an hour, which is what my BMW says I average driving around LA.”

Whether or ultra-fast robot cars are part of our future, when I saw the sculpture, I was reminded of plans from the 1930s to weave urban freeways into downtown Los Angeles by elevating them above local traffic and running them through buildings.

In 1937 the Automobile Club of Southern California conducted a survey of traffic in the region and blamed gridlock on the mixing of types of car trips (through trips vs. people on local errands pulling in and out of businesses and curbside parking); and the mixing of cars and pedestrians and streetcars and other vehicles on streets. “The solution of the problem of providing adequate facilities for through traffic will be found in providing a network of traffic routes for the exclusive use of motor vehicles over which there shall be no interference from land use activities.”

The club recommended construction of a network of what we would today call freeways connected by cloverleaf interchanges; the gradual replacement of curbside parking with parking lots and structures; the replacement of streetcars with  buses; and the construction of elevated roadways in downtown Los Angeles that would allow cars to drive rapidly over local streets and right through the 3rd floors of buildings. Looking back, it’s interesting to see how much of this vision was realized. This is partly because, when the federal Aid Highway Act was passed in 1956,  federal, state, and local officials had  to grapple with the question of how a new interstate system could interact with already existing cities. Traffic engineers had been playing with concepts of where to site and how to construct fast, grade-separated roads in cities for twenty years.  Through their influence in state transportation department they were able to dominate the design and construction of urban freeways, to the detriment of urban life to this day.

Some of the worst urban freeways in the United States were constructed elevated above surface streets. Although none bore through office buildings as conceptualized by the Auto Club, what is key is that futuristic visions of cars swooping through cities (especially the Futurama Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair) captured the public’s imagination and influenced major infrastructure projects for decades to come.

I hope that kids who see Metropolis II today are inspired to go home and build neat stuff, but don’t buy into the idea that a cool urban future requires faster and faster car traffic. To flip the 1937 recommendations I quote above on its head, the solution to many of our urban problems will be in providing good places and land use activities over which there is less interference from traffic. The task for today’s imaginative child, and for all of us, is to imagine and experiment with places with fewer and slower cars. So, by all means, check out Metropolis II. But also go see and play with artist James Rojas’ interactive model of Long Beachand think about how we shape the city and how it shapes us.

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PS. Another good shot of Metropolis IIcan be found here – http://lacma.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/chris-burdens-metropolis-ii-on-its-way-to-lacma/

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About Streetsblog:

Since 2006, Streetsblog has covered the movement to transform our cities by reducing dependence on private automobiles and improving conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders. Our reporters have broken important stories about transit funding, pedestrian safety, and bicycle policy from day one. And our writing makes arcane topics like parking prices and induced traffic accessible to a broad audience.

Today, hundreds of thousands of readers rely on Streetsblog, and our online community is the connective fiber for people all over the country working to make their streets safer and more sustainable. StreetsblogNew York CityLos AngelesSan FranciscoCapitol Hill, and the national Streetsblog Network connect local, grassroots transportation reform advocates with one another and to a national movement for reform.

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