Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Freedom of movement

As a veterinarian I am often asked to assess a patients quality of life.  I usually discuss the ability to eat, being  free from constant debilitating pain or anxiety, and the ability to have a basic amount of mobility.  It has caused me to reflect on peoples' quality of life too...
I think in our society the idea of freedom of movement or mobility is often neglected.  Automobiles have become the de facto mode of transport for most of us.  City infrastructure being biased towards autos limits movement for those without access to cars.  I can think of  a lot of places where it is dangerous or downright unpleasant to walk or ride a bike, and where buses are not a great option either due to bus schedules or proximity to bus stops.  I just read somewhere that the free bus ride zones downtown are going to be eliminated at some point.  We have to remember that this will affect a very basic human right for some of us, especially the poor and disabled- freedom of movement.  The problem with transportation infrastructure being designed with autos as the lowest common denominator is that not everyone can afford to own and maintain a car.  So the lowest common denominator has to be a person on foot- and a close second would be bicycles and public transport.
This idea of the lowest common denominator for movement has plenty of other applications.  For example:

Hiking trails-  If a trail is open to motors it is unpleasant and useless for all other users.  I have encountered plenty of these trails in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.  If a trail sees heavy use, which most do in King County, the trail should be designed for a hiker because that is the least exclusive user.  All you need are shoes to walk in.  Bicycles and horses are next.  If there isn't too heavy usage, hikers/cyclists/equestrians should be able to get along with some basic courtesy. I think the system on the middle fork of the Snoqualmie River is a good compromise- bicycles are allowed on odd numbered days.  The even days are for feet only.  Motorized use should be last priority, because motorcycles and ATV's are expensive to own and maintain and are at odds with other users of a public resource.

Have you ever noticed that the most desirable areas in a city are those in which there are numerous options for movement?  For example, a walkable neighborhood versus, lets say, some sections of Lake City Way or Aurora Avenue which are unsafe and unpleasant unless you are surrounded by a steel box (car)?  

This leads to the same old mantra:  whatever you build, infrastructure-wise, will be utilized.  If a suburban neighborhood is designed almost exclusively for its residents to move around by car- that is exactly what will happen.  On the other hand, look at the new and improved Dexter Avenue.  You have auto traffic lanes, bus stops, and a separated bikeway.  All of them are being heavily used!  Isn't it better to have more than one option for getting around?

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