For most of my life I paid almost no attention to the design of the built environment around me. As a person walking, riding a bike, and driving, plus teaching 6 children to navigate their neighborhood on foot, on bikes, and cars, I moved about in my world – using streets and sidewalks without taking much notice of the actual design of crosswalks, or striping of lanes.
This changed dramatically when I became involved in the issue of a road reconfiguration in Asbury Park. Suddenly, clarity! I began to notice every detail of the design of the city, and the ways that people utilize the infrastructure that exists around them. What had been invisible to me is probably invisible to most people who move through their days to school, work, recreation…and it’s been planned to function that way. I began to notice how much of my (any) city, or suburb is devoted to the level of service for motor vehicles, and street storage (aka parking). I researched city and suburban planning and design, and learned that automotive industry titans were the major players in the early 20th century in get everyone into cars, and the rest is history. Over the course of time we’ve been conditioned to use, but not to notice design around us.
Recommended listening: 99% Invisible Podcast, and the following article about the new book, The 99 Percent Invisible City: a Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, reveals the secret history of urban errata around the world and on your own block.
‘A City is a Series of Choices Over Time’: Roman Mars Reveals the Secret Histories That Shape Our Streets
For over 10 years, the “99 Percent Invisible” podcast has been a touchstone for anyone interested in the often-overlooked design choices that shape our world — and particularly, the auto-centric design choices that shape our streets. More than 400 million downloads later, host Roman Mars collaborated with producer Kurt Kohlstedt to co-author The 99 Percent Invisible City: a Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, which reveals the secret history of urban errata around the world and on your own block.
From the surprising insights that gave the jersey barrier its curves to the bizarre crash that lead to the invention of the roadway centerline, the stories in its pages inspire us to give the everyday a second look — and realize how profoundly our streets can be remade by simple design choices, no matter the violent history that may have built them.
We talked with Mars about his new book, and why wonder might be the missing ingredient in the fight to end traffic violence.
From the interview:
“I think it all comes from the relatively recent concept that streets are for cars, so there’s no reason to look at them any closer. And of course, that’s a relatively recent narrative, and it was consciously created by the powerful voices of motordom. For centuries, our streets were a truly multimodal and multipurpose space: they had pedestrians and trolleycars and horses and vendors and all these things, until we ceded that territory a hundred years ago to the automobile. We’re just now starting to figure out what we lost when we made that shift, and how to get it back.
What I’d most like people to do with the book is recognize that a city is a series of choices over time, and there is nothing inherent in a street that says that a car belongs on a road and a pedestrian only belongs on a sidewalk — or maybe at crosswalk, but only when the light changes. It wasn’t always that way, and we can modify it to be however we want it to be.”