As you all know, I love cities -- being as how I live in America's City of Cities: New York -- and some of my time the last month or so was spent in Boston visiting in-laws. I had been to Boston before, but only for work and even then I was stuck in the northern suburbs for a couple of months and rarely made it into the city proper. As well, it was many, many years ago, long before I became the seasoned city-slicker I am today, and thus all my eyes could see -- trained as they were by the designed-from-scratch, sprawling, paved-over farmland suburbia of north Texas -- was a poorly executed version of the sprawling, car-centric drive-thru utopia of my youth. I didn't see that those Boston suburbs for what they were: the best way a mature, pre-petroleum infrastructure could adapt to the relentlessly dehumanizing effects of widespread car-ownership. Looking back now at my reaction then, I can see that I was of a very specific sub-species grown in the petri dish of a very specific technological, economic and socio-political ecosystem.
I used to be a Petro Sapien™. I'm going to try to patent that phrase, BTW.
But on this trip, the wife and I stayed at her brother's place in Bay Village and rode the T all around town, walking the entire Freedom Trail -- lingering at the USS Constitution, because I'm kind of a nerd for the wooden square-riggers (what they call "Fighting Sail") -- and then meandering around the North End until we found exactly the right Italian place for lunch on what had to be absolutely the finest, clearest early October day imaginable. That night, my brother-in-law, the wife and I all walked to a game at Fenway, partook of the festival atmosphere that always surrounds a game there, and then we walked home. It was a shame they didn't win, but we enjoyed our stroll anyway.
And therein lies the magic that is city life. Human-scaled to be enjoyed at human speed. When city-lovers like yours truly wax poetic about density and those damned SUPERTRAINS you guys are always making fun of me about and we deride cars as city-killers, that's what we mean. Atrios recently hit the nail on the head for me when he pointed out that functional cities aren't an urban mall to be enjoyed by suburbanites and then abandoned at sunset, like all those monument valley "downtowns" across the South, SouthWest and Midwest (Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, KC, etc...). People actually live in them and those people have requirements that make sufficient parking largely unworkable because the demands of car-centered suburban life corrode the very things that make cities function: walkable density.
The physical shape of Boston and its infrastructure pre-dated the advent of petroleum-driven automobile technology. Despite relentless derision about Boston's horrible traffic due to the Central Artery, Boston is now reaping the rewards as a walkable, livable city for its resistance to the same car-centric adaptation that facilitated the white flight that ultimately destroyed Detroit and Baltimore and still has a visible lingering impact on Philadelphia and vast swaths of The Bronx throughout the 1960's, 70's & 80's. The cars are still there (Big Dig, anyone?) and the T needs more financing, but as a believer in Peak Oil Theory, I think Boston is better positioned to survive the coming crisis than any other American city.
Of course, I also think this project would be a good idea in New York, but then I am also a fan of the recent closing down of Broadway through Times Square, which has resulted in a wonderful open-air plaza that I can easily imagine filled with planters and trees and umbrellas over cafe tables. Who would have thought that Times Square could ever be a place to just linger? I hear that the cabbies and commuters hate it, but I don't care. Cities don't exist for cars to navigate through them. Cities exist for the humans who live and work there to enjoy at human scale, which is simply not possible when every building is surrounded by a parking lot and connected by streets too wide to comfortably walk. The single-passenger vehicle is the mortal enemy of a healthy city.