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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Car and the Narrative of Economic Development

Posted by on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 10:23 AM


As you can see, the car is so out of place in the city. And yet, until recently, we thought the city was the home of the car. I recall my father, who was an economist, returning from an official visit to China (this was in 1984) and explaining that two things struck him most about Beijing: It had no birds in the sky (he assumed they had all been eaten) and everyone went around on bicycles. At the time, this abundance of bicycles was seen as a sign of economic underdevelopment. A highly developed city had lots of cars and an infrastructure for car mobility. This thinking is now slowly changing. Poor cities like Bogota no longer see the end of development in the car and instead are investing in an infrastructure of bikes; and rich cities like Copenhagen now see bikes as the more developed and rational end of urban transportation. Developing cities are stopping where they are and rich cities are reversing from where they are. Real progress can only be made by detaching the car from the narrative of economic development.
What is an urban bike, anyway?
You can commute, get some fresh air, or fetch groceries on pretty much any bike that rolls. But urban bicycles are a developing class of bike which falls between skinny tired, racing-style bicycles and their burly offroad cousins, the mountain bike. They're known by a lot of trade names: city bikes, commuters, town bicycles and hybrids. Generally speaking, urban bikes are optimized for reliable city travel.


Comments (12) RSS

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Bikes are nice and all, but they are individualistic and unstructured, less suited to true density. Especially in a city welcoming to the young and infirm, why wouldn't you build a city around public transportation?
Posted by Pedestrian on January 31, 2013 at 11:17 AM · Report this
@1: Because you have to convince all the people who hate public transportation to help pay for it, and there's a shitload of them. But yes, we should be working full-steam on developing the city around anything other than private motorized vehicles.
Posted by tiktok on January 31, 2013 at 12:06 PM · Report this
Yeah, Ebenezer was a winner as an economist. Look at Zimbabwe now. He (and Mugabe) should have hung together a long time ago. At least one of them is gone now.
Posted by Stranger'sWorstNightmare on January 31, 2013 at 12:12 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
Um, Charles? Beijing was just a BIT different in 1984. In 1984, China was an economically paralyzed and impoverished giant; no one could AFFORD to even look at at a car. You may have missed this, but there's been a bit of economic upheaval there in the last TWENTY-NINE YEARS.

The bicycles have all been replaced by scooters and again by cars. China is the hottest car market on the planet; they bought 15 million cars in 2012, and that number will increase in 2013. Beijing famously has some of the worst traffic in the entire world; in 2010 there was a jam on the freeway that was 62 miles long and lasted for nine days.

Fewer than 20% of Beijing residents ride bicycles today; frankly I'd rather ride on I-5 than any street in that smog-choked clusterfuck.
Posted by Fnarf on January 31, 2013 at 12:21 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 5
The birds probably died off due to all the iron foundries in people's backyards, Charles.

There's been economic upheaval going on in China for a few thousand years. Before those meddling Europeans.
Posted by Will in Seattle on January 31, 2013 at 12:34 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 6
The car is the mobile extension of the suburban home.

With a car, my living room goes directly to the mall or supermarket. The food court at Southcenter is my dining room.

If you understood this, you'd be a happier person.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on January 31, 2013 at 12:36 PM · Report this
Charles Mudede 7
fnarf, is that not my point?
Posted by Charles Mudede on January 31, 2013 at 12:48 PM · Report this
@7, you don't know? Then how can we?
Posted by sarah70 on January 31, 2013 at 1:01 PM · Report this
emma's bee 9
I like your nod to the urban bike, Charles. Here's my trusty urban steed:…
Posted by emma's bee on January 31, 2013 at 1:18 PM · Report this
My experience in Bogota is that most people take the bus or cab when they can. Biking? not so much. Traffic there can be a major clusterfuck. You really would be taking your life in your hands if you attempted to bike it. Out of the city you see a fair number of cyclists but they are all athletes. It is a popular place to train because of the high altitude there.
Posted by Senor Guy on January 31, 2013 at 1:40 PM · Report this
Fnarf 11
@10, they bike on the one day a week when the main thoroughfare is closed to vehicles.

@7, I don't think so. Bicycles in cities is generally an indication that the city in question is no longer economically vibrant, but has entered the museum or boutique stage. Tourist cities have lots of bikes; cities where the money gets made don't. Amsterdam is full of bikes; Rotterdam much less so, Essen and Dortmund even less. A hundred years from now, China might have some twee spots with cycle paths too.
Posted by Fnarf on January 31, 2013 at 3:54 PM · Report this
My understanding is that it is basically a Sunday morning thing but to be quite honest the times I've been to Bogota I didn't see it in action. I will say cabs are in abundence and seem to pop up everywhere. Bus rides there are always interesting to say the least. I'll probably be back this Christmas. I'll have to check out the Sunday closed street biking.
Posted by Senor Guy on January 31, 2013 at 5:01 PM · Report this

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