I’ve always felt that nothing affects the quality of life in a city so much as urban planning and public transport. Imagine NYC without the subway. It’d be a disaster. It’d almost be Chicago.
But more than my hippie liberal tendencies to promote the use of public transit and cycling at the expense of motorists’ convenience, there’s a real public health component involved as well: the more people walk or cycle the healthier they will be. In this way, urban planning is the ultimate in soft paternalism. Moreover, the State’s interest in promoting an active lifestyle is also proportionate to the share of the health care burden it bears. So don’t be surprised if over the coming years we see the roll-out of a semi-socialized health care plan coupled with drives to get people to drive less.
Now encouraging healthier living is certainly a noble goal, but there’s an even more direct way in which urban planning affects public health: avoidable deaths caused by motoring accidents. Here, as on many issues of social responsibility, Sweden leads the way with a program they call Vision Zero, a zero-tolerance policy on accidental deaths caused by automobiles. Whenever a death is reported, the government inspects the site of the accident and modifies the road space so that it will never happen again. There are many ways of going about this, but to give a couple of examples think about improving lines of sight, physically separating bike lanes, implementing traffic calming measures, and installing pedestrian mediums in the middle of busy intersections. This article gives a great summation of Vision Zero.
Sadly we don’t share the Swedes’ zeal for public safety here in America where there was a reported 42,000 deaths caused by automobiles last year and 250 in New York City alone. 250 people died a preventable death and nobody blinks an eye. I happen to subscribe to a couple of cycling/public transit in NYC email newsletters so I get word of every single motorist-related pedestrian or cyclist death. Really, really depressing. But I am happy to hear that the NYC DOT does work to clean up its messy streetsgrid. Their work on Madison Square was really well executed (PDF) and now, they plan to fix what might be the most dangerous intersection in Brooklyn: the crossing of Flatbush, Atlantic and 4th Ave. About time. Streetsblog reported on how bad the situation had become back in February, so it’s nice to see the city finally taking action.