28 August, 2006

Cities for Bikes, and for People

One of our favorite spots in Europe is the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano. We have spent many weeks there, lodged in Ivana and Giorgio's 14th century inn, the Mueble Il Riccio. In the morning we cross the square to our favorite cafe for cappuchinos. The days are taken up touring the surrounding vineyards, fattorias ( farms), and villages. And, in the evening, we walk a few blocks down the hill to our favorite Osteria where the owner and Miche (the cat) introduce us to the simple food grown and raised at the fattorias in the valley. Then it's a stroll around town and a glass of wine on the roof-top terrace above our room.

Among the reasons we love Montepulchiano is that it is closed to non-resident car traffic. The sound of the town is conversation, laughter, singing, and music (from the music school), not the din of traffic. But Montepulchiano is not unique in this; thousands of European towns have closed their gates to the motorcar. Even car dependant cities are closing streets and whole neighborhoods to motorized vehicles. In car choked Athens I have walked block after block on streets open only to bikes and pedestrians. London has imposed an onerous tax of about $13.50 per day on anyone who wants to drive into the city. In the Dutch town of Groningen some 60% of people travel by bike thanks to wise long term civic planning.

The benefits of car free areas, and even whole town and cities, are enormous and as more people see them there is a call bar motorized vehicles from even more areas, and to build new neighborhoods designed primarily with the pedestrian and bicyclist in mind. Noise, pollution, maintenance, and danger decrease. While health, a sense of community, and aesthetics improve. There are even economic benefits as retailers and other buisness people, who often initially oppose such plans, find that shoppers flock to such areas finding them far more pleasent than the mall or box store.

If you want to find out more about car free cities, you might try the Carfree.com site. James Howard Kuntsler's Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere are shocking in their clarity. Architects Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, who are credited with restarting the new urbaninst movement, wrote Suburban Nation, a well thought out work on post modern civil planning and architecture.

With irrefutable evidence of global warming and peak oil, this may be a good time to follow the lead of the Europeans and the New Urbanists. And if I may make a political comment: the idea that there is any doubt in the scientific community about the reality of both global warming and peak oil, is the biggest lies ever told by certain politicians.

When someone ask me why I so love Montepulciano, I tell them that it is the most civilized and most advanced place I have seen. The growth of civilization is measured not by the rush toward the bigger and the more technological, but by the wisdom to choose what technology is appropriate and what should be limited or even discarded. On that limestone ridge upon which Montepulchiano sits, there has been a settlement since at least Etruscan times, and probably well before. The Tuscans here have had thousands of years to build a civilization and to decide what is truly valuable. Among the things they most passionately preserve are streets for people, good wine, locally grown food, music, art, and, of course, the bicycle.


Dad said...

Great post. Anyone who is interested in Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk might also want to familiarize himself with the pointed, witty and utterly to-the point work of urbanist Leon Krier, who really had a significant hand in kickstarting this whole discussion. See, e.g., the interview at http://luciensteil.tripod.com/katarxis02-1/id23.html. Among other things, anyone who appreciates truly fine craftsmanship -- in bicycles or anything else -- will be awed by his incredible drawing facility.

Anonymous said...

For those who love nice old bikes and Tuscany, there is a randonnée : L'Eroica.
See some pictures at http://www.blufreccia.com/img/59en/gallery/index.htm
and others at http://www.brookssaddles.com/brooksengland.html in "events"

Velo Orange said...

HA! I have already gotten one e-mail accusing me, in effect, of being an damn anti-American, Europe-loving, liberal. Not only that, but the author was kind enough to point out all the stereotypical European flaws. As if all that was not enough, he implied that he would not buy another bell from us.

See what can happen when you like French bikes ;<)

Dad said...

L'Eroica sounds so totally amazing. How far is it? Is it a real race? How does one enter? It looks like Tuscany but I'm seeing street signs for Rome(?). Man, that is simply one of the excellent things in the world.

Anonymous said...

this makes me remember how poor i am.

have fun in europe, rich dudes.

crawley said...

Amazing. This would never happen in the U.s.A. You'd think maybe here in Berkeley. How much more "progressive" can you get, right? Were all under the big red, white and blue Thumb.

Andy in Germany said...

Well mate, you've gained some friends in Europe...

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

Before anything else, many thanks for the parcel. Photos will arrive soon, as well as a little something for you.

I have spent a lot of time in that part of Italy, and Montepulciano is indeed a special place. There is a quality of light there that is ethereal. I'm not surprised that you have, rather unfortunately, received an e-mail from a narrow-minded red-state resident. It may be another bell gone (sigh), but one less moron with which to deal.

Oh, I'm sorry. Was that too harsh? One does wonder when the US will wake up to the reality of what its over-consumption (particularly in relation to its population size) is doing to the rest of the world (yes, red-state members, I know you don't give a damn...). Yet, what should one expect from the land of the ironically named Freedom Fries? (I expect one is free to eat them, but just don't talk about it on the telephone...)

While many are obsessed with their "life-style" (attempting to copy what is seen on TV or in the magazines), many more just want to get on with having a life of quality: good, healthy food to eat; a clean environment in which to live; peace in which to raise a family. In much of Europe - and particularly in this lovely little corner of Toscana - they have been able to do it. Is it any wonder that this area is the home of the "slow food" movement, which celebrates home-made meals and fellowship more than getting your food fast and cheap?

Of course, the US can change, too. The only thing that is needed is will, specifically political will. I fear, however, that, as the past hand-full of years have shown, whatever political will may have once existed has peaked, and is now a vanishing commodity. Much like oil... Perhaps going car-free is a little too much, too soon, for the US. Why not start with increasing the average mpg rate of new cars to, say, 35 mpg? That ought to be a good start.

Europe isn't perfect - no place is - but there is much that the US can learn from the rest of the world, if it just opens its mind and stops believing that it is number 1. Remember what your DI (or High School football coach, for you non-joiners) told you: there is no "I" in team...

As for the new-urbanism movement, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck are important figures, but search out a now out-of-print journal called Art + Architecture, printed in the late 70s-early 80s in California: beautiful synergistic, cohesive, and organic philosophies, systems, plans, and constructions. It was ahead of its time, and is sadly missed.

Ok, enough yakkin'! Hope you continue to have a wonderful time.

Ciao...and Alla vostra salute!
(a former US-resident who saw the writing on the wall a long time ago...and split...)

Anonymous said...

I must admit, I envy Chris'lifestyle. I also think we have to remember that, although there may have been some good fortune involved, there was also the intelligent use of hard work. While I'm certainly not rich, I guess I am at the point in my life where living in Tuscany is a real option to be considered. Anyway, it's certainly not an issue that would make me take my bell business across the street. Your liberal friend...

Velo Orange said...

The Slow Food movement is, all by itself, proof that Tuscany is at the pinnacle of civilization.

At least spend a summer in Tuscany when you retire.

As for cost; Warren Harding(the great mountaineer)said: "There is a leisure class at both ends of the financial spectrum." I know many people who make far less than the average American, yet travel extensively.


KM said...


I spent 2 weeks cycling in Tuscany this past April. I had been before but always by car. It is truly a special place and the thought of retiring there has certainly crossed my mind more than once.

Thanks for the memory


mike said...

dear chris,
i read this back then, and in rereading it now, i am so pleased to be able to support Velo Orange in any way i can! An excellent reflection...and i appreciate the references as well. thanks for writing it, and for bringing it (as the kids say...).
best regards,