The Religion of the City: Cars, Mass Transit and Coronavirus
Religion is a uniquely human reality. As are cities. As we emerge from our burrows of sequestration, the silent cities and places of worship will become human again, versus the present sad memory of what they once were.
We will recover from another human reality, the pandemic and when we do we will be forced to address some questions. Before this century, the automobile was once seen as the way Americans could create a new reality: a huge middle class that could control its life by using the freedom that cars gave them to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and to live where they wanted. Before this latest change of sequestration, that vision of what cars meant to our culture was changing —especially in cities.
Mass transit, the lifeblood of many cities, is seen as a universal good as the inevitable direction all humanity should follow. The climate crisis meant that the more people traveled together the less carbon was created. So mass transit was an answer, until using it infected millions of people with the Coronavirus virus.
But mass transit is just one way to fight the climate crisis. You could also recreate cities to “Live Work Learn Play” in one community, with hundreds of these places knitted together within existing communities. For a generation, city planner Jeff Speck advocated the creation of “Walkable Cities” as the future of our urban life if we were to reduce our carbon footprint and assert aesthetic control of our environment from the profit-driven creation of segregated zoning districts and residential towers in our cities.
In that full-on prescription of a movement away from living in suburbia and in skyscrapers, John Massengale wrote a terrific book Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns in 2014 with Victor Dover (it even had a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales!). A fully formed future was offered, in both common sense and aesthetic experience. Cars are seen fully subordinated in our cities, with fully realized examples in Europe projected to be our future. But the world has hit a change time, and these visions may change too.
The common denominator of the last 40 years of urban rethinking in light of the climate crisis and the failures of centralized, functionally segregated cities are obvious. In the last century, cities were often gutted to allow unlimited car movement and access. These inhuman, dangerous and plain ugly brutalizations of our cities undeniably showed that cars are The Great Satan. But ideology often collides with cultural realities. With religious fervor, New Urbanism has been visioned with cars as necessary evils, and or cities being changed to limit their impact.
But all religions run up against the world they exist in. After World War 2, American religion itself was seen as essential, necessary, fully integrated into our culture, with over 75% of the population being engaged in it. Now, that interest is being halved. I think that a post-pandemic world will create yet more change for our cities and religion.
Human needs do not change, but human values do. The extreme devotion to cars and religion of the mid-XX century has reversed, but I think the full-stop on so much of our XXI century lives caused by the pandemic has caused rethinking by many. Anecdotally, places of worship, which were largely prohibited from traditional functioning for a year, are changing, not dying. The buildings built to be central in our lives, religious sacred spaces are seen as being less essential, not only because fewer people are devoted to traditional worship, but are shown that gathering in a building is not essential after sequestration prevented it, but churches survived. I think that the relationship between our cities, cars, and mass transit will be changed by the pandemic, too —and by the way, cars are evolving. Cars may not be consigned to the ash bin of urban planning as visioned before the pandemic.
In this century, cities are making great efforts to limit car use within their borders, but the total miles driven on American roads was increasing before the pandemic (and has year on year) after a dip caused by the Great Recession, even though whole neighborhoods are becoming pedestrian-only.
But Manhattan, the epicenter of both Coronavirus and mass transit, has seen car use spike and mass transit use crater as people need to travel, but are terrified to pack subways and busses, and some places are just too far to walk. Many cities like New Haven and San Francisco have taken dramatic steps to discourage car use including extensive “traffic calming” efforts in a time where the alternative to newly risky mass transit use is, in fact, cars, and that means that more traditional internal combustion engines will sit and spew carbon into the air.
Independent of this changing time, the electric car revolution is in full throttle. Manufacturers like Volvo are dedicating themselves to be fully electric in their engines, reducing emissions. The objections to carbon production by cars will become mute in the next generation, so the objections to the rampage of cars through our cities will become more aesthetic and lifestyle-focused.
Those living during sequestration in cities are universally depressed over all the things they cannot do —shows, museums, dining. Some have simply left to go out to places that are less dense —suburbia, a place where cars still rule communities and culture. The once-proud beacons of religious faith, churches, and other places of worship, are being abandoned too. But while the buildings are empty, the congregations are still connected, some are even growing, connected through the internet. The conventional wisdom is that Zoom and live streaming are a temporary fix to a pandemic’s brutal isolation, but these electronic alternatives may actually revive worship that had seen a full-on erosion of in-building presence for decades.
Could it be that despite “traffic calming” that same reliance on virtual living will crimp the need for and economic viability of mass transit? If so, will cars, especially electric cars, become newly viable within our cities? If so, designers will, once again, envision ways to integrate quiet, emission-less cars into an urban fabric that has spent two generations focused on the elimination of the automobile as the denominator of so much of urban life.
Outcomes often happen that we cannot know, let alone follow our carefully crafted motivations.
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