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Brent Toderian

Letter to a Car-Addicted City

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Brent Toderian, urban planning consultant and former Vancouver Director of City Planning wrote this “Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City” for the city of Perth, Australia. We’ve taken the liberty to replace Perth with Houston in the following excerpt, since the author noted in the original piece that “Although written for Perth, it’s applicable to any city facing car dependency.” We think it’s surprisingly accurate portrayal of Houston today and the steps needed to transform Houston for the future.

“We could never do that in our city” – eight words I’ve heard many times all over the world.

It’s amazing how much energy goes into making excuses for why a city can’t get better.

Although I’ve heard great passion for better city-making ... I’ve also heard some of those excuses, while working with stakeholders, politicians and State planning and transport staff.

“[Houston] is different,” I’ve been told, in various ways.

It’s true, [Houston] is different. Every city is. But you’re not THAT different. You’re really not.

Cities have more in common that they have differences. What every city absolutely has in common is that it takes vision, will and skill to get better. It takes follow-through. It takes fewer excuses and more focus on all you can accomplish if you want it bad enough.

[Houston] is currently mostly a car-dependent city.

You’ve got a lot of suburban sprawl – more than most cities.

Yes, you have some impressive rail infrastructure, some successful pedestrian streets and places in the central area, and you’ve been building some initial urban biking infrastructure. some very good projects for a more walkable, livable city are currently underway. These have been smart moves, and more will be needed.

But the car is still king here. And you’re spending even more money and energy keeping it that way.

Your suburbs are incredibly spread out. Not all suburbia around the world is urban sprawl, but too much of it is.

The main determiner of sprawl is car-dependency, and so much of your suburbia is sprawl.

It didn’t have to be that way, it wasn’t inevitable – you made choices that have lead you here. There are big costs and consequences connected to those choices.

Other cities chose differently, like Vancouver in Canada where I was chief planner for six years.

Many other cities I’m now working with around the world are choosing differently right now, as you read this. Many cities understand that their future isn’t inevitable – it’s designed.

Smart cities are working hard to become true multi-modal cities – where residents have many inviting transportation options like walking, biking and public transport, and don’t need to totally rely on the car.

It’s not impossible – all it takes is a change of priorities and perspective. Smart cities are proving that being more multi-modal is a key to success, in almost every way success is measured, but particularly in economic success.


Will [Houston] be a smart city?

You seem to be at a crossroads.

One [path] leads to continued car dependence, with the increasingly quantified and undeniable costs and consequences. The other leads to a healthier, greener, more resilient multi-modal future that also happens to be more economically successful.

It’s not too late to change, but the longer you wait, the further down the wrong track you go, the harder it will be for you.

The future isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice.

Design it better.

Full commentary: Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City
Source: Planetizen, November 10, 2014

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