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Imagining a car-freer city

Picture this: In the core of Colorado Springs -- Fillmore to Cimarron, Union to Old Colorado City, approximately, one person in each household makes a commitment to walk or bike to necessary appointments three out of five days a week.

The number of bikers and walkers on city streets multiplies visibly. The City, which has long paid lip service, now sees the need for public safety and proceeds to paint lines on the asphalt, designating bike lanes. Aggressive drivers are annoyed but far less likely to harass a biker than before, due to sheer numbers and the likelihood of being seen.

When the school year begins, parents want their kids to be able to walk or bike safely to school. Clinics are held and a citizen's group commits to monitor safe crossing of busy streets. Cars are held up an average of 30 seconds longer in school crossing areas. Drivers nervously rev their engines but no one dares race through an intersection where 30 to 40 children are crossing at a time under the watchful gaze of three to four vigilant adults. Eventually, since the need for inner city traffic cops has lessened, a bike cop is assigned to every busy school crossing for a minimum of two hours per day.

The aforementioned one person per household begins to notice his waist-line shrinking, his legs firming up, his blood pressure lowering. When he comes home at night, he eats better, drinks less and sleeps more.

Word gets around that Colorado Springs is not only beautiful, sitting at the foot of America's mountain, but it's a place where a family can bike or walk to the center of downtown without worrying about being gunned down by a car. Air quality in the town's center, it's reported, has improved dramatically in the past year since the biking/walking initiative was launched. Tourism booms.

Safe, well-lighted parking garages are strategically located on downtown's perimeter streets where commuters can park at an affordable rate then comfortably walk to work, to shop, to dine.

Neighborhoods surrounding the city's core want a piece of the action. Abandoned parking lots become car parks on city transit lines where you and your bike can hitch a ride downtown.

Now, when drivers exceed the speed limit on a city street, they're heckled and jeered by the predominant walkers and bikers. Speeding, racing through red lights and reckless driving become not only a breach of the law but a social stigma.

Since the number of bikers and walkers has reached critical mass, funding to complete networks of county-wide and regional trails has become readily available. Developers heed the call of consumers for housing that is bike- or foot-accessible to work, shopping and school.

Lives and minds slow down to meet the new pace of the city. Instead of jumping in the car at the last minute and rushing to drop off a kid, pick up a loaf of bread or deliver a report, citizens must now plan ahead -- 15 extra minutes for the commute, up an hour earlier in the morning, an extra sweater and a good hat in winter before walking to the coffee shop.

Mixed use zoning allows old, abandoned buildings to be turned into neighborhood diners, corner grocery stores. On the streets where we used to roll along in our individually sealed tombs, we now greet familiar faces on our daily routes.

At night at home, windows open, the roaring sweep of automobile wheels and the grinding of engines is notably diminished.

Reading Adam Singer's CARtoons has convinced me that the single most radical political act any of us undertake is to forsake our God-forsaken automobiles. Just imagining a car-freer city, neighborhood, life is invigorating. And the vigor only grows as the vision expands. What if our city and others like it finally said to the Department of Transportation, "Take your highway funding and shove it!" and demanded instead that the hundreds of millions of dollars converted into asphalt each year be turned into trains that would take us, en masse, to Boulder, to Denver, to Fort Collins, to Santa Fe?

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race," said H.G. Wells in the 1920s. Can anyone imagine the enormity of relief from despair that a bicycle-driven town might engender?

Think about it. And if you want to do something about it, drop me a line.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

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