Urban Inspirations: Andy Kunz on New Urbanism and High-Speed Trains in America

Andy Kunz is an urban designer, new urbanist and a proponent of building new train systems to solve our transportation problems. Kunz talked to Carbusters about the importance of New Urbanism for creating walkable and bikeable towns and cities, as well as the urgent need for investments into green transportation. He lays out his ideas for high-speed rail as a solution for a number of problems facing transportation in the United States. Kunz suggests using principles of New Urbanism and introducing new rail-systems in the US will help to get people out of their cars, onto public transportation, and create more urban spaces with less room for the car.

What is New Urbanism all about and what does it mean for the carfree movement?

New Urbanism is a revival of the lost art of place making. The principles of New Urbanism come from a series of urban development and town planning practices, starting in many historical cities all over the world such as Greece and Rome. It is an updating of past practices transforming cities into more viable and enjoyable places to live. At its basis is creating urban spaces where the car is not required, with mixed-use public transportation and supporting walking and cycling as daily transportation, rather than weekend sports.

Where has New Urbanism worked best to create a walkable and bikeable urban area?

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is one of the best examples in the world of a city that has reclaimed space taken up by the car. During the 1960s the city was full of cars and little by little they have reclaimed this space. Today, there is an entire network of carfree spaces – you will see people walking and using bikes all the time. Danish urban designer Jan Gehl was behind many of the changes in Copenhagen. He was also hired as a consultant in the US to show similar changes could be made in the city of New York. There have been positive changes including a movement towards removing cars from prime squares and streets, some blocks of the city are now completely closed off to cars – hopefully this is just the beginning. However, Europe is way ahead of America in terms of taking the car out of the picture. Although interest is growing and many people are now using public transport, there still remains barely any carfree spaces in the US.

Can New Urbanism be applied anywhere in the world?

Absolutely. The principles behind New Urbanism come from time-tested principles of creating urban areas. So it already exists in many places all over the world, but the key is to get new urban developments to follow the same principles. In America this form of urban development was thrown away. Instead, from 1945, a completely foreign form of development took place, based around the car. It became a crazy sprawl with no history, which doesn’t make any sense – economically, politically, functionally, or environmentally. The problem now is that many European and Asian countries are adopting the American urban model, when they should simply adapt an existing model from their own history.

You point towards investing in high-speed trains in the US as a solution to major crises including a collapsing economy, outdated infrastructure and out of control carbon emissions. Why did you choose trains over the alternatives?

Well we are promoting all of the alternatives. I see it as a complete system: high-speed trains are the backbone to regional rail systems, then local trams, trolleybuses and taxis, as well as areas to walk and cycle – together forming a green and sustainable transportation system. High-speed rail in particular connects the whole system, and feeds all forms of public transport so there is no need for a car in the system. But you need all the pieces to work together. It wouldn’t matter if you were traveling six blocks, or six states all working components – an integrated rail system, or enhanced capacity for riding bikes and walking for example, means that there is no need for a car. It would also reduce dependency on oil and lower carbon emissions. Currently, US road networks are built for long distance and high-capacity travel, with smaller regional and local roads extending from this. So the idea is to form a parallel system all based on rail, bicycles and walking.

What examples can the US learn from?

You can see high-speed trains already in action in many parts of Europe and Asia. France started building high-speed rail in the early 1980s and has continued to improve this, as well as develop new systems to complement this. For example, a newly opened tram network opened in Nice feeds into the national train system and Paris has a Velib bicycle rental programme. Therefore, France and many parts of Europe are great models for America. But investment is what is needed.

What reaction have you received from decision-makers and other stakeholders?

Now for the first time in many years we now have a president that appreciates and understands the value of high-speed rail. We have just passed a stimulus package that put in around US$9 billion into the rail system – one of the largest amounts of money invested into rail in US history. Currently there is huge interest in public transportation, particularly rail; it is being talked about at all levels. It’s great to see so much interest for sustainable transportation.

The economic system is currently undergoing a major credit crisis. What has been the impact your plans for high-speed rail?

The economic crisis has had several implications. One of course is the question of when will we get the money to build? Of course, this is an investment and putting permanent solutions in place will benefit the country over time. It will also help reduce US dependency on imported oil, currently between US$6-7 billion is spent per year. Enhancing transport efficiency has many spin-offs such as improving the environmental, economic and social landscape. Moving people in a more sustainable way will lower costs of oil imports, create jobs in the building and running of the system; and generate opportunities in real estate for building compact, sustainable and carfree communities around the train stations.

In a world so obsessed with the car, are you optimistic that ideas from New Urbanism will make a difference to creating a more pedestrian-friendly urban culture?

New Urbanism has been doing that for a long time, it just needs to keep going. New Urbanism has been behind the revitalisation of many historical cities in the world, particularly in Europe and the US, which were not valued and either abandoned or demolished. In the US for example, many places have introduced carfree zones since the 1980s and other laws making them more walkable and updated with the introduction of an integrated public transportation system. But now it needs to be stepped up to a faster pace, to make a fundamental shift in how Americans travel – this can be brought together into one system.

What projects have you got lined up for the future?

My main focus is to push for a paradigm shift in America. I think high-speed rail will help solve serious issues like climate change and peak oil. Everyone has a role to play in this. I am working on promoting and making it a national priority; working with advocacy groups to pressure the US government to provide the funding for it. In parallel with this I am helping promote the development of pedestrian and bike-friendly communities. There is no reason why America shouldn’t introduce a Velib system like we see in Paris. The whole idea of carfree cities, widespread bicycle and train use is the solution to drastically cutting oil and other resource consumption. Solving these problems is making carfree cities the mainstream – walkable and bikeable cities are enjoyable places to live and have multiple benefits.

By Jane Harding

For more information, please visit:

www.UrbanDesign.org and www.NewUrbanism.org

One Comment

  1. Posted 1 June, 2012 at 06:22 | Permalink

    These urban ideas will be of great help to solve many Italian local problems…

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