The Pope's visit last week meant many dramatic, though temporary adjustments for the cities where he stopped. Much has been made of the security that descended upon places like New York City and Washington DC (as if they don't have enough security already), but one story that bears telling is the complete shut down of car traffic in Philadelphia.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer comes this on-the-ground report about what it was like to live in a car-free city for three days.
The unprecedented shutdown of the five-square-mile heart of Philadelphia was driven by the need for security (or rather, the perceived need for security), but it inadvertently created the kind of car-free city that urbanists dare imagine only in their wildest dreams. The virtual absence of vehicles in the sprawling secure zone, from Girard to Lombard, was a revelation. Instead of locking us in, it turned out that the much-maligned traffic box liberated us from the long tyranny of the car. Philadelphia has always claimed to be a walkable city, but this weekend we saw walkability redefined.
Take a moment and picture this happening in your own city (if you can even conceive of it). Ina Saffron writes further: "It was as if we were celebrating a war we didn't know we were fighting. The streets were ours at last."
This strange notion rings utterly true for me. Streets really don't feel like they are the purview of citizens. Instead, they are a place (or non-place) for cars, an off-limits area that we rush across to get to safety and teach our kids to stay out of at all costs. What if we could make productive use of all that space, at least on occasion?
On a social justice-tinted note, Saffron concludes:
It's no accident that Pope Francis chose a tiny black Fiat as his papal vehicle during his U.S. tour. It served as a symbol of both his concern with climate change and his disdain for material things. But we should also take it as evidence that cars are not his priority. We're more likely to care about the poor and homeless when we see them at close range, rather than through a car window.