Pitchforks, Torches, and a Car-Free Oslo

Today, dedicated Strong Towns member and President & Co-Founder of Advocates for Healthy Communities, John Simmerman, shares news and thoughts on his hometown of Austin, TX, where Strong Towns is speaking this week.

I’m finally home. It’s such a wonderful feeling really, as I’ve been crisscrossing the globe on the Active Towns Tour pretty much non-stop since September 3, including nearly a month of exploring activity promoting environments in a multitude of cities across seven European countries.

One of the reasons I’m so excited about being home in Austin, Texas is that we are currently serving as host to the annual NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) Designing Cities Conference. The following is the conference program welcome message from Janette Sadik-Kahn, NACTO Chair and former Commissioner, New York City, Department of Transportation:

The future of the planet is written on our streets, and they must be rewritten to meet the needs of more people. New street designs that save lives, prioritize people and transit and better reflect their diverse communities are key to the livability of our cities and the economic sustainability of our nations.

This year’s meeting features many of the nation’s top thought leaders in urban design, transportation and place making. I am fortunate and honored to call several of these individuals my friends and colleagues and find myself in a rather giddy mood as I get ready to welcome them and the rest of the conference attendees.

I’m lucky enough to be back in town and have the flexibility my schedule to serve as a volunteer during the conference. And in the spirit of the Active Towns Initiative, I’ll be leading morning fun runs on Thursday and Friday at 7 am for any of the attendees looking to get in a little exercise and experience some of the city’s premier Activity Assets.

This meeting is taking place at a very opportune moment in time given recent high profile news such as Oslo, Norway boldly announcing that it will go car free in it’s city center within four years. On the other hand, other relevant news includes some rather concerning community pushback and reversals of transportation reform efforts in Boulder, CO, Coronado Island, CA and Minneapolis, MN, among others.

As referenced earlier, the conference itself is a meeting of some of the nation’s most progressive, cutting edge urban transportation minds and they will be diving into the nitty gritty details and data of the what-to-do’s and how-to-do them. But some of these professionals, during their free time I should add, will also be graciously helping out with a series of community facing engagement events and presentations as part of an educational initiative dubbed Austin Better Streets Week.

These sessions will feature, among others, Strong Town’s very own Chuck Marohn, Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners Town Planning, Gabe Klein, author of Start-Up City and Janette Sadik-Khan. Our local CNU Chapter and Strong Towns Central Texas advocates are working diligently behind the scenes to encourage community members, neighborhood association leaders, as well as city and county elected officials to attend.

I believe that it’s vitally important to communicate the message to the masses and city leadership that urban transportation and land use reform can lead to positive quality of life enhancements and economic growth. Ultimately education is a city’s best chance at preventing and countering the reflexive rolling out of pitchforks and burning torches with each stroad rightsizing project, lane narrowing effort or pedestrian refuge island installation.

Speaking from the perspective of national change agents, we readily cheer on and celebrate the news of fearless leadership and transformation such as the announcements coming out of Oslo and Modesto, CA this week. We also intuitively understand that the road ahead for most cities will likely continue to lack a clear vision from the top and be a messy, difficult and drawn out process of open houses, community meetings and one-on-one efforts to address the concerns of many individuals.

All the more reason why it is necessary to communicate with, educate and gain the support of the politicians. Because they, as the elected representatives, will be on the receiving end of vitriol from the haters and expressions of frustration and confusion from the concerned yet fearful, uninformed or misinformed citizens. Ultimately, if politicians are not solidly on board with the vision and why it is so important, their resolve will waiver, as was demonstrated in Boulder, San Antonio and Coronado.

To be clear, I have no illusions that this week’s educational experiences will be sufficient enough to stave off the vigorous resistance of the status quo and elicit clarity with our officials, but every little incremental bit helps. Austin is quite fortunate to be in a position to benefit from this tremendous opportunity for the general public and leaders alike to hear directly from these urban design and transportation reform luminaries.

If you’ll be attending the conference, drop me a line or show up for one our early morning runs.

(All photos from the Active Towns Facebook page and/or website, used with permission.)

As an enthusiastic Strong Towns Member and passionate advocate for creating healthy, active living environments, John Simmerman, when not at home in Austin, TX, is typically on the road exploring cities and towns which have established or emerging cultures of activity. To follow along with this journey and learn how our streets can serve as Activity Assets checkout the Active Towns Facebook page and website.