Lightning Fast, Dirt Cheap: Five Tips From SF’s Protected Bike Lane Projects

Michael Anderson, Streetsblog USA

f you’d like to cut the project time of a new protected bike lane by 90 percent and the cost by 75 percent, Mike Sallaberry has some advice.

A senior transportation engineer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Sallaberry has a short piece in the new issue of ITE Journal sharing useful details on three projects in 2016 and 2017 that used the “quick-build” method. Instead of spending two years getting every detail right and then pouring permanent curbs, SFMTA built first — using paint, plastic and removable concrete islands — and asked questions both before and after.

The result, as Sallaberry explains, is a potentially more inclusive public process and a project that’s far more efficient.

“Common practice in San Francisco has been to identify the ideal result then wait for design, funding, contracting and construction to deliver the design,” says Sallaberry. “While this makes sense for many situations, a new approach was used recently where intermediate designs were implemented in the near term to act as ‘stepping stones’ to a longer term design.”

Maybe most important, the inherent flexibility of the quick-build approach makes it institutionally easier for a public agency to innovate. Without so much “fear of installing something that does not work,” Sallaberry explains, city staff feel free “to try new ideas to solve challenging issues.”

The agile process recalls modern software engineering, so it’s fitting that San Francisco is among the first cities embracing it. Here are five lessons we saw in Sallaberry’s piece for other cities interested in becoming fast followers.

Read more at https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/02/27/lightning-fast-dirt-cheap-five-tips-from-sfs-protected-bike-lane-projects/

No, Protected Bike Lanes Do Not Need to Cost $1 million Per Mile

Michael Anderson, People for Bikes.org

Putting protected bike lanes on both sides of a street can cost $1 million per mile. The country’s most physically beautiful protected bike lane network, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, cost several million dollars per mile.

Like most things in life, there are always ways to spend more money to make something more awesome.

But every once in a while, someone will acquire and share the mistaken belief that a protected bike lane, like a sidewalk, has to cost $1 million per mile. This is not true.

To explain, we’ll share three infographics (from past posts) that together tell the story pretty well.

First, here is a visual explanation of the “quick build” method many U.S. cities are using to modernize their project delivery process. Instead of trying to plan something for perfection from the beginning, like you’d need to do if you were building a freeway, cities advance along a spectrum of decreasingly flexible and increasingly durable materials over the course of a decade or so, gradually tweaking a street toward greater safety and comfort and fixing small issues along the way.

quick build spectrum
Tactical Urbanism: The Spectrum of Change, Michael Anderson, People for Bikes, Source.

Read more for “14 ways to make bike lanes better” and “protected bike lanes do not cost $1 million per mile”: https://peopleforbikes.org/blog/protected-bike-lanes-do-not-cost-1-million-per-mile/

New Blueprint Spreads the Gospel of Overnight Bike Lanes

Josh Cohen, Next City

Late last month, the Seattle Department of Transportation began upgrading the Second Avenue “pilot” protected bike lane by replacing plastic bollards with planters, installing new traffic signals and raising the pavement at busy driveway crossings. Unlike the usual multiyear design, review and build process, SDOT took the Second Avenue project from design to installation in just four months. They used paint and easily removable plastic bollards and promised to fix or reverse any problems they encountered after the lanes were on the ground.

That approach is part of a growing trend among city DOTs to quickly design and implement demonstration projects that help advance their bike and pedestrian network goals and illustrate to the public exactly how new types of infrastructure work in the real world. Last week, PeopleForBikes released a new report, “Quick Builds for Better Streets,” looking at lessons from projects in Seattle, New York, Chicago, Austin, Denver, Memphis, Pittsburgh and San Francisco for other cities interested in replicating the concept.

“We observed that a bunch of cities were doing cool stuff and wanted to put a name on this trend, take the lessons about how to make these rapid changes, digest them a little bit, put them into some form of blueprint that another city could replicate,” explains report co-author Michael Andersen, PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project staff writer.

The quick-build trend grew out of small-scale tactical urbanism projects where activists would block off a street or paint their own bike lane or create a protected bike lane with cheap plastic bollards. It was a way to demonstrate to glacially paced bureaucracies that change could be fast and easy.

New York City’s Department of Transportation was one of the first and certainly the most famous city government to adopt quick builds. Under former Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York created dozens of pedestrian plazas and pilot bike lanes using bollards and paint. Former NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt co-authored the PeopleForBikes report.

According to the report, a quick build is defined by four elements. It must be led by a city government or other public agency; installed roughly within a year of the start of planning; planned with the expectation that it may undergo change after installation; and built using materials that allow such changes.

Orcutt and Andersen drew on the experiences of cities experimenting with quick builds to come up with a list of ingredients required for success, which includes a designated team, a system for recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities, reliable funding, plans for speedily hiring contractors, impact metrics and more.

Read more: https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/cities-tactical-urbanism-speed-up-change-peopleforbikes

What is TOD?

by Joel Woodhull

Transit Oriented Development is becoming increasingly popular, but what is it really? TOD is a concept that is only a few years old. It is still being defined while simultaneously being corrupted in practice. A paper by Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler, “Transit Oriented Development: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality” tries to bring some coherency to the concept. Most of what follows is taken from that paper.

Places and Nodes
A theme that is evident throughout the history of transit is the distinction between places and nodes. The role of transit in creating a link between individual places and the broader region means that transit-oriented development, unlike other forms of development, should explicitly perform a dual function as both a node within a larger regional or metropolitan system and a good place in its own right. Station areas must provide access to transportation services and in many cases function as regional trip destinations, but the same areas must also serve as trip origins and, ideally, as coherent neighborhoods that do more than simply serve the station.

Contrast this relationship with that of freeway nodes, where nodes are the antithesis of places — essentially “no-man’s lands” with the poorest access on the network.

Evolution to TOD
Transit and development have a convoluted history. At first, in the streetcar suburbs at the turn of the last century, the streetcar lines and their adjacent residential communities typically evolved in a setting that no longer exists today. A single owner would build transit to add value to the residential development by providing a link between jobs in an urban center and housing at the periphery of a city. These places would be more aptly described as “Development-Oriented Transit” since transit was built to serve their development rather than vice-versa.

Then the long period of decline in transit ensued, with the loss of rail systems which were essential to the linkage between transit and land-use. With the exception of some of the commuter suburbs around older cities such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, which continued to function reasonably well as transit-based communities, most transit became a last resort rather than a reliable transportation option tied to development.

After World War II a new generation of transit systems was planned and built. The BART system in the San Francisco Bay Area, MARTA in Atlanta, and Metro in the Washington, D.C. area were opened in the 1970s. These systems were designed explicitly to work with the automobile, with the assumption that most people would drive to suburban stations rather than walking, biking, or riding feeder-bus systems. In this case, these systems were viewed as primarily serving a regional purpose, and the stations were considered nodes within this larger system, with little regard for the local place where each station was located. This form could be called “Auto-Oriented Transit”.

Today we are getting what might be called “Transit-Related Development”, where transit agencies and the federal government see large-scale real estate development on transit agency owned property as a way to “capture” some of the value created by high intensity access. This “joint development” approach has been used successfully in some locations, but simply generating a bit of revenue for the operating agency only begins to tap the potential of the relationship between transit and development. In other words, the “highest and best use” in financial terms is not always the best in transit or neighborhood terms.

Recently, interest in TOD has broadened beyond the possibility of financial return. Increasing evidence now exists that transit-oriented development can yield many more benefits than merely increased land value. The last decade saw subtle but promising shifts in the landscape of transit and development, with the convergence of a number of trends: growing transit ridership, increased investment in transit, frustration with congestion and sprawl, the smart growth and new urbanism movements, and a generally greater recognition of the advantages of linking development and transit. We are beginning to glimpse the full range of benefits that could be achieved with “Transit-Oriented Development”.

Defining Transit-Oriented Development

With the above as background, we can state some TOD performance criteria that will allow us to judge the quality of projects and to think clearly about the tradeoffs that must be made when pursuing a project:

1. Location Efficiency. Reduced auto dependency will result from an effective blending of convenient and efficient transportation links (node functions) with enhancements of the ability to carry out most everyday tasks close to home (place functions).

Location efficiency requires neighborhoods that provide high-quality transit, a mix of uses, and pedestrian-friendly design. Proximity to transit is just one of several key variables that determine the location efficiency of a neighborhood. Other critical factors include net residential density, transit frequency and quality, access to community amenities, and a good quality pedestrian environment.

2. Value Recapture. The location efficient mortgage is one way of capturing the value from reduced automobile dependence, by allowing families who can spend less on transportation to spend more on housing.

Extracting the excess investment in parking is another way of capturing value for the community. Parking is a significant but generally unrecognized component of high spending on transportation. Reducing parking requirements can have a significant impact on building costs, especially housing. Empirical research that has found that the average increase in the price of a housing unit with a parking space in San Francisco was $39,000 to $46,000 (Jia and Wachs 1997).

One way of accommodating cars while reducing the parking excess is to “unbundle” parking from housing and other building uses, to create a separate market for parking. This mechanism lets those who don’t value parking to spend their money on other things.

Savings from reduced parking costs (whether in residential units or other development) can be captured by households, developers, and local governments. They can be invested in assets, like housing, that appreciate in value over time and allow for individual household wealth accumulation.

3. Livability. Livability is subjective and defies easy definition. No definition can be completely objective. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at a definition of livability that is based on collective subjectivity rather than the values of a particular individual. Measures of livability that relate directly or indirectly to transit-oriented development include:

Improved air quality and gasoline consumption.
Increased mobility choices (pedestrian friendliness, friendliness, access to public transportation).
Decreased congestion/commute burden.
Improved access to retail, services, recreational, and cultural opportunities (including opportunities for youth to get involved in extra-curricular activities within the neighborhood).
Improved access to public spaces, including parks and plazas.
Better health and public safety (pollution-related illnesses, traffic accidents).
Better economic health (income, employment).

4. Financial Return. Planning for TOD projects requires understanding what type of return each of the public and private participants expects and ensuring that certain return thresholds can be met. But, while this means that TOD projects must be responsive to the discipline of market and financial realities, it does not mean that all development at transit-oriented locations should always strive to achieve the “highest and best” use for the site.

5. Choice. TOD is about expanding rather than circumscribing options. It is current patterns of suburban development that leaves few options for residents in terms of housing type or mode of transportation, not TOD.

Although a certain minimum overall density is certainly a prerequisite for making TOD work, it is not true that TOD will necessarily require everyone to live at higher densities than they already do. In many parts of the country, notably in California, there has been a proliferation of medium-density housing (apartments, condominiums, townhouses) that is not connected to transit and that incorporates none of the mixed- use or internal mobility of TOD. These projects function as high-density auto-oriented suburbs, with all of the disadvantages of density and none of the advantages of choices that TOD can offer.

Enhanced choice may entail:

A diversity of housing types that reflects the regional mix of incomes and family structures.
A greater range of affordable housing options.
A diversity of retail types. Diversity will necessarily be limited by the market area and the particular desires of the residents; however, this outcome could be measured in terms of how well the retail mix meets the needs and desires of the residents as they themselves define them.
A balance of transportation choices.

6. Efficient Regional Land-use Patterns. Transit-oriented development can foster much more efficient patterns and cut down on traffic generation. The fact that this development is concentrated around a transit station means that it consumes less land, generates less traffic, contributes much less to congestion and air pollution than more typical suburban development.

When a significant number of origins and destinations in the region are well-linked to a station, transit becomes a much more viable option. At the same time, transit-oriented development is one of the most important tools for creating more efficient regional land-use patterns. The more growth that can be accommodated in station areas, the less sprawl there will be.

Another (shorter) discussion of TOD is by Jeffrey Tumlin and Adam Millard Ball, “How to Make Transit-Oriented Development Work Number one: Put the transit back.” May 2003. PDF file

Cars & Other Motor Vehicles

by Joel Woodhull

Conflicts
Cars have many obvious virtues. They are the mainstay of our transportation system. They are deeply imbedded in the ways we live and will likely remain so for a very long time.

Being associated with the idea of freedom came early in the 1900’s. Privately owned traction companies and railroads were viewed as rapacious monopolies. The automobile became the symbol of democracy and freedom. It enabled the common man to get out from under the domination of the transport barons.

But an interesting reversal has taken place over the last 50 years. The automobile was so successful, in accumulating hidden subsidies to bolster its virtues, that its numbers overwhelmed its facilities.

Today there is widespread agreement that there are far too many of them. Even their advertisers recognize how much people dislike being inundated by car traffic, and therefore often depict cars on roads all by themselves. Lonely cars have become the dream, while real cars become ever more gregarious.

How much driving is there in Sonoma County? The recent Footprint project found that the per capita annual VMT in the county is about the same as in the U.S. as a whole. But it varies quite a bit within the county – with residents of rural areas imposing the greatest VMT burden on the County. We used the data used earlier in the Footprint project to map the averages in different zones of the county.

Patterns of travel
Sonoma County is unusual in having a high percentage of people who both live and work within the county. Tables based on data from MTC show intercounty commutes for seven decades, between Sonoma and Marin and other counties of the Bay Area. To print the tables, download PDF file.

There isn’t much data collected on auto travel, except for the journey to work, which is typically the longest daily trip for workers. But we can get a partial picture of County travel from published data. From the U.S. Census we can see whether people that live in the cities and other named places drive or use other means to get to work . You can compare your town with towns elsewhere in the U.S. with an easy-to-use database provided by the Iowa-based organization, Bikes-At-Work.

Car-Sharing
One of the bright spots in the efficient use of automobiles is car-sharing. By getting away from the personal relationship we have with cars, we not only free ourselves from that co-dependency, we ameliorate one of the major faults of a system based on personal cars — it is a huge waste of space. Since most cars spend their time idly taking up valuable space, any form of sharing will reduce that inefficiency.

A number of car-sharing organizations have come about within the last decade. In November 2002 there were 18 of them in the United States, serving more than 12,000 members, according to an article in the L.A. Times.

For a detailed background on the niche of car-sharing, see “Carsharing; Vehicle Rental Services That Substitute for Private Vehicle Ownership” in the TDM Encyclopedia of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI).

A view of the rapid development of car-sharing worldwide can be seen at the website of the Car Sharing Network. For Bay Area developments, see City CarShare.

Reducing Congestion
Certainly the most interesting recent action to reduce congestion took place in London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone, assisted by Robert Kiley, a former C.I.A. official, business leader and transit expert from New York City, drew a cordon around central London and began charging car drivers a hefty fee to enter.

By most accounts in the last year, this program has been a success, and other cities are looking at emulation. It may be unlikely to ever happen in Sonoma County, but it is at least instructive as to the possibility of taming the automobile. See New York Times article of April 20, 2003.

Better Efficiency
In the very near term, one of the simplest steps people can take to help reduce the pressure on resources is to step up to higher fuel efficiency. This is particularly important for owners of SUVs that by now have realized they don’t really need their special capabilities. Those who wait until world events get ahead of them may have to give those things away. Hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda in Japan have been on the market long enough now to see a developing market.

Health & Safety

by Joel Woodhull

Of late, the goals of the public health community and the Bike-Ped community have converged in promotions to increase walking and cycling. In a paper, “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from the Netherlands and Germany” (2003), John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra examined the public health consequences of unsafe and inconvenient walking and bicycling conditions in American cities and suggested improvements based on successful policies in The Netherlands and Germany. They found that, whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all trips in Germany and for half of trips in The Netherlands. American pedestrians and cyclists are much more likely to get killed than Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and per-km basis. They are also far more likely to be injured.

On the basis of Dutch and German experience, they proposed a wide range of measures to improve the safety of walking and cycling in American cities, both to reduce fatalities and injuries and to encourage more walking and cycling, thus providing much needed physical exercise for increasingly overweight Americans.
Safety in numbers. Another recent paper from the public health field answers the question of whether the public health goal of more walking and bicycling conflicts with another public health goal, reducing injuries. According to research by Peter L. Jacobsen, there isn’t a conflict, because as more people cycle and walk, the rate of injuries per participant goes down.

Motivations for change
In a paper presented in 2003 at the International Pedestrian Conference, Daniel Sauter builds on the platform constructed by Whitelegg for a discussion of a course of action which could overcome the obstacles facing the pedestrian. He would anchor the actions on three basic desires that people have – longings for freedom, for time and for dignity. These would be addressed respectively by encouraging accessibility for pedestrians, reversing the hierarchies in transport policies and acknowledgment of walking as a human right.

Saving Time and Losing Space

by Joel Woodhull

A number of writers have explored the effect of motorization and increased travel speed on culture, nature, and equity, and the associated denigration of self propulsion.

In his book, Transport for a Sustainable Future, John Whitelegg has a chapter on “time pollution”, containing a discourse on “the conquest of distance by the destruction of time”. Whitelegg points out that the acquisition of higher speed comes at the increasing destruction of useful space, because higher speed facilities create a safety conflict with low speed travelers, which must somehow be addressed: longer lengths between people for the safety of the users, and wider rights of way for devices to protect the bystanders, slower travelers and others that may wish to cross the facility or travel with its traffic.

The saving of time, which has been used extensively to justify construction of road projects, is an illusion, because in large measure the gain of time is traded by the individual to travel greater distances. Although this may in the short run produce some satisfaction for the individual, it leads to a scattering of many of the most important travel destinations as land uses gradually change. The scattering initially handicaps the Bike-Ped,
and eventually erases any advantage attained by motorized travelers. In Sonoma County this process gradually engulfs the natural landscape that is one of its primary attractions.

Road justifying calculations of time saving are based on time saving for the motorist, and neglect the considerable time losses of others. Increases in speed almost always steal time from the non-motorist, and the inducement to travel more even results in one motorist making the other motorists worse off.

In his thirty years of studies of how people use space and time, Torsten Hagerstrand concluded that it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Access is what we really value, but the transportation system has been giving us mobility. Not mobility for all. Mobility in proportion to wealth, and reduced access for almost all.

Walking & Cycling

Most often we speak of pedestrians and bicyclists separately, but more and more their commonality is emphasized in the term “Bi-Ped” — the self-powered person. Long neglected, they are gaining respect. Planning for them has become central to the planning for the SMART rail system, and increasingly routine in the retrofitting of roads and highways originally designed for motor vehicles.

Saving time and losing space
A number of writers have explored the effect of motorization and increased travel speed on culture, nature, and equity, and the associated denigration of self propulsion. In his book, Transport for a Sustainable Future, John Whitelegg has a chapter on “time pollution”, containing a discourse on “the conquest of distance by the destruction of time”. Whitelegg points out that the acquisition of higher speed comes at the increasing destruction of useful space, because higher speed facilities create a safety conflict with low speed travelers, which must somehow be addressed: longer lengths between people for the safety of the users, and wider rights of way for devices to protect the bystanders, slower travelers and others that may wish to cross the facility or travel with its traffic.

The saving of time, which has been used extensively to justify construction of road projects, is an illusion, because in large measure the gain of time is traded by the individual to travel greater distances. Although this may in the short run produce some satisfaction for the individual, it leads to a scattering of many of the most important travel destinations as land uses gradually change. The scattering initially handicaps the Bi-Ped, and eventually erases any advantage attained by motorized travelers. In Sonoma County this process gradually engulfs the natural landscape that is one of its primary attractions.

Road justifying calculations of time saving are based on time saving for the motorist, and neglect the considerable time losses of others. Increases in speed almost always steal time from the non-motorist, and the inducement to travel more even results in one motorist making the other motorists worse off.

In his thirty years of studies of how people use space and time, Torsten Hagerstrand concluded that it is the ability to make contact with people that determines the success of a transport system or location. Access is what we really value, but the transportation system has been giving us mobility. Not mobility for all. Mobility in proportion to wealth, and reduced access for almost all.

Social speed
Whitelegg discusses the concept of “average social speed”, which is the distance covered by an individual in a year, divided by the accumulated time requirements of the specific mode of travel. In addition to the time actually spent in travel, other time requirements include things such as taking the car to the shop, time spent earning the money to pay for the car, insurance, repairs, etc. In other words, all of the time that wouldn’t be needed in the absence of travel by that mode. He credits Ivan Illich for the underlying idea, and a German author D. Siefried for the calculations comparing bicycle at 15 kph, car at 40 kph and car at 60 kph. When external costs are included, the average social speeds for these three examples are 14, 13 and 18 kph, respectively.

Health effects
Of late, the goals of the public health community and the Bi-Ped community have converged in promotions to increase walking and cycling. In a recent paper, “Promoting Safe Walking and Cycling to Improve Public Health: Lessons from the Netherlands and Germany”, John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra examined the public health consequences of unsafe and inconvenient walking and bicycling conditions in American cities and suggested improvements based on successful policies in The Netherlands and Germany.

They found that, whereas walking and cycling account for less than a tenth of all urban trips in American cities, they account for a third of all trips in Germany and for half of trips in The Netherlands. American pedestrians and cyclists are much more likely to get killed than Dutch and German pedestrians and cyclists, both on a per-trip and per-km basis. They are also far more likely to be injured.

On the basis of Dutch and German experience, they proposed a wide range of measures to improve the safety of walking and cycling in American cities, both to reduce fatalities and injuries and to encourage more walking and cycling, thus providing much needed physical exercise for increasingly overweight Americans.

Safety in numbers
Another recent paper from the public health field answers the question of whether the public health goal of more walking and bicycling conflicts with another public health goal, reducing injuries. According to research by Peter L. Jacobsen, there isn’t a conflict, because as more people cycle and walk, the rate of injuries per participant goes down.

Motivations for change
In a paper presented early this year at the International Pedestrian Conference, Daniel Sauter builds on the platform constructed by Whitelegg for a discussion of a course of action which could overcome the obstacles facing the pedestrian.He would anchor the actions on three basic desires that people have – longings for freedom, for time and for dignity. These would be addressed respectively by encouraging accessibility for pedestrians, reversing the hierarchies in transport policies and acknowledgment of walking as a human right.

The Day Traffic Disappeared

by Randy Kennedy
The New York Times, April 20, 2003

When Queen Elizabeth opened the new City Hall in London last year, some observers compared the building, designed by the architect Norman Foster, to a giant eye. And that is exactly what it looks like — a glassy postmodern eyeball on the south bank of the Thames, staring across the river at its staid Georgian and Victorian neighbors as if to say, ”Welcome to the 21st century.” Atop the building is a semicircular penthouse called London’s Living Room, walled with windows that offer a commanding view of the city below. The idea behind this room is to offer a place for Londoners to gather, if only through the medium of a television camera, for the kinds of serious, big-family sit-downs that go along with governing a sometimes dysfunctional city of more than seven million — a city so decentralized, in fact, that until three years ago it never had an elected mayor.

On an unusually bright morning earlier this year, that mayor, Ken Livingstone, strides into the room before a bank of cameras, and with an unusually pleased look on his dour face, announces a coup, one that has eluded dozens of large cities like New York, Los Angeles and Paris. He has not conquered crime or poverty, but he may very well have hobbled an urban enemy seemingly just as invincible: the car. Livingstone has just begun the world’s most radical experiment in reclaiming the city from the tyranny of the automobile, a power struggle that cities have been losing in humiliating fashion for more than half a century. Since well before his election, he has been warning Londoners that far too many of them (about 250,000 a day) are trying to drive into far too small a place — central London — polluting the air, choking commerce, slowly strangling their own livelihood. To stop them, the mayor decided to draw a line, literally.

The line formed a lopsided oval around eight square miles of the historic inner city. Almost anyone who drove across the line during business hours — in fact, almost anyone who moved or even parked a car on the street within it after Feb. 17 — instantly owed the city of London $:5 (about $8) a day for every day it happened. If a driver failed to pay, one of more than 700 vulturelike video cameras perched throughout the zone would capture his license plate number and relay it to a computer, leading to a huge fine. And if the driver declined to pay those fines? The mayor vowed, only half-jokingly, that the city would relentlessly track his car down, clamp it, tow it away and crush it — ”with or without the driver inside.” Few would be exempt, not even volunteer social workers, teachers, foreign diplomats or undercover police officers.

The idea behind his assault on automotive freedom was neither new nor very hard to understand. If a finite resource is free, human beings tend to use it all up, regardless of the consequences. If it has a cost, they tend to use it more rationally. Livingstone, a far-left Socialist, won his mayoralty largely on the promise of applying this tough-love theory to London’s streets. But in the weeks just before the ”congestion charge” began, it sometimes seemed that he was the only one who believed it would work. The newspapers were full of derisive nicknames for it, like ”Ken-gestion” and ”Carmaggedon.” Samantha Bond, the actress who plays Miss Moneypenny in the most recent James Bond movies, became the sympathetic face of the opposition, presiding over a protest with hints of civil disobedience at the West End theater where — somehow fittingly — ”Les Miserables” was being staged. Tony Blair’s government, which had given London and other British cities permission to levy such traffic charges in the first place, carefully distanced itself from the plan. And the bookmaking firm William Hill, one of London’s most able arbiters of public sentiment, began offering 4-to-1 odds that it would fail by the end of the year. (The odds that Livingstone would be out of office before the end of his term were put at 10 to 1.)

On this sunny Tuesday morning, however, it appears that the mayor has beaten at least the first of those odds. The number of cars entering the cordon zone the day before, the first day of the charge, dropped by about 60,000, remarkable even in the context of a school holiday. One automobile group estimated that average speeds in central London had doubled, nothing less than a miracle in the world of road policy. Livingstone, addressing his public in a droopy suit, bright blue tie and a pair of sensible thick-soled walking shoes, declares it ”the best day we’ve had in traffic flow in living memory” and reports that he has even taken a call from the government’s transport minister, John Spellar, a Labor Party archenemy who had helped to expel Livingstone from the party three years earlier when he launched his renegade mayoral bid.

Livingstone’s eyes twinkle as he relates the conversation. ”He said, ‘Clearly the devil looks after his own,’ and we had a good laugh,” the mayor says.

When a reporter asks whether the mayor has truly considered the consequences of the scheme failing, especially with his re-election campaign only a year away, Livingstone’s nasal Cockney voice, already as affectless as a door buzzer, drops to a full deadpan. ”I never consider my own future when making political decisions,” he says. He pauses for effect. ”How can you be so cynical?”

As television crews troop out to the balcony to shoot the light traffic wheeling around the Tower of London, a good laugh is had all around the living room.

he exchange, however, goes straight to the heart of cities’ tangled history with the automobile — undoubtedly the most inefficient, and most aggressively defended, means ever conceived for transporting large numbers of people through crowded places. The idea of using a price tag to regulate driving into crowded places has been around for years, but its progress has been slowed by two problems, one big, the other gigantic. The first was simply technical: how would you charge for entry into entire cities or neighborhoods without putting tollbooths everywhere and causing more congestion? That obstacle has now been largely overcome with high-speed electronic tolls, sharpshooter cameras (originally developed for antiterrorism purposes in London) and even the development of satellite tracking of cars.

The gigantic problem is political. Since at least the end of World War II, the battle between cars and cities, a battle over the shape of the city itself, has been an epic mismatch. An oversimplified chronology would read something like this: the car helps to create sprawl; sprawl siphons people and political power away from the hearts of cities; the car returns to attack the city, which was never designed to accommodate so many; the city is forced to transform itself, ceding sidewalks to streets, trolley tracks to traffic lanes, parks to parking lots, whole neighborhoods to expressways.

In the United States, the critic Lewis Mumford foresaw a grim end to the whole process: ”a tomb of concrete roads and ramps covering the dead corpse of a city.” While the effects have not been quite that dire yet, the imbalance remains tremendous. On a purely human level, it can be witnessed any weekday in Times Square, where armies of angry pedestrians crowd around S.U.V.’s pinioned in crosswalks, the drivers inside easily outnumbered 100 to 1.

But those drivers and the people who profit from them in cities — principally garage owners, automobile clubs and road builders — have had tremendous political influence over the years. They have portrayed unfettered access to public tax-supported roads as something like a modern amendment to the rights of man. And while it may be in the long-term interests of drivers to pay for using some roads in order to make them passable again, to put that money into subsidizing more efficient conveyances like trains and buses, city leaders have long viewed administering that corrective as something close to electoral suicide. Even the most crusading anti-car mayors — like John V. Lindsay in New York, who came within weeks of ordering a Midtown traffic ban in the early 1970’s, and Edward I. Koch after him, who came almost as close to imposing tolls on the free East River bridges — have ultimately backed down or lost their battles.

Though it might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, saturation traffic has existed in many cities for decades, virtually unchanged. Depending on whom you believe, it is incredibly destructive, costing London alone over $300 million a year in lost productivity and revenue just because of congestion in the tiny central portion of the city. (One New York City study in the late 1990’s found that traffic problems in Manhattan cost the city as much as $4 billion a year in lost productivity.)

With its mazelike medieval streets, London was a city plagued with congestion long before the car. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys twice recorded being stuck in 17th-century horse-and-buggy jams. When the car came along, the original notion was that such age-old transportation problems could be solved if enough new roads were built to handle cities’ needs, a strategy called ”predict and provide.” But by the 1960’s, only a half-century after the car came into common use, economists and traffic planners were starting to notice that new roads seemed only to create more traffic.

By 1977, when the British punk band the Jam recorded ”London Traffic” (”No one knows the answer/No one seems to care/Take a look at our city/Take the traffic elsewhere”), the average speed of a car in central London was 12 miles an hour, or a little faster than the top running speed of a domestic pig. At the turn of the millennium, more than two decades later, many Londoners could only look back on those congested years with nostalgia. The average speed had dropped to less than nine miles per hour for the first time in modern record-keeping, meaning that car travel through Britain’s capital was generally as slow as by coach a century ago.

”We’re addicted, really,” Bev Ramsden, a veteran taxi driver and dispatcher, told me one wet weekday morning, inching down the A4 highway through the gray margins of Hammersmith, nowhere near the most congested part of the city. ”Like addicts, I think we’re getting to the point where we’re realizing how crazy this is. Someone’s got to do something.”

It will probably go down as one of the stranger chapters in the history of traffic policy that the man who finally did something is a former lefty radical (once known as Red Ken) applying conservative free-market ideas. In a way, of course, it all makes complete sense: the congestion charge is classic Robin Hood socialism, taking from the comfortable Londoner commuting by Bentley and giving to the commoner hanging from the strap of a packed double-decker bus. But don’t misunderstand. While he is a crusader, Livingstone is also a famously foot-sure career politician as interested as any in re-election. Despite his quip for the television cameras, he did not launch his assault without making a lot of practical calculations about its effect on his future. That morning, in fact, waiting downstairs for him in a cavernous boardroom was a group of strategists who were highly paid to do just that. It was telling that most of these strategists were not from London at all but from a place with much worse traffic problems and a much more treacherous political climate for trying to solve them: New York City. (Average traffic speed: about seven miles per hour, no faster than a running possum.)

Only a few months after his election in the summer of 2000, Livingstone began courting Robert R. Kiley, a former C.I.A. official, business leader and transit expert, who as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York in the 1980’s was credited with resurrecting the city’s graffiti-scarred subway system, now considered one of the best in the world. Kiley, given the new title of London’s transport commissioner, brought with him another former top New York transit official, Jay Walder, who had become an expert on road pricing at Harvard and in Singapore, where a smaller but much more costly congestion-charging system in place for more than 25 years has cut car ownership to 1 in 10 city residents.

When Kiley arrived in London, most of the attention focused on his transit credentials and how he would use them to rescue the ailing London Underground, an effort in which he and Livingstone, fighting Blair’s government, have been largely unsuccessful. But Kiley told me later that he was equally interested in coming to London because of Livingstone’s determination to try to right the relationship between the city and the car. If it worked, Kiley knew, it would be seen as a model around the world, and especially back in New York, where more than 250,000 vehicles crowd into the 8.5-square-mile heart of Manhattan in three hours every morning, roughly the same number that enter the eight square miles of central London over the course of an entire workday.

As the leader of a business alliance in the 1990’s, Kiley advocated road pricing for Manhattan, but he received no support from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose voting base in Queens and Staten Island practically lived in their cars. In many ways London was an interesting parallel, more like New York than any other American city in its atypical transportation landscape. In both cities, as packed as the roads can be, more than 80 percent of workers take some form of mass transit into the central city every weekday morning. In London, as in New York, some drivers are poor. But most tend to have money — enough to generate political pressure to protect their choice. They are also affluent enough, Kiley points out, to be persuaded to spend a little money to save them something much more valuable: their time.

”We knew all along that the motorist advocates and writers for the newspapers and libertarians and people who are really locked into cars would be critical, but I think the majority of Londoners supported congestion-charging right up to opening day,” Kiley said later in his office, with a poster of the Brooklyn Bridge behind his desk. ”Would I call it a popular measure? Probably not. But I think that Londoners have long since concluded that someone had to take this dragon on.”

Sitting there that day, as the dragon was being cowed on the streets below, Kiley told me that he had spoken at length about fighting it with another very important potential St. George, one in some ways a lot like Livingstone — a political outsider who takes the subway to work, who strongly supports the idea of road pricing and who views the prerogatives of driving from a much more jaundiced 21st-century perspective. His name was Michael R. Bloomberg, and he was the mayor of New York City.

Though not mentioned in ”The Power Broker,” Robert A. Caro’s biography of the master road builder Robert Moses, one of the more iconic clashes in the long war between the car and the city took place in New York, with Moses playing a role. He and other planners wanted to slice a highway through the middle of Washington Square Park, the heart of Greenwich Village. It is now hard to believe such a plan was ever seriously proposed, but in 1958 it came close to happening.

At the time, photographed defiantly on the City Hall steps with a giant prop key to lock traffic out of the park, a Tammany Hall leader framed a question that was only then starting to be asked in earnest. Would we, he asked, ”plan and develop our cities in accordance with the needs and wishes of the people who live in them or for the convenience of the vehicles which pass through them?” The highway through the park was eventually scrapped, but in New York that question, until very recently, has been answered almost always in favor of the passing cars. From 1924 to 1965, car lanes into Manhattan grew from 68 to 120, according to one count, while the number of cars on the street went from 390,000 a day in 1946 (considered intolerable at the time) to more than a million by the end of the 1990’s. And that is not because travel has been made more efficient. In fact, it has often been the opposite. In 1907, with trolleys and traffic lanes, the Brooklyn Bridge carried 426,000 people a day; now, with space only for cars, it carries far less than half that number and is often jammed. Convoys of trucks rumble down the decaying streets of Chinatown on their way to New Jersey because tolls on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge would cost them an average of $33 per trip to take the highways that are better designed for them.

Many traffic experts see Bloomberg as the last, best chance — at least for the foreseeable future — for anything to change. When he was campaigning, he sought the advice of car skeptics like Kiley. Samuel I. Schwartz, an engineer who worked on East River bridge tolls under both Lindsay and Koch, wrote much of Bloomberg’s stridently anti-car campaign platform himself. And Schwartz, who coined the quintessential New York warning ”Don’t Even THINK of Parking Here,” is no moderate on the issue. He advocates charging trucks $50 for using Manhattan as a pass-through and, were it technically possible, $25 a minute for people who want to cruise Fifth Avenue during the height of the holiday season. (”They want to see the Rock Center Christmas tree from their car?” he says. ”If they do, they should pay for that great privilege.”)

After his election, Bloomberg seemed to be moving in that direction. He decided, in the face of mounting attacks by powerful garage owners, to maintain most of an emergency traffic ban that Giuliani started after the Sept. 11 attacks, preventing single-occupant cars from crossing into much of Manhattan during the morning rush. He has ended the age-old tradition of free Sunday parking in many neighborhoods (including his own, the Upper East Side) and banned turns on some busy crosstown streets — small changes but ones met with shrieks of protest. His transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, even went to London last summer to talk to Kiley and Livingstone about the congestion charge.

But there seems to be a growing sense that Bloomberg could end up among the near-miss mayors on any kind of serious traffic reform. In large part, this is because he has already spent a career’s worth of political capital by raising property taxes to fix the city’s enormous budget gap, for example, and by banning smoking in bars, a move that would probably get Livingstone sacked in London. Bloomberg and his staff are so nervous about traffic issues that they do not like to talk about them even privately anymore. One city official told me of his particular nightmare: trying to write the speech that Bloomberg would deliver when he cut the ribbons on the new Brooklyn Bridge toll plaza: ”What’s he going to say? ‘Ladies and gentlemen, these things that’ve been free for decades and decades. I’m the guy who’s going to make you pay for them! Thank you for your support!”’

Kiley says he still believes that Bloomberg could sell a congestion charge, especially in a city where so many take mass transit and only half of the people living at the epicenter of the problem even own cars. ”That’s not a bad place to start,” he says, ”when you know that half the people in Manhattan are going to be with you, almost by definition.”

For all the rest, he adds, ”Bloomberg could use the analogy of, well, look what a difference government has actually made to the subway system. Now we’ve got to take the next step because we have a subway that’s working better, a commuter rail system that’s in good shape and lots of room on buses. We’ve got to really start managing road use. That could be his message.”

Would the message work? New York might not be ready to hear it yet, and the messenger might be killed. But inevitably the city will have to listen, and the brave politician who forces it to come to its senses will be heralded as a visionary. ”Fifth Avenue” has always had a dull ring to it. What about ”Bloomberg Promenade”?

Randy Kennedy, a reporter for the Metro Section of The Times, writes the Tunnel Vision column about the New York subway system.