Net Neutrality and Complete Streets

Imagine a city where the infrastructure--the roads, the sidewalks, the bike paths, the on-ramps and off-ramps--were all built so that every user, no matter who they are, has the ability travel with freedom and safety. In this city bicycles would have uninterrupted paths to get to where they need to go. Pedestrians would have uninterrupted sidewalks. And cars would be properly directed to appropriate places and speeds for them to travel. They may have to navigate intersections with each other but even those intersections would be designed with the safety and freedom of all users in mind. This is a city that would be a model of complete streets.

Plans for complete streets are infrastructure plans that care for all users. A city that is built with complete streets would be one designed from its outset to share space in such a way that all users had safety and freedom of movement. A city working to retro fit toward complete streets may have sidewalks that end precipitously, lack proper pads or shelters for folks waiting for the bus, or force bike riders on to unsafe streets or sidewalks in order to get where they need to go.

Shared streets in Graz, Austria.
My tech savviness is rather low for a "digital native" but from what I can tell, up until today the internet was like a city built with complete streets. When the internet was built it was assumed from the outset that every user should have equal access. That's what we call net neutrality. Today the FCC moved to go to a system that values some users over other users if the internet providers so choose. Specifically, the FCC's removal of net neutrality now allows for internet providers to favor better funded users. For most of us who live in the United States, this happened with the design of our city streets a long time ago.

In the time before the car, city streets were for walking on or riding down with horses and eventually bicycles and trolleys. When the car was invented, it disrupted street life. As cars began to go faster they mixed less and less well with pedestrians, horses, and bicycles. Car manufacturers saw an opportunity to sell more cars and improve the experience of car owners by shifting public perception of for what and for whom city streets are designed.

See that nice green strip? Biktivists call that "kermit."
Ribbit. Ribbit.
Take for example, the invention of "jaywalking." In the 1920s, clubs of car owners began to organize in competition with urban safety councils and successfully worked to shift the blame for crashes from car drivers to pedestrians. Freely crossing the street on foot, which had been the main purpose of a street until cars, became a crime and got the perjorative name jaywalking. In his book Happy City Charles Montgomery writes of this era, "most people came to accept that the street was not such a free place anymore, which was ironic because freedom was motordom's rallying cry" (70).  Instead the streets have become a place designed for users who can afford to enter it with a car, putting any of those who cannot afford a car at a distinct disadvantage to their health and safety, not to mention their freedom to get to work, home, or recreation.

Today as I lamented the FCC's decision to end net neutrality, I thought of the other ways my country's laws and norms are set up to value the needs, wants, and profits of those who can afford to pay a certain price for them. Does the woman pushing two young children in a stroller in sub-freezing temperatures deserve less access to safe and affordable transportation than the man who passed her in his Tesla? What sets them apart from each other? What really makes our neighborhoods happier and healthier? Our governments and by extension all of us make choices about whose needs will be the priority. We could make different choices.


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