Faster, Higher, Stronger: Let’s Celebrate the Urban Olympians
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Billions are watching outstanding athletes from 200 nations compete in Rio. I was in awe when I attended the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, and Salt Lake.
The Olympic motto is three Latin words: citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger.
It is time to also celebrate the Urban Olympians who make our cities faster, higher, stronger. Most of the world’s seven billion now live in urban regions. Higher buildings and more density enable better mobility, living and jobs. Stronger communities are emerging with better air, education and equity.
These better cities are enabled by the Urban Olympians who drive our buses and ridesharing, who build our higher mixed-use transit-oriented neighborhoods, and who create stronger communities.
Viewers of the 1964 Olympics were stunned to see people as far away as Osaka speed to Tokyo on high-speed rail (HSR). Thanks to Urban Olympians who build and operate HSR in Asia and Europe, 1.6 billion passengers annually ride HSR. These systems are the backbone of connecting transit in one city to the next. For example, in Madrid my wife and I walked from our hotel to the rail station and after a pleasant 3-hour HSR ride, walked to our hotel in Barcelona. It was all much faster and easier than flying. Millions of rail operators, bus drivers, maintenance and administrative teams keep us moving through our cities. Thanks to these Urban Olympians.
As Mayor of Curitiba Brazil, Jamie Lerner wanted to give his citizens fast and reliable transportation. He could not afford commuter rail, so he created bus rapid transit (BRT). People got to work much faster and Curitiba was transformed from a collection of shantytowns to a beautiful and sustainable city of almost 2 million. Now BRT helps millions in 190 cities. Lerner is an Urban Olympian who deserves a gold medal.
The magic of urban mobility is that everything is connected including rail, bus, ridesharing, bicycling and walking. Lars and Jens Eilstrup Rasmussen envisioned digital mapping. Their program has evolved into a tool that allows us to navigate while driving, using transit, bicycling and walking with updates for real time traffic information. They created what is now Google Maps and also deserve gold medals.
Below zero temperatures keep most bicyclers off the road, but not in Minneapolis. You would need to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Amsterdam to find more regular bicyclers in a major city with real winters. With dozens of miles of bike boulevards and a large bike-sharing program, every bicycle commuter in Minneapolis is an Urban Olympian.
Most people in the world, including the United States, now prefer to live in cities. With urban density, markets, cafes, and even jobs are in walking distance. When we build high enough for one thousand people to live in a square mile, then rail and buses can economically run every few minutes. Merchants want to be close to people. Higher cities are faster and stronger.
New York, under the leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, became one of the world’s best places to live and work. With 27,000 people per square mile, you can be assured of nearby food, entertainment, and parks. Subways, buses, taxis run 24/7. An amazing number get around bicycling, in separate paths, and walking.
San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle all want more walking and less car gridlock. All three are in a race to build the tallest building west of Chicago, as they accommodate growth.
Marcia Addison devoted her life to helping kids as a special education teacher. She deserves a gold medal. OK, I’m biased; she is my wife. Behind every great Olympian are teachers who helped their students learn, including learning how to respect their friends and themselves.
Every child deserves to get to school safely. Stuart Cohen and his team at non-profit TransForm are Urban Olympians who have helped over one hundred schools with safe walking programs. Their work has also helped coalitions raise $8 billion for sustainable walking, bicycling, and public transportation, especially for lower income communities.
The United States was founded with the principle that all are created equal. Urban Olympians, from religious leaders to community organizers, work hard to see that all have education, opportunity, and safety. I’m not Catholic, but I’d give an Olympic medal to Pope Francis who stated, “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love.”
Yes, people in non-profits and the public sector deserve medals; so do a number in the corporations that envision a better world, then innovate and go all out to make that happen. Elon Musk and the team at Tesla risked their fortune and reputation, working 80 hour weeks, to transform cars to electric with long-range. Now they are planning to do the same for solar power plus storage plus energy management. Lisa Jackson was adopted by a family that lived in one of the New Orleans neighborhoods badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina. She excelled in school, and earned a masters in chemical engineering from Princeton. After running the U.S. EPA, she is now the Vice President who is transforming Apple into a company run on renewable energy and helping Apple’s global supply chain be energy efficient and sustainable.
You may not be able to find another city of 3 million with air as clean as Chicago’s. I thank their team in the Department of Transportation each time I visit and get everywhere on commuter rail, the L, buses, bicycling and walking. They keep people moving and keep the air clean.
Kevin Faulconer is Mayor of San Diego, the eighth largest U.S. city. He quickly fixed San Diego’s dysfunctional leadership and finances. Although a Republican, Faulconer ignored his party’s climate denial, and declared that San Diego will use 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. San Diego already uses more solar power than any U.S. city, except much larger Los Angeles.
While most cities are spending zero to deal with sea rise, Norfolk, Virginia, is creating a living shoreline to protect communities from 11-foot storm surges and flooding. After the 13-foot storm surge of Superstorm Sandy, the state of New York is developing over 100 community centers with their own microgrid, so that lights stay on and emergency responders are fully powered during grid failures. Everyone involved in New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision is an Urban Olympian.
Thank you to all the millions of Urban Olympians who continue to improve our sustainable cities. I’d like to mention all of you, but it would take readers a week to read your names. Speaking of readers, thanks to all of you who prioritize reading about solutions to pressing problems.
Urban Olympians are making our cities faster, higher, and stronger. They all deserve medals.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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