The male city

Many cities are built by men for their needs: The main concern is to get to work efficiently. Bad luck for anyone with a stroller, shopping bags or a wheelchair. Is that the way it has to be?

The original article was published in German by the ZEIT.  Find it here: Städteplanung: Die männliche Stadt | ZEIT ONLINE

Translated into English by TUMI

It’s actually funny: people build something for people, and the result is a place where humans as living beings are obviously not intended. The street under the Yorckbrücken in Berlin, for example, named after a Prussian field marshal. Four lanes over which cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes push each other, with a narrow footpath to the right and left. Pedestrians dodge a construction site onto the road, smooth walls throw back the noise. Pigeons’ shit on the steel of the bridges, leaves and rubbish blowing on the ground. Only the people in the car probably don’t care about all this. After all, they have a kind of armour.

The cyclist with the trailer doesn’t have one. Neither does the packed woman hurrying to the tram, nor the mother with the stroller. And there is the other mother. She calls after her child, but the child runs and runs to the curbside, only then turning to the mother and laughing at his prank. “Don’t ever do that again,” she says, dragging the child by the jacket back onto the footpath, “that’s dangerous!”

The road is generous to some, but merciless to others.

But who are the some, who are the others? Perhaps this question also opens up an abyss between the sexes.

Of course, it’s easy to point to the men these days. But according to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, 62 percent of cars are registered to men, only 38 percent to women. And according to a study “Mobilität in Deutschland”, men drive twice as much by car on average (29 kilometres daily) as women (14 kilometres daily). Even young men drive significantly more, but the difference is most extreme among those aged 50 to 59. When women use the car, they are more likely to ride along, in the passenger or back seat.

The question would be: Which came first, the man or the car?

Calling Meike Spitzner, she is a transport researcher at the Wuppertal Institute. For decades she has been working on sustainable and gender-equitable perspectives in transport and urban planning. For her, the fact that the sexes move differently, that mobility opportunities are unequal, has to do with dominant images of masculinity that have been elevated to a standard for everyone. And with an economic system that values gender roles differently. From this point of view, urban planning and the choice of means of transport are only a logical consequence.

Spitzner says: “In the 1950s, an economic model was staged and legally underpinned that placed the nuclear family at the center and provided for a clear division of labor for the couple.” This was even though this was the time when Germany was a society of single and single-parent women as never before, since many men did not survive the war and National Socialism. The model envisaged a “breadwinner”, he would pursue gainful employment and be given access to public space. Housework was assigned to a “housewife” who was responsible for the unpaid reproductive work and was supposed to stay at home. So, men earned the money, and cars, roads and parking spaces were built for them so that they could get ahead as quickly as possible. Women were supposed to take care of the household and the family. It was not planned for them to be mobile at all. If they had to get out to go shopping or take children away, then making their work pleasant and efficient did not seem to be a special urban planning concern. And since their work did not directly bring money, there was no economic incentive to improve their situation.

Thus, you could say, the male car city came into the world.

You don’t even have to look at Le Corbusier’s painted vision for Paris for that, the gigantic, bare, rectangularly arranged concrete blocks and the straight streets without people. Even then, the once progress-optimistic design quickly became a dystopia framed as art. Take instead Rudolf Hillebrecht, one of the most influential German urban planners after the Second World War and a passionate motorist. As a city planner, for example, he overplanned Hannover, which had been badly damaged by air raids. His idea was the “car-friendly city”. In an early speech, he warned that his city could otherwise become a “human trap”. An intersection bustling with people reminded him of a “witches’ cauldron”. He wanted: intersection-free motorways, traffic roundabouts, elevated roads and under-pavement roads.

For his plan, Hillebrecht had surviving historic buildings demolished, the Flusswasserkunst and the Friederikenschlösschen. The result was the City-Ring, a motorway-like ring around the city center, quickly accessible from all directions. The population protested, other cities followed Hillebrecht’s example, and newspapers praised the reconstruction. The Nürnberger Zeitung declared Hanover a “model for city planners”, the Welt wrote of the “most modern construction of all German cities” and the Spiegel devoted its front page to the subject in 1959: “Miracle of Hannover“.

In the USA, the process had begun earlier. The most notorious figure here is the man who rebuilt New York to his will: Robert Moses. “Cities were created by and for traffic,” he said. Under his influence, over a thousand kilometers of highways were built there. Half a million people had to leave their homes for it. And Moses’ dogma set a precedent throughout the country.

Perhaps it is in urban and transport planning as Virginia Woolf once described it for society itself: “Man looks the world straight in the face as if it were there for his pleasure and designed to his taste. Woman looks at it with a sideways glance, full of ulterior thoughts, even full of suspicion.”

Spitzner says: “In the 1950s, an economic model It was a woman who denounced this dehumanizing development of cities in the USA. The journalist Jane Jacobs wrote a book about the death and life of great American cities as early as 1961 – a provocation. She was soon insulted for her appearance and called a housewife. In the meantime, her demands have become a standard in modern, urban planning: mixed and lively neighborhoods, short distances, more people than cars.

But until today, says Meike Spitzner, transport science, transport planning and transport policy see their task primarily in improving automobility – not the mobility of all people. This is a problem: “Car-oriented urban and transport planning leads to spatial discrimination, expropriation of time, reinforcement of structural violence and psychological degradation,” says Spitzner. In other words: Those who are not in cars get the small, bad routes and therefore need longer for everything. And if you’re a woman who steps out onto the road without a tin armour, you’re an easier target for everyday harassment, for the pick-up line, for whistling from the car window and other drive-by sexism.

New traffic concepts, such as more electric mobility, would not change the basic problem. Small improvements, such as cycle paths or surveillance cameras, Spitzner says, would only combat symptoms, they would not address the problem at its core.

In Germany, too, women have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the problem. The first actions were against the abolition of trams and for the introduction of women’s night taxis; three theses were published in the 1980s on the subject of women and mobility. The nationwide network “Women on the Move” was soon dedicated to the necessities of transport planning, policy and research. In the nineties, the Feminist Organisation of Women Planners and Architects, FOPA for short, also explicitly dealt with transport. Chairs in Dortmund and Kassel investigated how problems affecting women were generally made invisible in transport research. The Greens, who entered the Bundestag for the second time in 1988, asked the question “Emancipation from the car – women’s right to an ecological change in transport”. This had gone on for ten years, the women had networked and done development work.

Thirty years later, according to Spitzner, there is little left of the spirit of optimism. She sees one reason in the economic system. Interest in research areas without prospects of profit has declined sharply. Many female experts have lost their jobs and moved to other fields. Spitzner sees herself as a “constructively irritating small factor in the system”.

A sober look confirms her findings: urban and transport planning is still in male hands. Germany has never had a female transport minister. The current transport ministry is headed by Andreas Scheuer and his four male state secretaries. In March, they launched a campaign featuring women lolling on a bed in bicycle helmets and lacy underwear. The Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Franziska Giffey, countered with a picture and the signature: “Dear Andreas Scheuer: wearing a helmet also works properly dressed”.

The analysis of the late eighties and nineties remains current: men still travel less and longer distances (46 kilometres per day), while women travel shorter distances (33 kilometres per day), but more often. According to the Federal Ministry of Transport, which commissioned the study, the gender-specific differences are “largely due to the different life contexts of men and women”. In households with children, women bear greater responsibility for the family and part-time employment is a predominantly female phenomenon. So, men still pursue gainful employment and therefore drive cars. Women take care of the household and the family and therefore walk many short distances, for example to the day care centre, the playground and the supermarket.

In the eighties, a possible solution was discussed: Everyone should simply drive a car. Then everyone would have something from the technology and the roads, and there would be no gender discrimination, at least in this area. The car industry in particular promoted the car as an emancipation vehicle. The Greens organized a conference on this in 1988 in Wolfsburg, where Volkswagen was based. The idea was already controversial at the time. Today, decades later, in view of the climate crisis, this kind of adaptation seems even less of a progressive option. At the last International Motor Show in Frankfurt, activists brought a male cardboard figure in a suit, instead of a penis it carried a gigantic exhaust pipe, which was symbolically sawn off.

What the existing fixation on cars and their drivers leads to is shown quite vividly by the Belgian capital Brussels: 726,000 jobs were registered in the Belgian region in 2017, of which almost half (48.9 per cent) went to commuters, more than in any other major European city. Most of them come in cars, often paid for by the employer. In Belgium, the wage tax is so high that employees prefer a company car to a pay rise. And so, they usually drive into town alone in the morning and stand in traffic jams. Cyclists wear bright waistcoats and breathing masks.

In Brussels, Janna Aljets works for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the focus of the transformation of the automobile industry and the change in transport – often from a feminist perspective. She sees one problem on today’s roads in SUVs. Its drivers take up much more space than they need. “SUVs are ostentatious, strong, dominant. On the inside they convey a sense of security, on the outside they produce insecurity and threat,” says Aljets. A rather male behavior pattern. It doesn’t matter who drives SUVs, in fact they are becoming more popular among women. Aljets is concerned with the recklessness behind them and the immediate effects on weaker road users.

At a roundabout in the southern district of Saint-Gilles, she says, one can see how certain people were simply not considered in the traffic planning: Women, children, the elderly. It could be quite beautiful with the old paving stones, the magnificent old buildings in their different shades of brown, their white stucco. A stone fountain stands in the middle, with a bronze replica of a water bearer towering above it. Old photographs show occasional horse-drawn carriages on the roundabout, later automobiles, and always: people fetching water or relaxing at the fountain. Today, visitors write on TripAdvisor about the place “dreary massacre”, “repulsive and dangerous” and “you should flee as soon as possible”. Always to blame: the traffic.

Eight streets converge from all directions, all squeezing through somehow: Cars, vans, trams, motorbikes, in between cyclists navigate their way close along the tram tracks, pedestrians use every free inch and a zebra crossing leads over a traffic island that is sealed off with a railing. You could squeeze past it on your own, but never with a pram or wheelchair. Traffic lights have rarely felt more pointless.

Instead of continuing to fixate on the car, Janna Aljets calls for mobility concepts without cars. That would ultimately benefit everyone. “Any city that tries to reduce car traffic automatically thinks in gender terms,” she says.

And maybe she is right. Only when you want to see all genders consciously and individually in their everyday lives you recognize the gaps in the system from which everyone suffers in the end. Then you see: cities are optimized for cars and cars for male needs. Anyone who attacks this logic is quickly considered radical. There is already trouble when old diesel vehicles are no longer allowed in the city.

Many initiatives are trying anyway, and a left-wing Spanish mayor has succeeded. Since the nineties, the city of Pontevedra has consistently driven cars out of its city center. First in the old town, then more and more neighborhoods became pedestrian zones. Above all, the shopkeepers had feared for their customers and the supply of goods, but in fact their sales increased. Those who walked had more time to shop. Now, one could argue that Pontevedra has only 80,000 inhabitants, so such projects can be implemented somehow. But metropolises are also gradually trying out more inclusive urban planning by giving people back the space that cars once took away from them.

Barcelona, for example. The Spanish port city has grown rapidly in recent decades but is limited by mountains and rivers. It has become more and more crowded. Cars are jammed on the streets; exhaust emissions have been exceeding EU limits for years. There is even a term for the bad air above the city: la boina, like the beret. Especially in spring, allergy sufferers complain of breathing problems and doctors advise against outdoor sports. The city responded with an Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona for the years 2013 to 2018.

One of the model projects is located in the former industrial district of Poblenou. Once there were factories for buttons, textiles and ovens. In the meantime, they have given way to high-rises, new glass buildings and hip cafés. The streets are arranged at right angles, and in 2016 the city combined nine of the blocks into one superblock, the so-called Superilla. The traffic was diverted to the outside, in between encounter zones were created. Where there were once four lanes, there is now only one one-way street with a speed limit of ten kilometers per hour. The other lanes still gleam through old street paintings, now oversized flowerpots, wooden seating groups and sculptures from the Museum of Contemporary Painting stand on them, it’s around the corner here. In other places, tall grass grows into a meadow. A former car lane is now a red track, approved only for people who spontaneously want to race. During the day, many employees of the tech companies sit outside with their lunch boxes, ribbons with door cards dangling from their necks. Even the cleaners take a break and smoke. Fathers watch their children play.

As you walk through, it’s easy to forget: are you still a pedestrian or already on the street? Will this thought one day be as out of date as the discussion about how much a text message costs? Today, most city dwellers are conditioned to strictly divide the street: Here the motorists, here the pedestrians, here the bicycles. In between the lines and the curbs, and the traffic lights call for order so that nothing gets mixed up. The weaker ones are constantly careful not to get in the way of the stronger ones. Outside the superilla, groups of children hold on in rows of two and adults scurry around them like sheepdogs to make sure no one runs into the street. In the superilla, this matter-of-factness suddenly seems comical.

Norma Nebot lives with her family in one of the blocks. When she heard about the planned conversion back then, she was thrilled. “It’s like winning the lottery,” she says. The streets in her neighborhood were very busy, and with her two children she couldn’t go out for a breath of fresh air in the evening without having to hold them by the hand all the time. That instead of parking spaces and roadways, playgrounds and seating areas were to be built – “that sounded like a dream”. But soon the first neighbors started to fight back, mostly angry men, she says. They hung posters from the windows, some even made it onto television. Nebot says the opponents of the conversion felt their freedom was being curtailed, and they wanted to continue driving quickly to their front door. So Nebot joined forces with other people from the neighborhood “to defend the project”. They organized parties, built information stands, shot image films, and talked to journalists from all over the world.

Not much is left of the resistance today, the “No Superilla” posters are gone. Nevertheless, the showcase project is not perfect. “The city should invest more,” says Nebot. Basically, only one street has been really revitalized, the others still seem half-heartedly implemented. She would like to see more green spaces instead of asphalt. Sand or grass would be nice so that the children could fall softly. Some parents would also have liked a basketball court, but didn’t get it. And although there are social housing units, cafés and offices, there are hardly any schools, grocery shops or bakeries. Just what you need for everyday life. For that, she still must leave the Superilla.

But Nebot doesn’t want to complain, above all she doesn’t want to go back. If she must leave her superblock, she can do it quickly. She doesn’t have to wait at traffic lights or walk awkwardly along the roadsides, she can just walk right through. You must live here to see the blemishes. Otherwise, a certain magic spread in the evening, when the Superilla fills up with residents. Children squeal, dogs pant, adults chat maturely, teenagers smoke. Here the big city seems like a village. There are scooters too: the little ones pedal them; the grown-ups treat themselves to the new ones with electric motors. The street belongs to everyone. The stronger ones look out for the weaker ones, it’s as simple as that.

It is quiet. The air smells clean. But you only notice that when you go outside. In the Superilla, people accept it that way.

Later, a few kilometers away in the neighboring district of Glòries, a father is pushing a stroller. To his child he says “hum hum” like the cars around it. “Hum hum”, the child repeats. When the green light of the traffic lights flashes, the pedestrians hurry to avoid being run over by lorries, ice-cream trucks, motorbikes, taxis, buses.


A little old man with a stick. Like a turtle, blinking thoughtfully. Vans pass him, brakes squealing.


He starts to move. The fastest he can manage is still too slow. One would like to hook on and apologise for the rhythm of the city, which can no longer do him justice. Or wants to. And you can’t tell the city to slow down. That it should let him pass. That perhaps he has even less time left than the motorists behind their windows.

But even if one were to roar, their engines would be even louder.

©Ostap Senyuk / Unsplash

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