By Dom Nozzi
To be healthy and sustainable, cities need to leverage “agglomeration economies.” That is, a healthy city with a high quality of life is one that is relatively compact and walkable.
Because cars consume an enormous amount of space and travel at such high speeds, they are toxic to cities by undercutting agglomeration. Even so-called “green” cars disperse cities and drain the lifeblood out of them because their relatively large size and speed enable sprawling of cities into the hinterlands.
Cars isolate us from each other, and make us a society of loners. Again, the objective of creating a healthier city is undercut by the car, because cities thrive via exchange, where people are interacting with each other. A society high in what Robert Putnam calls “social capital” is a healthier society – economically, physically, and emotionally.
In the early days of motordom, cars and roads actually were helpful to cities, as they promoted better commerce, more productivity, more ease of travel, more consumer choice, and larger markets. But for several decades now, cars and roads have suffered from a severe form of diminishing returns. Each new car that is bought and each new widening of a road delivers less and less benefits. Today, as a result of this on-going and growing diminishment, the costs of cars and roads far outweighs the benefits.
In our world of extreme car dependence, the road infrastructure and dispersed lay-out of our communities has made travel by foot, bicycle or transit nearly impossible. Extreme car dependence has at least partly been fueled by the fact that when a community designs itself for easier, more efficient car travel, it inevitably makes it more difficult to travel by foot, bicycle or transit. Providing for cars, in other words, is a zero-sum game.
And this “game” is a self-perpetuating downward spiral, because by making walking, bicycling and transit more difficult (by providing wide roads and expansive parking lots), we continuously recruit new motorists who were formerly walking, bicycling or using transit. A growing army of car “cheerleaders” is created, and this puts increasing political pressure on elected officials to provide even MORE for the car, which further ramps up the recruitment of even more new motorists. It is a nearly unstoppable cycle.
Tragically, this massive shift of nearly all of us from walking, bicycling and transit to a world of extreme car dependence has resulted in an enormous PRIVATIZATION of the costs of travel. In the past, before the car, households spent only a tiny portion of its budget on travel. Walking and bicycling are extremely low-cost, and transit is mostly a cost borne by society at large. But with the substantially growing need over the past several decades for a household to own one, two, three or more cars – cars which now cost, on average, about $8,500 per year each – the amount of money individuals and households must now allocate to travel has gone through the roof. Indeed, some estimate that travel costs are now the second highest expense – at about 21 percent – a household must now pay for. Second only to housing.
And that, quite simply, is unaffordable.
As an aside, I would argue that the most important task, if we are interested in easing the affordable housing crisis, is to reduce the number of cars that a household must own.
In addition to the diminishing returns I noted above, another enormous threat is increasingly looming on the horizon. A growing consensus of energy, oil, investment and geology experts are now convinced that the world will soon – if not already – face “peak oil.” Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Inevitably, peak oil will result in exponential increases in the cost of gasoline, which will quickly bring prices to a level that is unaffordable for all but the wealthy.
Signs of peak oil are already here, as some have noted that we are, for the first time, seeing “peak car use” on a per capita and even a society-wide level. We are also seeing a growing number of people – particularly younger people – show a growing interest in living in a walkable town center where car use is optional rather than required.
Increasingly, cities are finding that they can no longer afford to pay for the exponentially growing costs of providing wider roads and bigger parking lots for cars – in part due to the on-going (and energy-crisis-related) world-wide economic turmoil, debt and recession.
For a long time, many have recognized the substantial costs that extreme car dependence brings to society – particularly the economic and environmental costs. As a result, we have witnessed heroic, tireless crusades to reduce car dependence and increase the number of trips made by transit, bicycle or walking. This has largely been an effort to provide more buses or bus stops. Build more bike lanes or paths. Install more sidewalks.
But it is NOT about providing new facilities for transit, bicycling or walking. It is about TAKING AWAY space from the car. Only when we shrink roads (by putting them on a “road diet”) and take away some of the excessive (and free) off-street car parking can we be effective in increasing the number of transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
All of this is not to say that we must get rid of all cars. But it IS about acknowledging that for a more pleasant and sustainable future, our communities must be designed so that cars behave themselves.
How do we make cars behave themselves? How do we create a more sustainable world with a higher quality of life, transportation choices, and a better economy?
First, we must put an immediate end to road widening (Obama has poured billions into widening in recent years, by the way). We must set about engaging in the highly productive, beneficial task of putting our overly-wide roads on a diet by making, for example, 4- and 5-lane roads 2- or 3-lane roads. We must replace asphalt parking lots with housing, offices and shops.
Because of their enormous size and speed, a world that is designed for happy people rather than happy cars will be one where the motorist feels INCONVENIENCED when she or he drives a car. The motorist must also be obligated to drive much slower and much more attentively. This will dramatically increase safety, transportation choice and quality of life.
Furthermore, we need to bring an end to the gargantuan subsidies we provide to pamper the car. A brighter, more sustainable future, then, will be one where it is much more expensive to drive a car. This may be seen as bitter medicine, but our society has been a very unhealthy patient for several decades, which means it is in need of strong treatment.
For all these reasons, in the future, the role of the car in our lives will be diminishing. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that cars will become less important in our lives (which will both improve our lives and our bank accounts). Car use will not be impossible, but it will be much more like flying in a plane. In other words, car travel will become much more rare – and only for special occasions or luxuries.
In sum, we need to return to the timeless, sustainable tradition of designing our communities to make people happy, not cars.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: email@example.com