By Dom Nozzi
Since the emergence and rapid spread of car ownership and use in America since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States has taken a large number of ruinous, unsustainable actions to make life happy for cars rather than people.
While it is true that car travel initially resulted in many positive improvements in our society, those improvements are now increasingly overwhelmed by negatives, as the continued provision of infrastructure, programs and finances to promote car travel is now experiencing severely diminishing returns that started later on in the 20th Century.
We are now at a point that each “improvement” for car travel – an “improvement” that is increasingly unaffordable – provides fewer and fewer benefits. And the costs of such “improvements” provide increasingly enormous decimation. A classic case, in other words, of diminishing returns.
Tragically, the US is largely trapped in this downward spiral, even as growing numbers of us see that transportation “improvements” are, on balance, increasingly ruinous.
The over-emphasis on providing for cars has destroyed the severely hampered the financial condition of households, as well as the finances of local, state and federal governments. This over-emphasis has also significantly increased the number of injuries and deaths in the US, has significantly degraded quality of life and civic pride, has substantially harmed the natural environment, has drained the lifeblood out of most American town centers (downtowns), has taken away travel independence for seniors, children and others without the ability to drive a car, has wiped out smaller and locally-owned businesses in the face of emerging Big Box retailers, has promoted unsustainable suburban sprawl, has resulted in countless wildlife deaths, and has substantially contributed to the US becoming a nation of loners – a nation where we barely even know our neighbors, and much more rarely bump into friends and family.
The following is a list of actions a nation should consider if it seeks to avoid this catastrophic path taken by the United States with regard to transportation – a path, tragically, that many emerging nations have eagerly sought to follow over the past several decades.
This list is not ordered by priority.
Parking for Cars. Excessive asphalt surface parking significantly promotes excessive car travel and car ownership, reduces walking, bicycling and transit use, reduces quality of life, increases crime, hurts town center economics, and reduces housing choice, housing affordability, and housing availability. Parking supply must be scarce, mostly on-street, and properly priced to achieve a parking use of about 85 percent of spaces at any given time of day. Residential and commercial development must provide owners and renters with the option of paying less for their building space in exchange for not having parking provided (parking cash-out).
Provide for the full range of lifestyle and travel choices. Land development regulations and transportation funding by government must be tailored and calibrated to ensure that regulations vary based on geographic location (compactness is the objective in town center regulations and drivable lower densities is the objective for more dispersed locations, for example). Government funding should be balanced so that excessive amounts of public money is not devoted to car travel.
Proximity. Town centers must be relatively dense and mixed in use. Building setbacks should be relatively small, and important community-serving facilities should remain in the town center.
Street network design. Streets must be well-connected. Dead ends and cul-de-sacs should be rare or non-existent. Street block length should be no longer than 200 feet in distance.
One-Way Streets. Avoid creating one-way streets. Such streets are detrimental to transportation choice, retail and residential quality of life, and overall quality of life – particularly in town centers.
Gas Tax. Needs to be high enough to compensate for motorist costs, and discourage excessive car use. A properly high gas tax is a key way to achieve energy sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and financial health (the US gas tax has been so low that it fails to achieve these aims, and ends of transferring enormous national wealth to oil-producing nations).
Full-Time Staff. Hire and maintain full-time staff who are highly skilled in providing transportation choices. Too often, government transportation departments have staff who are only skilled in designing for easy car travel.
Strive for “24-Hour City” design. This is mostly achieved by providing for higher density mixed-use development in town centers. Such design promotes safety, quality of life, and economic health. It is also important in promoting travel and lifestyle choices.
Safety in Numbers. Strive for a community design that results in large numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, in part to promote much higher levels of safety for the community.
Happiness and Celebration. Consider occasional and permanent street closures to promote sociability, quality of life, and transportation choice. Design city infrastructure, programs, and festivals that celebrate and promote happy people rather than happy cars. Economic success should be measured not be a rising Gross National Product but by a rising Gross National Happiness.
When a developing nation starts enjoying a relatively large household income, it becomes very difficult to avoid the ruinous steps (or achieve the useful steps) associated with the above actions. Travel by car is extremely seductive, and the zero-sum, self-perpetuating nature of providing for car travel is almost certain to occur once household wealth reaches its tipping point and car ownership is in reach.
Over-providing for car travel is zero-sum in the sense that providing for car travel inevitably makes travel by transit, walking or bicycling more difficult. Over-providing for car travel is self-perpetuating in the sense that, as just noted, non-car travel becomes increasingly impractical when we provide for car travel. Providing for car travel is also self-perpetuating because it inevitably creates a growing army of motorists who demand their elected officials single-mindedly provide for the enormous road and parking design changes, and provide for the sprawling, low-density land development patterns that car dependence requires.
The inevitable result of the zero-sum game and the self-perpetuating trap is the over-emphasis on providing for car travel.
Short of major resource (particularly oil) disruption, then, there is no turning back on a world of car over-emphasis, once growing wealth brings car ownership to a society.
At first, the enormous costs that inevitably follow the nearly impossible-to-avoid scenario of over-emphasizing car travel tend to be invisible due to the seemingly wondrous glare of the joys that car travel seems – at least initially — to promise. Avoiding the false glory of a car-based society requires immense wisdom and leadership on the part of the elected officials of a society.
The near impossibility of a nation successfully avoiding the transportation trap the US has fallen into suggests to me that the best hope for emerging nations in our era is the rapid onset of Peak Oil and other car-based resource constraints — constraints that make following the car-happy path of the US a path that is financially and politically impossible to follow. Unless such constraints emerge quickly and aggressively, the seductive lure of a car-based world may be too difficult to avoid.
If a nation is not able to learn from history, it is doomed to repeat it. And the seductiveness of car travel may blind emerging nations from the lessons of US transportation. Perhaps all nations, then, will be doomed to follow the US transportation path and be forced to learn for themselves.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here:
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.
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