Global warming, obesity, gasoline prices, the war for oil, urban sprawl, social isolation, small businesses shutting down, the rising cost of living - what do all of these problems have in common? The automobile. I'm not saying that the automobile is the sole cause of all of these problems, but it surely contributed to it.
"But electric cars will solve all of our problems!" A lot of people think that electric cars will solve all of today's problems. That will solve one issue:
For the sake of this argument, I will ignore the environmental issues about global warming, pollution, and the cost of gasoline, and the politics of importing oil and peak oil - since they get all of the attention, and instead focus on the much deeper and darker issues of living in a car dominated culture.
Cars aren't neccessarily a bad idea. The concept of a person owning a machine that can take them wherever they want, whenever they want, is actually a good idea. Especially if you live in a far off rural area - the ability to get to their nearest town within 20 minutes is a godsend for them. Cars are good for those that live in the country.
But cities and cars don't mix. When you try to accomidate for every single adult in a city having their own car, you end up using a lot of tax payer money to build and maintain an expensive vast network of roads, highways, and freeways so people can move around in them, and clearing out a lot of land for parking for every shop and office that accomidates them. Then instead of building traditional cities, with human-scale streets that are pleasant, safe, and convenient to walk around;
You build massive automobile scale roads, and small pockets of retail pop up in the outskirts of the city in the form of strip malls, surrounded by expansive seas of parking lots, divided by massive multilane roads always roaring with traffic, abandoned sidewalks in an environment that is hostile to the pedestrian.
The design of the city itself encourages, no - enforces, you to drive because it's designed not to be safe or convenient to walk around. And it certainly wouldn't be pleasant.
The time of the automobile has come and gone. No, I don't think they're going to disappear completely - especially in rural areas where they're good. But I do think they have outlived their time as the dominent form of transportation in cities.
In a traditional city, you don't need a car. It's a luxury, not a necessity. Everbody has legs, so you're not descriminated against if you can't afford one. In a car-dependent city designed for them, they're a necessity, and an expensive one - irregardless of the price of gasoline. There are the direct costs - you need to purchase a car, pay for insurance, take it for regular maintainance, if the transmission dies on the freeway then hope to god you have a warranty or insurance. Then there are the indirect costs of paying for the roads and the highways through taxes. In a traditional city you can simply walk to work or take public transportation. But in a car-depedent city these aren't always conveniently avaliable, so it becomes neccessary to pay for all of these expenses just to go about your day to day life. Some freedom?
Car-dependent cities take up more space than traditional cities, because in accomidating for the roads, highways, freeways, and countless parking spaces, everything is more pushed out. Then to buffer from all of these unsafe, noisy, and asthetically unpleasing parking lots and roads you build greenspace;
Which just adds to the problem! Greenspaces are not parks. Parks are places you have picnics in and children can play in. Greenspaces are just buffers against traffic - it just wastes land. In a traditional city the street is already asthetically pleasing that you don't need 'greenspace' to buffer against it:
Despite car-dependent cities segregating the haves and the have-nots (the motorists and the non-motorists) based on where they can go, car-dependent cities issolate the community. Part of the charm of living in a community are the chance encounters you have with other people in that community. In a traditional city, as you go about your daily business you get to learn and recognize the locals you see every day, you can encounter friends on the street, have chance encounters with business owners that recognize you as you walk past them daily on your way to work. Everyday is something new - there may be a busker playing a violin on the corner with his violin case open wanting donations, someone asking for signatures to pass a new law, or handing out free samples to promote the opening of their new business. You take note of that new store popping up on your street, because you don't drive by the community, you're part of the community.
In a car-dependent city, you no longer have these chance encounters. Once you leave your home, you get in your car, and you stay in your own controlled isolated world, until you get to your destination.
Not only that, car-dependent cities are less tourist friendly. If your targeting international tourists, not every one of them are legally able to drive in your country, and the ones that can may not want to attempt it - especially if you drive on a different side of the road and have different road rules. You also have to consider domestic tourists that fly in. They didn't bring their car with them, so once they are at their hotel, most would rely on walking or public transportation to see the sights and attractions - only a few would rent a car.
Car-dependent cities don't favour small businesses. When driving, it takes a lot of time and effort to slow down, find an opportunity to make the turn, find a free parking spot, and park your car. Then when you want to leave, you have to get back in your car, and wait for an opening until you can merge back into traffic. In a car-dependent city where each small business provides it's own parking, it becomes a huge waste of time and is massively inconvenient to drive between and park at each store. From a consumer's perspective, they want to make the least number of stops possible during a shopping trip. Department stores and other big box retailers have a significant advantage as the consumer only has to park once and have most of their needs under a single roof, then they only have to pack their car once and return home. Local green grocers, bakeries, butcher shops, convenience stores, and other specialty retailers simply can't compete with that. Small businesses favour foot traffic - and thus, they favour the traditional city. In a traditional city you're likely to walk past countless small businesses going about your daily business. It's more convenient to simply spend 5 minutes of your time walking in to one of those on your way home than to go out of your way to a large supermarket. This isn't to say that large stores don't work in traditional cities - they do, but local businesses can be more competive purely because it's more convenient to visit a small business in a traditional city.
It is more expensive and takes more effort to run a business in a car-dependent city. You have to ensure you build and maintain enough parking spaces for all of your customers, and you have an entire building to yourself to maintain. You tend to find small businesses like:
It doesn't look very inviting. Infact, I'd probably go out of my way not to walk past it for fear I'd get pulled around the back and get shot, even in pure daylight.
A traditional store only has to maintain their building front;
I feel much safer walking past these small businesses - even at 3 am if there were adequate street lighting. What would be easier to maintain? The latter is more asthetically pleasing, yet takes less effort. All they have to do is maintain their shop front - which in that case is a simple glass window with a couple of signs on it. Let the city take care of cleaning and maintaing the street and providing parking. Let the neighbors take care of the sides of the building.
Strip malls have tried to fix some of those problems - being able to park once and have multiple small businesses side by side, and businesses can share the cost of maintainance. But strip malls don't solve the problems completely - you still need to go out of your way to visit the strip mall, and it's likely that you would need to visit multiple strip malls for all of your shopping needs, which kind of defeats part of the benefit of a strip mall from the consumer's perspective.
There has been research that has linked obesity with driving. The correlation is simple; due to urban sprawl, car-dependent cities encourage people to drive rather than walk. Walking is natural. Throughout most of human history, people didn't have a very good understanding of nutrition and unless you were an athlete, you probably didn't ever even think of attending a gym. Yet the majority of people stayed thin. That's because in a traditional city, you naturally walk while going about your daily business - the way people have been living for most of human history.
If you live in a car dependent city, the most exercise you normally get is when you're inside. Leaving the house consists of walking from your house to your car, and then from your car to your work or the shop. Because the primary form of exercise throughout most of history - the act of getting from A to B, now consists of sitting in a car seat, you have to go out of your way to suppliment it with diet or exercise.
Deaths and injuries by cars are preventable - drink driving, speeding, drifting, rear-ending. Car dependent cities are also dangerous for pedestrians as many vehicles can come off the road and hit bystanders. If less people drove, there would be less car accidents. While a traditional city wouldn't completely eliminate car deaths and injuries, it would significant reduce them.
Driving can be enjoyable, and many people love to see the sites of the countryside. But there is a difference between weekend runs through the countryside;
If there were less cars on the road commuting to and from work or the supermarket every day, then driving through the country on your days off and weekends would be much more pleasent. There is a critical difference between commuting via car, and sightseeing via car.
A lot of people argue that cars give them freedom, which is true to a point. But cars only give you freedom in an environment built for them - and cities are not the best environments to be built for cars. In a traditional city - where you can walk or use public transportation more conveniently than driving, you no longer need a car to freely move around the city. This does not mean that you have to give up your car - you can still keep it for the occasional drives in the country or when you need to buy a big item from a hardware store. The major difference is that in a car-dependent city, a car is neccessary for freedom. In a traditional city, a car is optional, and while useful at times, owning a car is not associated with freedom.
The second type of freedom that is important to discuss is financial freedom. Cars are expensive, and the lower your income, the more of a burden they become and the less money you have to save or spend on other things. If you are able to live your daily life car-less, you can still rent a car on the weekends when you need one. This is much cheaper than having to worry about car payments, maintenance, and parking, while still giving you personal freedom when it's needed. The other advantage of rentals is that you always have the choice of choosing the vehicle most appropriate to your immediate need, whether it would be a minivan, a sportscar, or a pickup truck.
Cars are a good idea for people that live in the country and they work, but cars in cities simply don't mix. I have focused on the consequences of building cities around cars and what the impact is. By making you aware of the long-term issues of car-dependent cities I hope that we can begin to counter act them. When possible, choose public transportation or walking over driving - and try to limit your driving to when you need to go off the beaten path - for example, weekend drives in the country. Support your local urban shops rather than your suburban ones. If you're looking to buy a house, look for one in a walkable area to support that style of development. More human-scale development that is walkable and pedestrian-friendly won't come until a demand grows for it, and each small effort can help. By doing so, we can save money, increase our quality of living, reduce pollution, and decrease our dependency on oil. In a future article on my blog I will discuss practical solutions for developers and city planners for building safer traditional cities.
Afterall, if people didn't like traditional cities they wouldn't pay big money to take a vacation there, fantasize about them in art, or collect antiques with 'old world charm'.