The Future of the Automobile
October 1, 2012
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.
saying that the automobile is the sole cause of all of these problems, but it surely contributed to
"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:
- Urban sprawl
- Social isolation
- Declining small businesses
- Car deaths and injuries
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
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.
Declining small businesses
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
. 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
Car deaths and injuries
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;
Versus the daily commute to and from work in a car-dependent city;
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
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'.
I recommend reading and
visiting the website Carfree
Carfree Cities by J. H. Crawford