People Like Cars, And There's Not Much You Can Do About It

Christian Madera's picture
Alum

With climate change on the mind of the world's policy makers, the auto-oriented design of our cities has been singled out as a major culprit -- and understandably so. Cars burn a lot of fossil fuel, so getting people to walk, bike and use public transportation more would help cut down on pollution and green house gases.

But how to get people out of their cars? The key, many agree, is to redesign cities. Right now cities are designed for people moving around in their cars, so it's unreasonable to expect people to use any other means of transportation. But give them a city that's planned for walking, biking and public transit -- and it could be a whole new ballgame.

As a car-free American, I certainly want to see cities become more focused on making living without car a practical, if not preferred, lifestyle choice. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this change in thinking is something planners and policy makers can realistically bring about -- at least not by just building more transit, density and walkable streets.

As much as we all try to espouse all the environmental, economic and social benefits of a more traditional and sustainable urban lifestyle -- from my perspective, most Americans are still quite happy with their auto-oriented one. Away from the planner folk I tend to naturally associate with, I don't often hear people say "Gee, it would be great if I didn't have to drive there" or "I wish it was easier to walk to the store" -- at least without being prompted. Rather, I'm much more likely to hear "Why isn't there more parking?" or "I wish they would expand the freeway so traffic could move."

Even though many planners want to think that lots of people would relinquish their cars if they just had a light rail stop nearby, I feel like most Americans remain whole-heartedly committed to private auto ownership, single-family homes, big box retail stores, and the slew of other elements that have created the modern urban landscape. And the fact that cities are designed for cars is, in my view, simply a response -- by both private developers and government -- to what Americans have demanded.

This isn't to say that things can't change. They obviously can -- and I hope they do. But I don't think that the change can come through the efforts of planners. Rather, only when a significant number of Americans begin choosing alternate means of transportation will people start to accept -- indeed demand -- the types of changes to the urban landscape that planners and policy makers are now fighting to achieve.

You might think this is a chicken and egg situation, and perhaps you can make an argument that the landscape has to change before people will consider changing their lifestyle. But then again most American cities were not originally designed to accommodate cars, yet today they accommodate record numbers of them. Even in New York, which arguably has the best urban form and infrastructure in the country for walking and riding transit, residents do not want to give up their driving habits -- as evidenced by the recent congestion pricing debate.

So if redesigned cities won't be the catalyst for getting people out of their cars, what will? Raising the cost of driving (or changing the price to reflect the true costs) increasingly seems to be a tactic that policy makers want to try. And while it's probably true that the pocketbook is the most persuasive factor when it comes to changing behavior, education, media, demographics, and culture have roles, too. However, what's important is that many other factors are probably more likely to influence Americans' decisions about how to live and get around more than the mere presence of rail transit, higher-density housing, fancy crosswalks, or any of the other things that we claim will get people out of their cars.

What's a planner to do in the meantime? Well, probably the same thing they should always do. Listen to residents and plan communities for their needs. Clearly, planners should continue to try and foresee the future needs of a community, and encourage residents to think about the bigger picture. But at the end of the day, a well designed high-density mixed-use project is still going to be a hard sell to residents who are thinking about where they are going to park their car.

Conversely, once the majority of Americans start seeking alternatives to their auto-oriented lifestyle, that same project will probably be approved with little or no complaints -- so long as it has good sidewalks.

Christian Madera was managing editor of Planetizen from 2006 to 2008.

Comments

Comments

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

hard to generalize about "people" - just one example

Mr. Peralta mentions the failure of NYC congestion pricing as evidence that "residents do not want to give up their driving habits."

But in fact, 55.7% of actual NYC households don't have cars (see http://www.bikesatwork.com/carfree/census-lookup.php?state_select=ALL_ST...)

Presumably, the percentage of actual New York humans without cars is even larger, since some people without cars live in one-car households.

In fact, congestion pricing wasn't killed by NYC residents at all- it was killed by a suburb-dominated state legislature.

People Vs. Households

"Presumably, the percentage of actual New York humans without cars is even larger, since some people without cars live in one-car households."

Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that it could go either way:

If the average household with a car is larger than the average household, then the percent of people with access to a car is larger than the percent of households with a car.

(PS: This is a minor detail. I agree with the main point.)

Charles Siegel

Interesting

I agree to a large degree, but would point out some other ways of looking at this.

The planning critic in me says you are right and just building new transit and encouraging "walkable" communities is futile in the quest to get people out of their cars.

However, I don't think people are addicted to cars or oil or anything like that. I think what capitalism fosters is an "addiction" to convenience. And, the most convenient/cost-effective balanced option is the best for each individual. And with capitalism, there is an implicit assumption that the things and activities of life are constantly made more convenient with each new innovation.

In most areas of the US, it is more convenient/cost effective to drive which is why its the predominant travel mode. But, people are strange animals. We know what we want right now, but we really have little idea what we will want in the future nor have any idea of what will be most cost effective/convenient in the future. It might not always be cars.

The one thing public policy can do is change the economics of the equation so that even if the convenient part says one thing, the cost effective part will override. And when suppliers (developers) sense this, they will respond with the convenience portion.

The choice of cars may be with us for a long time

I think that Mr. Peralta has a great point in that if we opt for a more carless future, it will be a matter of choice, not compulsion. There's been a lot of commentary lately to the effect that we're not going to be able to have cars much longer, at least not the way we're used to them. In the short term, we may be forced to use them less, due to difficulty with fossil fuels, but that will be temporary.

I believe in the longer term we can have "cars", in the sense of personal transportation, through any number of other means- ways that will answer to the problems of fossil fuel depletion, climate change, and congestion. Imagine a sequence that goes like this: less fossil fuel use with hybrids, etc., a phase we're entering now; electric-powered transportation with better battery technology, sourced by solar, geothermal, and nuclear fission through the plug in your garage (hydrogen & fuel cell methods can ultimately be powered this way); with the ultimate perhaps being the same powered by nuclear fusion, if we don't find something still better in the meantime.

Better management of traffic by electronic means can double or triple the capacity of existing roads. Things we see already, such as cars that park themselves and computerized navigators, should tell us that this is coming, unless we just somehow forget how to innovate.

I believe that this kind of future is at least as possible as a Kunstler-esque dystopia. We can still have a sprawl culture without destroying our climate while doing so, and therein lies a trap.

What this should tell us is that if we are to have a sensible, respectful-to-the-earth type future, it will be because it's good, not because we're forced to do it. If big parts of the earth return to a natural state while we live in smaller spaces ourselves, it will happen because we choose that way.
James Pugsley, AICP

Chicken vs. Egg

most Americans remain whole-heartedly committed to private auto ownership, single-family homes, big box retail stores

Well, I disagree that most Americans would choose the elements of a typical sprawl neighborhood - barracks-style housing, garagescape, use-isolation, extreme pedestrian inconvenience, box/strip retail - over the typical new urbanist neighborhood. Whether or not they care about the concept of auto dependent urban form doesn't matter. Americans instinctively know better design when they see it and, aside from car vs. walking considerations, most would choose pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods over the car-oriented if given the choice on purely qualitative grounds. I used to be in real estate and never once heard someone say "I really like this house, but the surrounding retail parking lots are too small, so I'm going to opt for this other neighborhood with bigger parking lots".

Nearly all TND neighborhoods have very high demand, which is reflected in their higher prices. That's the problem. More supply of better-designed development is needed to meet that demand and bring prices down to affordable levels. I also disagree that most Americans love urban freeway commuting - it's one of the most hated daily rituals in America. They tolerate it mostly because of home-affordability and school quality, not because they love Wal-Mart and their Nissan Sentras.

most American cities were not originally designed to accommodate cars

True, but most Americans in 1947 didn't have any idea (much less a vote) that the consequences of car-oriented urban form would lead to such a devaluation of so many cities. And most 2008 car-dependent cities were infants when the sprawl fad came into full swing, so the imposed redesign had much less opposition. As people in the more mature, larger cities like NYC began realizing what the car-priority planning was doing, they organized and largely stopped it, a la Jane Jacobs' vs. Robert Moses.

However, I do agree that gas prices, not urban form policies, will ultimately be the nail in the coffin for excessive motoring, and therefore, development that requires it. But that doesn't mean we should sit back and employ a reactive libertarian strategy and just wait for all the "millions of individual decisions" to rebuild our cities to be less car dependent. Shouldn't we be proactive and plan ahead for this transition..you know..planning?

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

False dichotomy

"Away from the planner folk I tend to naturally associate with, I don't often hear people say "Gee, it would be great if I didn't have to drive there" or "I wish it was easier to walk to the store" -- at least without being prompted. Rather, I'm much more likely to hear "Why isn't there more parking?" or "I wish they would expand the freeway so traffic could move.""

This assertion is a false dichotomy. Where I live, most non-planner types I know want BOTH. Yes, they want to drive more conveniently- but they also want to be able to get around without cars. (Which, PS, is why non-ghetto walkable neighborhoods are so expensive even in car-dependent Jacksonville- because the demand exceeds the supply).

Most Americans are still quite happy with their auto-oriented...

“… from my perspective, most Americans are still quite happy with their auto-oriented (life)… Even though many planners want to think that lots of people would relinquish their cars if they just had a light rail stop nearby, I feel like most Americans remain whole-heartedly committed to private auto ownership, single-family homes, big box retail stores…”

I am afraid that Mr. Peralta is right. In fact, if gasoline were still $1-a-gallon, we (even as planners) probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. We’d still be deep in denial about our wasteful lifestyle, happily gloating about our great American prosperity and building more and more cheesy strip malls and big box stores sitting on acres and acres of asphalt, surrounded by car dealers, drive-in fast-food sitting on more asphalt, and sprawling subdivisions of tract houses on steroids. That’s what most Americans (outside the planning profession) like and want, as if it were a culturally-ingrained trait… “We are a nation of blithering idiots driving huge gas guzzling tuna boat-sized SUV's…” (from SFGate comments – April 2008). It’s probably going to take a new generation of Americans living with expensive energy (and food) to change this culture of excess, not what we planners wish for.

That change is beginning to be forced upon Americans now. Four dollar-a-gallon gasoline is already here, and denial is beginning to turn into panic (hence a couple of the Presidential candidates’ moronic notion that the Federal gas tax should be suspended for a few months). Think $4 is a lot…? Eight dollar-a-gallon gasoline is coming soon (sooner than you think), and the typical American suburban dweller is woefully unprepared for an approaching Brave New World of very expensive energy… not just about how much cash they will need to part with each time they stop at their neighborhood gas station, but also how much it will cost to heat and air condition all those hulking suburban mini McMansions with twenty-foot-high ceilings adorned with fake plastic columns (another petro-chemical product…!).

Change will come, not because the typical American suburbanite wants to live in an apartment or condo in a high-density New Urbanist TOD and ride the train to work, but because the old expansive, consumptive lifestyle out in the cul-de-sacs will no longer be affordable for most (except for the very wealthy, and a disproportionate share of them already prefer to live in places like Manhattan or San Francisco with perhaps a weekend house in the Hamptons or Tahoe). More and more of America in the future, a generation from now, with 400 million+ population and $12-a-gallon gasoline (at today’s prices) will likely start to resemble urban Europe, where most people live in apartments and ride some form of transit. It’s coming to America, like it or not.

chrisinsobe

This editorial

Generally, I don't find the op-eds at Planetizen to be all that scintillating, and sadly this is another example.

In college, I used to run a course evaluation program, and a journalist from the Ann Arbor News was doing a story about teaching and he called me up. In response to his question about overall high quality teaching at Michigan, I said "it depends." He said "well, even Michigan isn't Harvard or Yale." I said "That's not what I mean. For 13-17 years of their lives, for the most part, students are lectured at. How can they possibly know any other way for teachers to teach?"

Same thing here. As long as you live within and enthralled by a car-connected planning paradigm, the kind of writing offering by Christian Peralta makes some sense.

Mr. Peralta is talking about the modern _sub_urban landscape, not the modern _urban_ landscape.

And frankly, I focus on the latter and don't care too much (and lack the time to address) about reforming the former.

But places like San Francisco or Washington show that an urban grid with neighborhood amenities, a quality architectural environment, and a dense transit _network_ makes consideration of a car free lifestyle using transit, walking, and bicycling modes instead, with occasional trips in taxis or rented cars quite rational.

Even Arlington County VA has to build this kind of network up. Rather than rely on the kind of urban grid that DC is marked by, instead ArCo is adding high population and building density to transit corridors, which is another way to do this.

In either case, it's not cheap--a transit system costs a lot to build and maintain--but it may be cheaper than the repeating cycle of building commercial, tearing it down, rebuilding, and building more and more roads but still having congestion in the suburbs.

I am from Michigan and my father worked for Chrysler. Maybe my reaction against automobility is merely rebellion, but the fact is it is possible to live a car-less lifestyle and it is not crazy, but until people confront their paradigms and _learned_ behaviors, you can guarantee that people are "whole-heartedly committed to private auto ownership, single-family homes, big box retail stores, and the slew of other elements that have created the modern urban landscape."

But he's right about the impact of light rail. Building one rail line isn't building a system. Places like SF, NYC, and DC demonstrate you have to have a transit _system_ with multiple and connected lines, provide access to many destinations, especially the dominant work centers, in order to have significant impact on mode shift.

Plus walking + transit may take more time, especially if your neighobrhood isn't replete with amenities. I rely on bicycle mostly, and it is fine for transporting goods, especially groceries, even just bags hanging from the handlebars or in a backpack, and I find that for trips up to 5-7 miles I'd rather ride the bicycle than use transit anyway.

But fundamentally, this behavior derives from a different way of thinking, a different paradigm from that which marks living in a suburban deconcentrated single use automobile-connected world.

Personal choice?

Is the trillion-dollar carbon-auto subsidy a "personal choice"? Why are oil and auto companies allowed to take in profits while the taxpayers pay for their wars, roads, climate-change, drought, floods, etc. Was it "personal choice" that systematically bought-up and dismantled hundreds of streetcar systems?
.
http://www.frepubtra.blogspot.com/

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