First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Life Without Cars
Aren't cars great? In the last sixty years, we've built such a great network of roads and service stations and restaurants that whenever you feel like it, you can get into your car and drive and drive and drive and ...
Oh, no time? Got to fly. Between motels and gas prices and all, it's cheaper anyway, when you've got any real distance to travel.
So what's this car for?
Oh, yeah -- to commute to work, because there are no trains any more, no streetcars, the buses only run once an hour and they don't go anywhere near home or work, and what if I have to work late?
And errands. Kids go to lessons, practices, games, movies, parties, play dates. Grocery store. WalMart Target K-Mart. Home Depot, Barnes & Noble. Starbucks Chick-Fil-A McDonalds P.F.Chang. Blockbuster.
And, of course, to the gas station to fill up for the next day's driving.
Anything we want to do, anywhere we want to go, we have to get into the car. Thank heaven for the Internet, so we can order stuff without having to find a parking place.
Went downtown the other day -- it felt weird. Like a mall without a roof. Only it was mostly banks and parking garages now. Very few stores that were open and selling anything. Vast empty sidewalks, except the homeless people. Downtown is more of a museum. How we used to live.
Real life: the mall. The strip center. The big box store. And parking lots as far as the eye can see. Our life regulated by stripes marking the parking places. Shopping carts so we can make the long trek back to the far end of the parking lot and fill the back of our SUV with stuff we had to drive to get.
On the Sabbath, drive to church. On the weekend, drive somewhere to get away from it all -- and park the car between the same white lines we left behind at every store back home.
How Did We Get Here?
Cars were fun, but people in the city didn't actually need them. There were streetcars and subways and elevated railways in the big cities; in smaller cities, you simply walked or rode a bus.
But we wanted to move out of the city. Get away from the crowds, to a place where we could have estates with vast lawns and woods like the rich people.
OK, so we couldn't afford an estate. But we'd buy enough land to pretend. None of these houses butting right up against the sidewalk -- we'd have lawns and trees! Patios!
Meanwhile, the government set about boosting the automobile industry by building a vast network of roads. Gradually, the purpose of local government (besides ruining education, of course) was to redesign our cities so that cars could get everywhere and do everything.
Want to build a store? Can't do it unless you comply with the parking requirements. Stores have to be separated from each other, set far back from the street, and supplied with vast stretches of parking places.
And while we're zoning, let's protect property values by making sure that neighborhoods consist of houses of comparable value and lot-size. And let's make sure everybody gets quiet streets and cul-de-sacs, so we'll wind the streets around until you can't actually tell where you are or how neighborhoods fit together.
We got our wish. We no longer live in cities. We don't live in towns. We don't live in the country, either. We don't live anywhere at all. Just island neighborhoods in splendid isolation, with roads so convoluted that half our driving is just to get out of the island and onto a road that goes somewhere.
You want to take a walk? No sidewalks in most places, and nowhere to walk to. You just walk around looking at other people's yards and houses. The only people you see are the other walkers -- or the yard guys working on other people's lawns and shrubs.
You're at WalMart. You want to go to Home Depot. You can see it from where you are, but please don't be stupid and try to walk there. Our streets hate pedestrians. You have to walk all the way out to the street -- or cut through prickly hedges or climb fences.
Nobody is ever required to provide pedestrian access. Lots of parking and strict rules about turn lanes and such. But if you just want to walk from store to store, unless they're in the same shopping complex, you can't get there.
Was this what we wanted?
Some of us, sure. Some people love their cars. Some people hate the idea of walking on their errands, breathing all that ... oxygen. Some people want to live on an island and hardly see anybody except on television. Some people want to drive to work, every day, the same route, the same parking hassles, hours and hours and hours of stepping on the gas, the brake, the gas, flipping the signal, turning the wheel.
There's Another Way
But here and there, a new generation of planners are recreating what we once had, and threw away. Neighborhoods that are part of a town or city. Homes that provide access for pedestrians to get somewhere quickly and actually do something without ever having to get into a car.
I recently read a book called Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. The authors (Andrews Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck) lay down the principles of the life many of us -- maybe most of us -- wish we were living.
A life that isn't lived inside these tiny moving hovels we call cars.
Narrow streets with sidewalks on both sides. When people are parked at the curb, cars can't pass each other going both ways. So cars go very slowly and the drivers are constantly alert. (Same traffic speeds as cul-de-sacs, in fact.) No collisions. Nobody gets run over. Kids on bikes don't get hit. In fact, pedestrians and bikers and skaters act like they own the street. Because they do.
Yards are small. A patch of lawn, a garden. But they're pretty. Alleys hold the garbage cans and the garages or parking places so the street stays clean.
Children walk to school. Adults walk to stores that are only a few blocks away. Nobody lives more than three short blocks from a bus stop or other public transportation, and because so many people use public transit, the buses come frequently; you never wait more than fifteen minutes during the peak times.
During that waiting time, or while riding the bus or train, people read or listen to recordings or -- get this -- talk to each other. People meet their neighbors because they're not all locked inside metal-and-plastic shacks moving down the street. You pass each other going to and from schools and stores and work.
Not only that, but the houses aren't all alike. There are multi-family dwellings, there are apartments over the stores. Some houses are bigger, some smaller. In fact, the neighborhood is designed so that people from every walk of life (except, of course, the very rich, whom nobody likes anyway) see each other and even talk to each other every day.
What happens to property values in small-yard, narrow-street, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods like this?
They soar. Houses sell and apartments get rented instantly.
Because people love to live this way.
Imagine ... spending three days in a row without getting in your car one time, not because it's in the shop and you're trapped at home, but because you live in a town, a village, a neighborhood that isn't a desert island with yards. You live in a human community. You live in the neighborhood of Dandelion Wine and you don't have to spend your days steering between white lines.
Why We Need to Get Cars Under Control
How ironic. We redesigned our living patterns and got rid of public transportation so that we could boost the American automobile industry. Now we are forced to pay huge taxes to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other oil-producing countries -- and we're buying half our cars from Japan and Germany and Korea.
Even if you don't want to live in the neighborhood I described, there are compelling reasons for us to cut way back on the number of hours we spend on the road in cars:
1. Stop Funding Our Enemies. As long as we're burning oil to buy groceries that used to be in the corner store and to take the kids to games and lessons that used to take place in neighborhoods and to get to work that we used to get to by bus or train, there's going to be a vast pool of oil money from which the sponsors of terrorism can draw.
2. Get Back That Wasted Time. If you cut your driving hours in half, how much time would you get back every day, to use on things you want to do? Even if all you want to do is veg out in front of the television, that's your choice. It's a lot better than spending that time driving.
For a lot of us, though, that would be an hour to spend with spouse and children. Goofing off. Talking. Visiting with friends. Going out to eat, or cooking a real sit-down meal at home. Having a life.
2. Saving Lives. In 2005, 43,200 people died on American highways. (John Crawley,"U.S. traffic deaths hit 16-year high in 2005," Reuters, 20 April 2006.)
If we were fighting a war in which 40,000 people died every year and it had gone on that way for the past twenty years, wouldn't you join the anti-war movement?
And this is a war in which the victims are children, teenagers, elderly people, adults in their prime. Men and women in equal numbers. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people from 4 through 33 years old.
If the American people drove only half the number of miles every year, it's reasonable to assume that the death rate would also be cut in half.
But we might save even more lives than that. People don't die randomly -- they die because of drunks, reckless teenagers, sleepy drivers, stressed-out drivers in a rage, and drivers so desperate not to be driving that they're trying to do something else at the same time.
If we drove half the number of hours, the quality of our driving would likely improve. If our kids could get somewhere without cars, we could save their lives by not letting them drive when they're still so immature they endanger themselves and everyone else.
If all drinkers walked to and from the bar, it would save 16,000 lives a year from alcohol-caused accidents.
How many of you personally knew someone who died in a car crash? How many of you have friends or family members whose lives were torn apart by a traffic death or deaths?
Why do we continue to allow our governments to require businesses and builders to follow rules that force us to spend our lives in cars?
3. A Tax on the Poor. Not that anyone cares -- if we worried about taxing the poor, we wouldn't have government lotteries -- but remember that because we design our cities so that you can't function without owning at least one car, the working poor have to spend a huge portion of their income on gasoline and car costs.
Since the poor are barely taxed, income tax cuts will never help the poor. The tax cut they need is to be able to live and work without cars.
Right now, we systematically oppress the poor with our zoning laws. We require that neighborhoods consist of housing that is approximately alike, so the poor are isolated and forced to live far from everyone else. We pretend we aren't doing it, but the isolation of the poor may contribute more than we realize to crime rates in low-income neighborhoods.
As isolated poor neighborhoods become more crime-ridden, retail business moves farther and farther away. Rich people who own and run businesses move their worksites close to their own island neighborhoods. As a result, the poor are actually farther from any chance of employment, and therefore need cars more desperately, than the middle class.
Mixed neighborhoods within walking distance of retail and with good, subsidized public transit would be like giving the poor a huge tax cut -- because they could live without cars.
4. Oil Is Not Forever. I know, the eco-alarmists have been warning us of the collapse of oil for so long that mentioning the topic puts us to sleep. But that's because they overclaimed. The fact is, most of the easy-to-reach oil is gone. We're already extracting the dregs.
People who are as insanely religious about capitalism as the eco-alarmists are about the environment make stupid promises: "The free market will take care of the oil problem, because when gas prices rise high enough, alternate energy sources will become profitable."
What they don't mention is that there is no guarantee that alternative sources can do the job in time. If there is a global economic collapse during the transition, then the free market cannot make alternative energy or anything else profitable.
We can only make drastic changeovers in a time of surpluses. Anybody who thinks the "free market" will always guarantee surpluses understands neither the market nor history. It is strict government oversight that has softened the economic booms and busts that used to devastate us; the free market is perfectly happy to collapse under stress and leave us eating acorns.
The surest way to avoid economic ruin when the oil runs out is to need less of it. Not by absurd government regulations that amount to making wishes, but by stopping the government regulations that force us to use our cars far more than we really want to.
5. Parking Lot Land. Drive around and look at what we've done to our beautiful land. Because we wanted to live in park-like neighborhoods with grass and trees, we have paved over the landscape. Most of the time, most of those parking lots do nothing at all: They're just sitting there, waiting for cars that only show up during peak times -- basically, a few hours each day during the Christmas shopping season.
If we used public transit or walked to do our shopping, we could build on that land. We could have far more compact neighborhoods, making it all the more possible to do our living and shopping within easy walking distance.
6. Air Pollution. We'd all be healthier without cars pumping poisons into the air.
7. Exercise. If we actually used our legs to get from place to place, instead of cars, we'd get plenty of exercise without having to set aside special time to do it. Our kids would be vastly healthier (besides being not-killed-in-car-crashes).
8. Making Al Gore Happy. He didn't get to be President. Now he believes in the religion of Global Warming. CO2 probably has nothing to do with global temperature trends, but if we cut our driving in half, CO2 levels will go down, and when the next natural cooling cycle comes, Al will think he saved the world.
Can We Actually Do It?
Politics and the free market got us where into the oil-burning, car-trapped mess we're in.
But if we reversed government policies and started encouraging carless or low-car neighborhoods, we already know that people flock to such neighborhoods wherever they exist, and property values rise.
If we were allowed to create real towns and cities again, following the living patterns humans have chosen for themselves for thousands of years, it would be profitable and it would cut down oil consumption while raising productivity and freeing up resources for consumers to buy more.
It can't be done by half-measures. Greensboro's many pathetic attempts at reviving downtown provide case studies in failure. It takes intelligent cooperation between government, business, and developers to create walking neighborhoods -- but it can be done at no greater cost than the destructive patterns that zoning laws force on us right now.
It also takes a public that is sick to death of living in cars instead of our homes, of having our children and young people die at a rate that would be intolerable in war, of being held hostage to enemy nations.
But if we make it a noble national cause to change our living patterns so we can drive less than half as much as we do now, we could absolutely transform our cities and towns -- and our lives -- in a decade.
The amount of time it took us to change from vinyl to cds. From VHS to DVD. From station wagons to minivans to SUVs. From one bathroom to two bathrooms. We are still a rich society. We can afford to change -- and if we do change, we can stay rich. Indeed, we can be both richer and fairer as a result of these changes.
Next week, I'll explore some of the things that would allow us to transform our cities -- starting with the reinvention of the neighborhood store.
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