Part 5: Praying To The Car Gods

Here is a topic that immediately gets you in the “he’s one of them” bucket: Our car-worshipping culture is killing our cities, suburbs, and planet.

However, before we get to the four big reasons why automobile-first living doesn’t work, let’s do a little car-worshipping first.

I love cars too

Cars are great. They move you about really quickly. You can go wherever you want in them. They take you to work, out into the countryside, and to the hospital really quickly when you need it. They are the ultimate freedom contraptions.

Not to mention, they move stuff around really well. Trucks are like trains that have been freed from their shackles 🚚🤜💥🚂 Amazing.

But like a rich kid in a candy store quickly learns, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. And we’ve had too much car.

More specifically, back in the post-war days when the economy was booming and everyone was living the glorious automobile life, we did something really bad.

The Highway Gang

In America, a group of really big automobile companies (General Motors being the biggest) got together and formed the National Highway Users Conference which amongst other things, created a really nice image of what the future of American cities could look like.

If you read part 2 of this series, you will understand how the above picture would be a pedestrians nightmare, which in turn would kill street life and city culture.

A part of this vision was for highways to connect directly into the cities downtown, which meant tearing down city neighbourhoods (you guessed it, mostly low-income houses) to build “free roads” (freeways) through the city.

The idea was the these freeways would allow the bypassing of downtowns and reduce congestion. However in reality, they nearly always serve as dumping mechanisms, they dump vast quantities of cars into downtown streets that cannot handle them. The response to this then becomes, “we need to make our downtown streets as big as our highways to cope with demand”. You can probably see where this is going.

Next thing you know you have a city designed exclusively for moving automobiles through it as quickly as possible. This kills people, street life, and with it, city culture.

This American model of running highways through your downtime was copied throughout most of the western world, bringing it’s many problems with it. Sydney’s Western Distributor is a good example of this.

A tale of two cities

I recently learnt something about my hometown (Sydney, Australia) that I never knew before. I got it from reading this amazing report that Gehl Consultants did for Sydney back in 2003.

Sydney is a city divided. The Western Distributor that was built in the 1960s cuts through the north-west of the city with off-ramps dumping cars into the western streets.

Despite the highway being elevated above ground, the surrounding neighbourhood is a dead, lifeless, wasteland of office buildings and no street life.

Essentially, everything West of George street is lifeless streets devoted to servicing the Western Distributor. The other side of the city, is where everything else is found. Food, culture, entertainment, all happens East of the divide (Chinatown being the only exception, which kind of proves the rule, since Chinatowns are notorious for bringing to life the shittiest parts of town).

This isn’t just Sydney, but highways in general act as rivers dividing a city. Whether they are street-level or above-ground, crossing the strong borders that they create is psychologically significant and results in divided street life and vitality.

Cars don’t scale

Destroying our cities isn’t the biggest problem with cars. If they worked amazingly well then we could justify it, maybe. But they don’t.

Take a look at a busy intersection in Los Angeles, USA:

Now here’s one in Tokyo, Japan:

Four crazy things about these photos:

  1. The number of people in each photo are similar, since most people commute solo to work and cars take up a lot of room. (I did a really loose headcount.)
  2. Los Angeles has one-third the population of Tokyo. So times the above photo by three to get a per capita representation.
  3. Notice the scale difference of these photos. The below intersection could fit in one of the above “green parks”.
  4. That pedestrian intersection is not at max capacity, it can (and does) handle more throughput that this. The same is obviously not true for the first photo.

The great evil of Induced Demand

It’s doubtful that you need much more convincing that cars are not a scalable form of transport, but incase you do, the reason why cars will never scale to large populations is because of a thing called induced demand.

In a nutshell, this is how induced demand means inescapable congestion:

  1. A new road is built, making it convenient for people to go from A to B
  2. Lots of people start going to B
  3. Congestion starts to make the journey to B more expensive (time cost)
  4. You widen the road, or build another route to B
  5. The cost of getting to B is low again!
  6. More people start driving to B.
  7. You get congestion again.
  8. Go back and repeat step 4 until you run out of space for highways.
  9. Change your name to Los Angeles.

Health and Pollution

These two problems with cars are kind of obvious so I’ll give it to you straight:

  • More time driving = less time moving your body = more health problems.
  • More cars = more air pollution, which besides being inherently bad, means more respiratory problems.
  • Cars kill people, bicycles and trains don’t.
  • Cars support urban sprawl, which is terrible.

A change in perspective

The biggest change in mind that I’ve had since I started spending months learning about good urban planning is this: I used to think that the definition of a good road was one that moved as many cars as possible, as quickly as possible.

In reality, a good road is one that supports multiple forms of transit and fosters a safe and vibrant street life, maximising both convenience and human connection.

If you take anything from this article it should be the above re-framing of what a good road is. Read it again.

In reality, a good road is one that supports multiple forms of transit and fosters a safe and vibrant street life, maximising both convenience and human connection.

How to do cars right

When it comes to planning a good city you have two options.

  1. You can either plan for cars – in which case your city will have giant parking lots, wide streets, no trees; all of which create a dead, un-lively, squalid place to live.
  2. Or for everything else – in which case your city will be highly walkable, which requires tight coordination with public transit to make it truly convenient. Also, anywhere that is a pleasure to walk, is largely a pleasure to bicycle. These cities are also safer for the elderly, children, and peoples with disabilities. And ironically, if you do all this right then it will actually be a decent place to drive, for the few people that really need to.

This leads us to the real contradiction. We need cars in our cities! A city cannot thrive as a pedestrian only place.

Business, commerce, and street life all require resources that need to be brought in by trucks. Public transport, such as buses, shared cars, etc, need roads to drop people close to their destination.

TL;DR:

So where’s the balance? This is the crux of what a balanced approach to cars in urban cities looks like:

  • Cars are not evil, car-obsession is.
  • We need cars in our cities.
  • But cars are not first-class citizens; people are.
  • Cities should prioritise walking as it creates the most vibrant street life and hence city culture.
  • Cities should then prioritise scalable forms of transit (rail, bus, bicycle)
  • Private cars come last in priority.
  • Cars ideally should bring people from far-away suburbs to the urban perimeter, where public transport takes over.
  • Parking in cities should minimal and “on street” rather than in parking lots.

 


 

Keep reading this series – Part 6: The Public Park Killer

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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