Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year. A good essay-length look at how social norms regarding streets and safety have changed over the last century, and why our current norms and design guidelines lead very predictably to tends of thousands of preventable deaths each year. Covers a lot of the same territory as Peter D. Norton’s excellent book Fighting Traffic, which gives a detailed historical account of the transition, between about 1915 and 1930, from streets being universally accessible public space to being nearly the sole domain of motorized transportation. Ralph Nader effectively spearheaded a campaign for safety measures that protect those inside these deadly vehicles. We need just as powerful a champion for those outside them, who make up about a third of all motor vehicle casualties in the US. Streets don’t have to be designed to kill people. Giving up a little bit of convenience for motorists frees up a lot of space and safety for everyone else.
It’s an underlying axiom, a chanted mantra, a litany:
More people means more cars.
More cars means more traffic.
More traffic means more congestion.
We hate congestion, ergo:
NO MORE PEOPLE.
The litany was recently recited by John D. English in his Daily Camera guest opinion, imploring Boulder to “preserve our quality of life” by protecting the right of motorists to drive in the city without encountering traffic congestion. But cars are not inextricably linked to people, and the freedom to drive everywhere is not quality of life. Equating these things stalls infill development in the name of auto dependence, and keeps half the city trapped in late-20th century office park purgatory. It preserves not quality of life, but underused asphalt oceans, impenetrable superblocks, and sad bike lanes painted on the side of roads that might as well be freeways.
The assumption that more people must inevitably mean more cars means different things to different people. To the member of traditional Motordom with an interest in infill development, it means we need to build more regional road capacity (induced demand be damned!). To auto-dependent neighborhood activists who cannot stomach the thought of Change in Our Fair Town, it means infill is unacceptable.
We can have more people, fewer cars, and less driving. Other cities have already done it, and we’ve implicitly stated it as a goal in our Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and Climate Commitment. The key to success is dramatically revising Boulder’s parking policies, and creating great streets for people.
It’s the relative attractiveness of different modes of transportation that shapes our choices, and American cities are still terrified of making driving less attractive. This really puts a cap on what fraction of trips we can get over to biking, walking and mass transit. Partly because driving is such an ingrained cultural norm (even if it’s just as easy to drive as to bike, the default behavior amongst most people will be to drive), and partly because accommodating cars well means degrading the walking, biking and transit amenities. In a place like Boulder where people actually have alternatives to driving — no, not everyone, and not for every trip, but many people for many trips — we have to start putting some downward pressure on driving, or we’re never going to get much past our current bike/ped/transit shares. And it’s not like this has to be punitive — a lot of it is just removing historical crutches that have been provided to cars, like free parking. Cities like Bern and Freiburg and Zürich have 70% or more of their trips being done outside of personal motorized vehicles. It’s doable (in the fullness of time). Let’s do it!
Streetsblog DC has a good roundup on Vancouver, where by some miraculous intervention unseen in the rest of North America, they have a rising population (up 4.5% since 2006) and decreasing traffic (vehicle counts 20-30% in the same time span). Impossible, you say? It’s pretty freaking straightforward — increase population density and the mix of land uses, give people walking, biking, and transit options that work, and stop prioritizing automotive uses of the streets. Seriously. It Works™. Nobody should be surprised by this. Refusing to allow the population and density of your city to grow because you fear traffic congestion and knife fights over curbside parking spaces means you’re hell bent on providing a crappy car-centered transportation system.
Rural counties across middle America are turning paved roads back into gravel. The WSJ article is from 2010, and I wonder to what extent this trend has continued. I can’t say that it seems like much of a loss. I suspect that much of the rural pavement was laid down without a good understanding of how much O&M it was committing the local governments to paying for. As state and federal budgets shrink, and counties are left to pay for their own infrastructure, they realize that maybe cheaper gravel and lower speeds are actually a better value proposition.
A fun little musing from the Atlantic Cities on the difficulty of envisioning a very different world, even when we all know that big changes do take place over time. Old technologies slowly decay, and fade into the background, as a new normalcy takes over. We will see Jane Jacobs’ attrition of cars by cities eventually.
Last week I taught a class at the University of Colorado for a friend. The class is entitled Another City is Possible: Re-Imagining Detroit. She wanted me to talk about the link between cars and climate change. As usual, I didn’t finish putting the talk together until a couple of hours before the class, but it seemed like it worked out pretty well anyway. In fact, I actually got feedback forms from the class just today, and they were almost uniformly awesome to read. As if I might have actually influenced someone’s thinking on how cars and cities interact, and how cities could really be built for people. It makes me want to figure out a way to teach on a regular basis. Here’s an outline of what I said, and some further reading for anyone interested.
What is a car?
For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “car” I mean a machine capable of moving at least 4 people at a speed of greater than 80 km/hr (50 mi/hr). This means cars are big (they take up a lot of space) and cars want to go fast (though in reality they go at about biking speed on average, door-to-door, in urban areas). Cars as we know them today are also heavy, usually in excess of 500 kg (1000 lbs) and numerous, because they’re overwhelmingly privately owned. These four characteristics in combination makes widespread everyday use of automobiles utterly incompatible with cities that are good for people. Big, fast, heavy, numerous machines are intrinsically space and energy intensive, and intrinsically dangerous to small, slow, fragile human beings.
- Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg — the vast majority of the sustainability problems that cars create have nothing to do with what fuel they use, or how efficiently they use it. Amory Lovins’ carbon-fiber hypercars could run on clean, green unicorn farts, and they’d still be a sustainability disaster.
- The real problems that come from cars are the land use patterns they demand, and the fact that streets and cities built for cars are intrinsically hostile to human beings. In combination, sprawling, low-density land use and unlivable, dangerous streets functionally preclude the use of transit, walking, and biking as mainstream transportation options. In a city built for cars, you have no choice but to drive.
- The good news is that another city is not only possible, it already exists. Very modest density (about 50 people per hectare or 10 dwelling units per acre) is enough to drastically reduce car use, and make low energy transportation commonplace. In combination with good traditional urban design, these cities are extremely livable, healthier, cheaper to maintain, much more sustainable, and much safer than our cities.
- The bad news is Peak Oil is not going to save us. There are a whole lot of unconventional hydrocarbons out there in the oil shale of the Dakotas, the tar sands of Alberta, the ultra-heavy crude of Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, and the ultra-deep water reservoirs off the coast of Brazil, etc. We’d be crazy to burn them all, but hey, maybe we’re crazy. And even if we did run out of oil, it’s entirely possible to electrify our cars for everyday urban use, even with today’s mediocre battery technology. If we want a different kind of city, we’re going to have to choose to build it.
A writeup by The Atlantic Cities of a paper in the Transportation Research Board journal of the National Academies looking at the effects of parking on the vitality of urban centers. It’s found that the detrimental effects of dedicating urban real-estate outweigh the potential benefits of making it easier for drivers to access your central business district. Those cities that stopped adding parking to their urban cores after 1980 were found to have more jobs and higher incomes on average than those that continued adding parking.
Orange County’s toll roads are unable to pay their own way, leading the state of California to investigate whether their administrative agencies are viable as a going concern. Obviously the situation is complicated by the fact that there are public highways (I-5 and I-405) that duplicate some of the connectivity of these tollways, but their financial duress would seems to suggest that when people actually have to pay, directly, to use freeways… they’re far less interested in footing the bill than when we socialize the resource, and force everyone to pay. This isn’t very surprising, but it does get one thinking: just how much of our infrastructure would we have never built if it was transparently priced? How many hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars have we wasted on a polluting, oil dependent, dangerous, city destroying, obesity inducing means of transportation? If you’re going to subsidize something at the scale we’ve subsidized automobiles, you better be darned sure that the externalities that come along with it are positive! Hopefully this will serve as a wake up call to the beltway developers around Denver.
A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.
Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.