By Dom Nozzi
Why is it that in many developing nations, the growth and level of car dependency is high, despite their having many conditions that discourage high levels of car use?
I believe that in our age, technology, relatively high income, and inexpensive energy means that the apparently hard-wired desire to have car-based mobility will make car reduction tactics almost irrelevant, in the short term, in developing nations.
Societies today have been conditioned by media, dispersed development, free roads, and free parking (at least in the newer parts of communities) to believe that cars are a convenient necessity. Indeed, in my experience, even in American places where cars are discouraged by high parking costs, road fees, parking/road scarcity, mixed use, higher density, etc., an enormous number of Americans don’t think it is even hypothetically possible to live without a car (a book I recently read is called “How to Live Well Without a Car”).
Like compact, walkable, traditionally mixed-use neighborhoods, most Americans cannot even conceive of living without a car (even if it were cheap and convenient to do so). The inconceivability of living without a car suggests that we won’t see substantial reductions in car use until at least two things happen: (1) Car use is significantly more expensive than it is today; and (2) a new generation is born into that expensive car world.
Regardless of the relative ineffectiveness we are seeing in our efforts to reduce excessive car dependence, I join other smart growthers in promoting a reduction in car dependence. Like most all new urbanists, I don’t believe our objective is to eliminate the car from our world. My goal is to reduce the prevalence of “low value” car trips (driving a car to rent a video at rush hour, for example), and use equitable pricing and urban design tactics to make car travel more of a choice rather than a necessity.
I am thoroughly convinced that the design needs for most people not driving a car are utterly at odds with the needs of motorists (most of us, when not in cars, hate huge, high-speed roads, highway lighting, huge parking lots, billboards, etc.). For the time being, therefore, it is essential that we use people-oriented (instead of car-happy) town design tactics to avoid having the needs of car travel dominate (and degrade) our world – even if our design tactics are not resulting in a significant reduction in car dependency.
By not using traditional, timeless, walkable town design strategies, our communities quickly become auto-friendly wastelands that no one can love – largely because of the enormous space and speed needs of motorists, and the self-perpetuating vicious cycle that these needs create.
Without discouraging cheap, easy, convenient car travel, our communities quickly become unlovable places.
Developing nations, apparently, must go through the same agonizing, costly, ruinous decades of car-dependent development before they learn the lessons that some of us have already learned here in the US.
Again, car discouragement tactics are typically not significant enough to overcome the hard-wired desire for car-based mobility, the cheap oil, the media, the technology and the relative wealth – all of which strongly compel societies in developing nations (as well as Americans) to become car dependent. Because car travel is so seductive (convenience, speed, protection from weather, free parking/roads, status, cargo hauling, crime protection, etc), most of us cannot resist it. And until higher oil prices or declining economic conditions make cars impossibly expensive, it will continue to be rational for many to become or remain motorists, even with discouragement tactics in place.
My hope: Oil will soon become a lot more expensive so that the toxicity of excessive car use (and infrastructure needs) will not further ruin communities. That developing nations not be set on a path to follow the US in creating unlovable, unsustainable places as the US has so tragically done.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover = http://goo.gl/S5ldyF
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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