by Dom Nozzi, AICP
The terrible reality is this: For several decades, we have designed our communities for car travel, which makes travel by foot, bicycle and transit increasingly difficult (indeed, nearly impossible). This phenomenon continuously and profoundly breeds a growing army of car cheerleaders—loud, vocal citizen advocates who angrily demand that their elected officials build wider, faster roads and bigger parking lots.
And for being cheerleaders we cannot easily be blamed. After all, if we can only travel by car, we must have such modifications, as we are all in the same car-dependent boat, and our roads and parking lots therefore quickly become crowded with the cars of an exponentially growing number of citizens.
Over the course of several decades, therefore, we have become world leaders in building an enormously expensive system for cars.
Concurrently, there is a curious phenomenon in America. While we have created an army of trained traffic engineers to assemble and maintain this human transportation system, we have also trained quite a few PhDs in ecological systems.
Consequently, we have, in other words, become quite good at creating and protecting “car habitat” and wildlife habitat. But what about the third category of habitat? Urban designers are increasingly reminding us that we lost sight of the most important habitat—the “people habitat”
The horrifying dilemma is that in a car-dependent nation where we have recruited so many “car cheerleaders,” we have an army of advocates and professionals doing whatever they can to improve the “habitat” for cars. Tragically, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the car habitat and the quality of the people habitat, because the places that cars love are scary, unrewarding, unpleasant, inconvenient, unsafe places for people (a “no man’s land”). Cars need an enormous amount of space in the form of huge, high-speed roads and vast oceans of asphalt parking.
Conversely, the places that people love are places that inconvenience cars—places with much more modest, human-scaled spaces. Places such as modest, slow-speed streets, walkways and courtyards enveloped pride-fully by tree canopies and proud buildings pulled up to sidewalks.
Happy cars and happy people are like oil and water. They do not mix.
Because we live in a world that requires car travel for every trip we make, “common sense” has made the needs of the car paramount. We ruinously mistake the interests of our autos with the interests of ourselves and our family. Yet each action which improves conditions for cars (larger setbacks, lower development densities, bigger and faster roads and parking lots, dispersed development) worsens conditions for people, and requires a growing number of us to make an increased number of trips by car. This compels many of us to flee to remote areas, thereby degrading outlying natural areas (areas steamrollered by new homes), which further locks us into auto dependence and more cheerleading.
In the end, we bankrupt ourselves in our hopeless, counter-productive efforts to build bigger and bigger roads. Roads that must be bigger than ever because we have fled to “greener pastures” in sprawling subdivisions. A growing proportion of us thereby become car-dependent (things are too far away for us not to drive a car everywhere). We end up discovering—too late—that our remote neighborhoods can only be accommodated with huge new roads. We are soon in traffic congestion that is more unpleasant than what we had experienced closer to town, in part because in such a remote location, we have no choice but to drive in such congestion (in-town, by contrast, we do have other choices, such as walking, transit, bicycling, and alternative routes). Because our remote residential areas require us to be even more dependent on cars, we scream even louder for better conditions for car travel.
We therefore become our own worst enemies in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
An awful consequence of all this is that we have come to equate “free-flowing traffic” with quality of life. Not only is it theoretically impossible to escape congestion in a growing community. The costly struggle to create free-flowing conditions also typically results in bankrupting, destructive efforts to widen roads and intersections. And the wretched, twisted irony of such efforts is that building bigger roads and intersections is perhaps the most effective means imaginable to DESTROY the quality of life of a community (see “oil and water” above).
The origin of this death spiral has been fairly recent because we have changed the model, since approximately World War II, for how we build our communities. Catastrophically, our imperative now, for the first time in history, is largely build to make our cars happy, not people. And increasingly, lifestyles other than the utterly car-dependent, suburban lifestyle are vanishing.
It is time to begin returning to the historic, timeless tradition of designing primarily for people, not cars—the tradition of building communities that create housing, lifestyle and transportation choices. The tradition of creating people habitats—our neighborhoods and towns—that we can again be proud of.
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 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
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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