By Dom Nozzi
December 16, 2002
Why do Europeans seem to use sport utility vehicles (SUVs) less than Americans?
I believe that the following reasons can help explain.
Most all of the European towns and cities were built for pedestrians. What that means is that their communities are scaled for humans, not cars. Streets are modest in width. Daily destinations are usually within walking distance. Parking lots are small in size and located so that they are not obstacles to walking. Parking spaces are nearly always priced (not free). Buildings are mixed in use and designed to be convenient and interesting for the pedestrian. Transit is readily available and frequent.
In stark contrast, American cities have mostly been built to make cars happy. They are scaled for motor vehicles, not people. In other words, our urban areas have an ENORMOUS amount of space set aside for cars compared to European communities. It is relatively easy to drive around with big cars and find free parking. No need to be obligated to own a small car in order to be able to fit into human-scaled spaces. No need to try to squeeze into a tiny parking space, for example. It is un-American to not be able to find lots of parking for monster vehicles ANYWHERE.
I don’t believe Europeans are “more sensible” or “smarter” or “more environmentally conscious” than Americans for mysterious or genetic reasons. Americans are perfectly capable of buying smaller, smart cars, and otherwise behaving in sustainable ways. Americans don’t do the sensible things we see Europeans do because our “material conditions” are different. Our urban areas were built after the emergence of the car, and our “market signals” scream at us every day…COMPELLING us to buy big vehicles, consume lots of gasoline, drive EVERYWHERE, and live in remote, sprawling locations. That is the rational thing for Americans to do.
Since WWII, a growing number of us have been conditioned to become cheerleaders advocating for the needs of our cars, not the needs of humans, the environment, or our businesses. Today, nearly all of us spend a good portion of our lives campaigning for our Camry’s and Chevy’s.
We have met the enemy and she or he is us.
High gas prices are a helpful way to modify behavior, but studies and logic show that there are other factors that are MUCH more effective:
- Charge market-based fees for parking, and keep the supply of parking modest.
- Keep roads modest in size instead of building 4- and 6-lane roads.
- Build walkable, mixed use, more compact neighborhoods and commercial areas that will bring destinations within the range of walking and bicycling.
- Charge “congestion fees” on highways and major city roads.
- Pull buildings up to the street and require them to face the street.
An important thing to keep in mind is that a better future is not going to be achieved merely by reducing the purchase and use of SUVs or other forms of “undesirable” vehicles. The revolution will not arrive simply because we are all driving solar-powered small cars.
No, the key is that we need to build communities and create market signals that make it possible for us to live a lifestyle in which our vehicle (be it an SUV or a tiny solar car) is hardly ever used because it is rarely needed. In other words, our future would be a lot brighter even if everyone had a rarely-used SUV in their driveway, as long as most of us lived in a compact, mixed-use, walkable community with narrow streets and little free parking.
A great deal brighter than a community in which everyone had heavily-used solar cars in their driveway while living in a sprawled community scaled for vehicles (big, free parking lots, free and big roads, huge distances between destinations). A community where every trip — be they by SUV or solar — is obligated to be by motor vehicle.
The problem is designing our lives in such a way as to FORCE us to make EVERY trip by motor vehicle. It is a recipe that locks us into an inevitable downward spiral of increasing suburban sprawl, lowered quality of life, lowered civic pride, social isolation, and financial bankruptcy.
Only in minor ways is our problem the type of vehicle we choose.