By Dom Nozzi
October 16, 2017
Many people who read my views or hear my speeches believe I am a radical that wants to “get rid of all cars.” I think that is a sign that I need to be better in my messaging, but also a sign that our society is so very pro-car that even reasonable views like mine sound unrealistic.
My position on cars is that we must accept the fact that to move the needle in a positive direction, driving a space-hogging, subsidized, high-speed metal box should make the motorist feel inconvenienced – if we expect to create a quality community. It is a sign of health when a motorist feels burdened, as is the case in any great city in the world. In sum, we need to take away Space, Speed, and Subsidies from motorists, and Shorten distances to destinations so that a car is an option, not a requirement. In other words, it is not about providing more bike lanes, more sidewalks, and more buses, as so many believe…
An important thing that happens when we take away space, speed, and subsidies (and create shorter distances) is that we are able to reduce a very costly problem in our world: low-value car trips (to, for example, drive a car on a major road at rush hour to get a cup of coffee). When such trips are frequent (partly by being enabled by society), it is unsustainable and ruinous.
Healthy cities need to leverage agglomeration economies (clustering of people and activities) to be healthy. They are also characterized by having lower speed transportation (it is no coincidence that there is a growing worldwide movement for what are called Slow Cities). Furthermore, healthy cities are financially sound.
In each case, over-emphasis on car travel undermines a city. The large space needs and high speeds of a car create powerful, dispersing, centrifugal forces on city development patterns (which destroys agglomeration). Over-emphasis on car travel also requires large government subsidies. The dispersed land use patterns over-catering to car travel requires is inherently unable to come anywhere close to paying for itself (through such things as sales taxes and property taxes). That destroys financial health.
I have been told that it is important for my message to emphasize win-win tactics, rather than just pointing out the problems of excessive car dependence. While I agree that this tactic is an important way to be more persuasive, it is also extremely difficult when it comes to excessive car dependence. For decades, many in Boulder have wrongly concluded that car travel can be win-win with other forms of travel. I believe that in nearly all cases, it is zero-sum. When car travel is enhanced, almost all other forms of travel are made more difficult. Given that, it is very difficult to give win-win messages. And that is an important reason why our car-based society is facing an enormous dilemma. Excessive provision for car travel is self-reinforcing. It is nearly impossible to break out of the self-perpetuating downward cycle of car dependence once a society has gone a long way down that path, as ours has. This is because in zero-sum, there nearly always will be winners and losers. And when almost all of us are nearly entirely car dependent, asking almost all of us to lose on our form of travel is pretty much impossible, politically.
I therefore see major crisis, our inability to continue to afford to pay for extreme car dependence, or both, as our only way out of the mess we are in.
I don’t mean to make people feel guilty about driving a car. I acknowledge that some car travel is important and even acceptable in our society. But because the car, in my view, is the enemy of the city, it should not feel easy or low cost to do so. Driving needs to be more rare.
Road diets and converting stroads back into streets really are the future. It pains me to see Boulder falling behind on a transformation that a great many US cities are now involved in.
Here are a few brief videos by friends of mine on road diets and stroads:
Another guy I love on this topic is Chuck Marohn, a traffic engineer who has coined the term “stroad.” Boulder has a lot of stroads. Besides 30th, 28th, East Arapahoe, Broadway, Colorado, and Canyon are Boulder examples of stroads.