Posts Tagged ‘car culture’

Older cities were very walkable.On the Strong Town’s blog, they discuss how our current experiment with auto-centric development of cities and suburban areas is one we can’t afford to do anymore.

This, of course, changed with the advent of the automobile, a technology that became ubiquitous in America following World War II. Over the past two generations, we have reshaped an entire continent to accommodate this new technology, from interstates to connect our cities to the streets within them. We developed new building types, new ways of arranging things on the landscape and new standards for building and financing this new way of building, all from scratch, all within a very short period of time.

We’ve become slaves to this metal creature living in our driveways. Cars don’t set you free, they chain you down. You don’t walk as much, don’t mingle with people on the street as often, and it cocoons you from the outside world to the point were we have to make laws to remind you that there are other people outside your car.

Our auto-oriented development experiment, now in its third generation, has allowed the United States to experience decades of robust growth. Despite this success, our cities and states – big and small, led by liberals and conservatives alike – are now struggling to find the money to do basic functions. Simple things like maintain sidewalks, fix potholes and keep public safety departments adequately staffed. How can this be?

The answer is that, in this new and enticing model, we’ve sacrificed resiliency for growth. In the pursuit of jobs and economic development, American cities have spread themselves out beyond their abilities to financially sustain themselves. All those roads, all that sidewalk, all those pipes….they are really, really expensive. We’re starting to understand that building it all was the easy part. Maintaining it generation after generation is hard.

And now, as budgets everywhere are frayed, our leadership obsessively seeks – in true Ponzi scheme fashion – more and more growth using this same, experimental model.


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Ever wonder how really affordable your house or apartment is? So have I and the Housing and Transit Affordability Index will show you the numbers. Based solely on rent cost, my apartment is fairly affordable, at 17% of my income. However, if you add in transportation costs, it more than doubles, to 40% of my income.

H+T Affordability Index: Seattle–Bellevue–Everett, WA: Comparing Housing Costs, % Income for Renters to Housing + Transportation Costs, % Income for Renters

The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index is an innovative tool that measures the true affordability of housing based on its location.
© Copyright 2003-10 Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 · Tel: (773) 278-4800 · Fax: (773) 278-3840

If I compare the annual cost of driving to work versus the annual cost of transit, I find that I’m saving a ton by working from home and taking the bus whenever I can. The difference is amazing: $51 for transit a year, versus $2,048 for a car per year. The cost of transit is spread out across all riders, while the cost of operating your car is solely in your hands and your pocketbook. It costs more to own a car than to take the bus.

H+T Affordability Index: Seattle–Bellevue–Everett, WA: Comparing Annual VMT Cost ($) to Annual Transit Cost ($)

The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index is an innovative tool that measures the true affordability of housing based on its location.
© Copyright 2003-10 Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 · Tel: (773) 278-4800 · Fax: (773) 278-3840

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The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome:
Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream

John F. Wasik
Bloomberg, 2009

207 pages
ISBN 978-1576603208

John Wasik, a columnist for Bloomberg News and the Huffington Post, has written a book that examines the recent period in our history when homeownership actually made many people poorer. They have been forced to tap their home equity, go into debt to finance their unsustainable lifestyle, and contributed little to retirement investing because of the misguided assumption that home appreciation would fund their future years. Basically the period of time when homes stopped being a place to live and raise family, and became a temporary abode for a migrant family that changed residences every 5 to 7 years.

As John Wasik himself has said on his Cul-De-Sac Syndrome website:

After a lifetime of research and observation, an agonizing decline of the housing market, publication delays and collapse of the stock market, my Cul-de-Sac Syndrome has braved all odds to be published.

Why should you care about this book? It’s about our homes and communities and how we need to re-invent, re-envision and re-build the American Dream if we want to survive in this contentious century. Economics meets ecology in this radical new look at what we’ve taken for granted as a birthright.

The plight of the housing market writ large. The unsustainable “spurbs”, Wasik’s name for car-dependent sprawling urban areas, dot the land. I lived for a time in Colorado Springs and had friends who lived in one these spurbs. They had a twenty minute drive to get to the nearest grocery store, and the neighborhood was more a fenced-in plots of anonymous neighbors, than a community.

The City of Kenmore has a chance to make itself a more livable city, a more walkable city. It also needs to make itself more attractive to more manufacturing and office jobs, since retail and other service oriented businesses just isn’t enough.

Decide for yourself, you can pick up a copy of his book from my Sustainable Living Store.

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The folks at Arnold Imaging, together with Kansas City Public Television, produced this 11 minute movie on the benefits of light rail on land development. This video shows how it helps encourage walkable development wherever there is a light rail station. It helps reinforce how light rail is a positive change in a community.

Imagine KC

In a way, this meshes with a previous post in the Living Sustainability Blog: Smart Transit Oriented Development.    


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In the latest issue of the World Carfree News E-Bulletin, comes word of the New York City based Transportation Alternatives, a group whose mission is to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile, and to be an advocate for the concept that bicycling, walking and public transit are the best transportation alternatives. They produced the documentary Contested Streets: Breaking NYC Gridlock, a film that explores the rich diversity of New York City street life before the introduction of automobiles — and then goes on to show how New York can follow the example of other modern cities that have reclaimed their streets as vibrant public spaces. The following trailer gives you a taste of the full documentary that’s available for ordering from Transportation Alternatives.

As we can see, cities for most of their existence were for people and performing their business and day-to-day activities. Then at the turn of the 20th century accommodations for the mass-produced automobile had to be made. Prior to the introduction of the automobile, streets were laid out for pedestrian and horse drawn vehicles, including the first omnibuses.

Before the advent of the mass produced automobile, large cities like New York, London, Paris, and others, created working and viable public and private transit systems. After the introduction of the mass-produced automobile, the allure of the trolley and the train faded. Some accuse General Motors of conspiring to kill off the public transit systems in many cities, but in the end their most effective method of killing off public transit systems was simply to sell America on the myth of freedom through automobile ownership.

So what do we do? Obviously this is something we can’t do overnight. We can’t force people to leave the suburbs and move back into cities or a denser urban region around cities. But we have to do something. It will take some thought and planning to rebuild our shattered communities. It took a century to break them, it well may take a century to fix our communities. We shall see.

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This wonderful little film was made in 1908 by by Ricardo de Baños (1884-1939). The camera was mounted on top of the driver’s cabin as the tram traveled through 1908 Barcelona. It shows much of what we have lost over the years to the car. It shows that the streets are full of people, walking and living in a community, not driving around in their own personal isolation cells, AKA automobiles. What vehicles there are on the road, are more of an impediment to the pedestrian and the trams that are moving through the city.

As you can see in this film, the streets are narrow, crowded with people, and full of life. Not like most American cities, where the only reason why the sidewalks are crowded is that they are too narrow, so as to make room for more cars on the roads. Life then was slower, a bit more relaxed, so you didn’t need a trolley that could do 40mph, just one that moved at the speed of bicycle or a running man.

Of course I’m not painting it to be a utopia, it was far from that. Infant mortality, sickness, discrimination, the lack of rights for women, it was far, far, from a utopia. But in terms of community life, in terms of being a place to live, instead of a place to sleep between driving to and from work, it was and is far better than what we have today.

[Edit: Another film to contemplate]

I found this version of the above film and it intercuts shots of 2008 Barcelona along the same roads that the original film traveled along. 

The contrast between pedestrian friendly, carfree Barcelona and modern day, car centric Barcelona is amazing. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are no people on the streets! The population of Barcelona has greatly increased in 100 years, from 533,000 in 1900 to 1,673,075 in 2006. Where are those extra 1,000,000 people? Not on the streets it seems. 

If there is any better evidence for what our car culture has done to destroy community and civil living, I’d like to know what it is. In 1908 we had a vibrant, living city, and then 100 years later, a ghost town inhabited only by a handful of people and lot of cars.

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