Without a doubt, cars are useful machines. They have greatly increased our freedom of movement. They are a big part of our culture and play significant roles in writing, song, and motion pictures. For generations, getting a driver’s license was a teenage rite of passage in the US.
Yet these machines have also become our masters. As cars and trucks became the dominant mode of transportation after World War II, the built environment was restructured to favor car and truck travel over all other ways of getting around. Most Americans no longer have transportation choice. They drive out of necessity for every errand and social trip. Children must be bussed or driven to school and activities. Even to get a half-gallon of milk requires getting in a car. To hold a job requires a car and commute for every wage earner in most American households.
The majority of communities are not built to make walking, bicycling, or mass transit convenient and appealing. The blocks are too large, the roads too wide, buildings are fronted by parking lots and garage doors, and buildings and signage are built to be legible at 40 or 50 miles per hour. At a walking speed, the built environment doesn’t bear much scrutiny. It is dumbed down, boring, and crude.
This spread-out, suburban layout carries an economic burden. Suburban households spend 24 percent of their income on transportation, while urban households in walkable neighborhoods spend only 12 percent of their income on transportation. The construction and maintenance costs of the road and highway system are a huge ongoing expense for society at large — one that is largely paid for through general taxes rather than gasoline levies.
The lower transportation costs for urban families point to the fact that communities built prior to the dominance of the automobile still function efficiently. People can drive if they want. The street networks accommodate traffic and parking. Yet people also have the choice of walking, bicycling, and taking mass transit.
Environmentally, automobiles take a huge toll. It’s not just the gasoline and diesel fuel that are burned by cars and trucks, but the construction and maintenance of the roads, highways, and parking lots; the environmental impact is enormous. When we tailored our towns and cities to the requirements of automobiles, few if any of us imagined global warming, oil depletion, or all the kinds of pollution that would result.
The health consequences are substantial. Besides the 40,000-plus Americans who die anually in automobile crashes — many are young adults and children — and the millions who are injured, our car culture contributes to lack of exercise and to obesity. It’s hard to say precisely how much of our growing health care cost burden is attributable to cars — but the figure is surely enormous.
Also there are the difficult-to-measure but nevertheless significant social costs. America used to be a front-porch society where people got to know their neighbors. Now, we are a garage-door society where we press a button and disappear inside a house — in front of a street where few people walk. Children used to be able to ride a bicycle to a main street store — where they knew the proprietor by name — and buy a Popsicle on a hot summer day. Growing up in such a neighborhood fosters an independence that is missing from the typical American childhood experience today. We ought to bring it back.
The simplest answer to the dominance of the automobile in our lives is to design our communities for people, not cars. The benefits of such a shift in policy cannot be overstated. We can reduce our household costs, our health problems, and the environmental and economic burdens on future generations. We can make our communities stronger and be a happier people. We just have to design our communities for people, not cars.
Instead of building subdivisions, shopping centers, office “parks,” and strip commercial corridors, we need to build main streets, neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities again. That’s what the New Urbanism and smart growth are all about. That’s the enduring and sustainable cultural legacy that was passed on to us by untold generations that lived prior to the middle of the 20th Century. Our children and grandchildren will thank us — and we will thank ourselves — if we build, or rebuild, such places again.