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The Cost to Cities of Auto-centricity

In America, our older cities - the ones that were founded and initially matured during the railroad era or prior - have a DNA that lends itself well to an efficient development pattern, with vibrant neighborhoods and town centers. Unfortunately, since the 1950's we have systematically abandoned these areas to focus on new development on the periphery. The deterioration of these neighborhoods and the underutilization of the expansive infrastructure serving them is a uniquely American phenomenon.

The atrophy would not be so bad if we had simply walked away from these areas to focus on the next new thing. If we had done that, they would have largely taken care of themselves. What has been most damaging is our attempt to retrofit, through zoning and transportation "improvements", these historic places into a new pattern of development. We've had a sixty-year policy to convert these walkable neighborhoods into auto-oriented lesser-suburbs.

This approach is very expensive to build. It is cost-prohibitive to maintain. And it actually lowers property values in the process while encouraging residents to flee to greener pastures (literally). In retrospect, it is about the most self-destructive policy we could have put in place. We've been doing it for two generations.

In a new era of financial instability and scarcity, we have a marketing approach for towns looking to rebuild and capture a higher return on their existing investments: offer one-car living.

According to Forbes, the average person spends $9,641 annually "for the privilege of driving." That is over $19,000 per year for a family with two cars. If a family could live with one car, that is a significant savings. For cities looking for reinvestment, it could be critical.

Look at the numbers in terms of home values. If a family could move to a neighborhood where the daily necessities of life are within walking distance, they could have only one car and thus have $9k more to spend on a house. Let's say they allocate half of that to their home purchase. Just $4,500 per year would yield and additional $70,000 in home value. For aging cities seeking investment capital, securing these dollars is low hanging fruit.

Especially when shunning them is so massively expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to convert local streets into highways. It also costs both sides of the ledger - lost revenue and added expense - to maintain blocks and blocks of parking. Taming the automobile and making it part of the public realm within towns and neighborhoods - not the sole defining feature - will increase property values and spur investment.

Consider this pitch:

Anywhere, USA, is yesterday's town. Move to Someplace, USA, where we have abundant housing that is well priced along with neighborhood schools, parks, churches and shopping all within walking distance. Spend your money on a better way of life. Avoid the costly commute. You can even live with only one car. In Someplace, USA, we cater to the discriminating consumer - the one that understands living better should actually cost less.

Of course, to deliver on this promise, cities needs to stop inflicting harm on themselves. Stop building highways through town. Tame the automobile and make it share the public realm. Make it more convenient for people to stay in your town for their daily needs than to drive out. Throw out the zoning code and adopt a mixed-use, form-base pattern of regulation. Start capturing public investments - schools, parks, civic buildings - in historic neighborhoods, and do it not to attract people to drive in from outside the community, but to improve the quality of life for those living there. Stop investing in new growth on the periphery.

Build a Strong Town. People and investment will flock to you.


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Reader Comments (1)

While I agree this is true for large urban communities, is it true for small towns. It seems that many small towns provide services to wide area. In lakes country, the wealthiest part of the community is often located on surrounding lakeshore and oother rural development where they are totally auto-dependent. This often includes most of the owners of local businesses as well as a large percentage of the people employed at those businesses.

The suburban style strip malls and big box development are located at the edge of communities and more convenient for the folks who are driving to town. Transforming these communities to better serve their residents is going to create real political resistance from people who are part of the community, but don't actually live there. Insisting the local businesses be accessible to people who are walking or on bikes doesn't serve a good proportion of their potential customers.

I say that, while recognizing that making the local community a more attractive place to live will raise local residential property values. That is, it will make living in town more attractive relative to rural areas. But it may not make having a business in town more attractive.

May 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams
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