We talk about car dependency a lot on Strong Towns. We often talk about it as being the result of the suburban Growth Ponzi scheme, and how a Strong Town should focus more on walking, biking, and transit. But do you ever wonder why?
Today I'm going talk about some of the negative consequences of car dependency. Specifically, I'm going to be talking to about them from the perspective of a town or suburb that has gone all in on the auto-oriented pattern of development. Some of these negative consequences are;
- Social isolation
- Decline of small businesses
- Effect on public health
You might have noticed that I left off climate change and oil politics. Often these topics are politically charged and controversial, and none of the problems I mentioned will be solved in world of electric cars.
I've lived in both cities (taking transit and walking everywhere) and suburbs (working in a suburban office campus and driving everywhere.) When I lived in the city, I used to have random encounters with strangers, often daily. These were usually nothing more than simple interruptions. The elderly lady that asks for help at the train station. Overhearing the couple's conversation behind me on a bus. The homeless man asking for my spare change. These people were rich and poor, old and young. Even though the idea of being forced to interact with strangers sounds undesirable, there's something very human about feeling that you are part of a living world. I was never the most sociable child, so these random encounters played an important part in developing my social skills and feeling comfortable around strangers.
Living in the suburbs, I have eliminated most of these random encounters. When I get into my car to drive to work, I feel like I'm travelling through town in my own isolated box. When I get out of my car at work, the only people that I interact with are co-workers, and when I return home, the only people that I interact with are family. The possibility of random encounters with strangers are still there (when I visit the supermarket, for example) but I have reduced the window for this to occur from an everyday experience to a couple of hours on the weekend. I have to go out of my way and place myself in public to interact with my neighbors and others that live in my town, rather than it being a natural part of my day. The places where I shop and visit target my demographic, and so I'm constantly surrounded by people that are similar.
I often wonder if not having those small everyday interactions with strangers has a greater psychological effect on us than we realize?
Getting around in a car dependent environment is fine if you're old enough to drive, but not too old, have no major mental or physical disabilities, passed the test, and can afford a car and all of the associated costs. Everyone else is treated like a second class citizen; they are either a burden to their friends and family to escort them around, isolated at home and get out very little, have to rely on mobility services, or they tough it out and walk, cycle, or take transit.
It's discriminatory. By going all-in in the auto-oriented pattern and creating a car dependent environment, we're discriminating against those that cannot drive. The poor. The young. The elderly. The disabled. We place so much emphasis on buildings that are ADA complaint, so that people with disabilities can conveniently navigate through doors and between floors, yet we keep building car dependent environments where an even greater demographic cannot conveniently get around on their own.
From my former blog post 'What About The Elderly?';
There is a gross inequity behind this model - those that can drive are entitled to an efficient day, while those who can not, are not.
Going all in on the car is very expensive for everyone. This includes our cities, our business owners, and the individuals that live there.
We are endlessly 'upgrading' roads by widening them and adding extra lanes. We install countless numbers of traffic lights and stop signs. We build vast networks of freeways and interchanges. We sprawl out across the landscape, promising sewage, water, power, police and fire protection, schools, and perfectly paved roads to a tax base spread too thin to support them (the essence of the Strong Towns message.) We issue bonds, we take on debt, cut services, increase taxes so we can keep on doing more of them same. Surely, this is cheaper than 'subsidizing' walkable, bikeable, or transit friendly neighborhoods.
For Property Owners
The appeal of locating a business in the suburbs is based on the availability of cheap land, usually fueled by a city's desire to attract more easy horizontal growth. Let's ignore the land value for a second, and consider the actual development pattern. In the auto-oriented pattern, there are usually regulations that require a minimum lot size (perhaps 1/4 of an acre), parking, and perhaps landscaping. Sometimes the business needs to pay for things that are technically part of the street - such as installing and maintaining the sidewalk.
In the traditional development pattern, businesses need only enough space for their building. Parking in the traditional development pattern doesn't need to be required or banned, because it's within a business's best interest to make their business as accessible to as many customers as possible. If the surrounding businesses and streets have an ample supply of parking or if the majority of the customers live within a distance that they don't have to drive, then the property owner may not feel the need to supply their own parking. Without the need to landscape or supply parking, businesses only need to purchase, develop, and maintain just enough space for their building. The end result of the traditional development pattern is a very fine grained mix of properties that is highly walkable and takes up minimal space.
Living in a car dependent environment places a financial burden on the individuals that live, work, and go about their daily lives there. These financial burdens are both direct (owning a car) and indirect (taxes.)
The average yearly cost of owning a car is between $6,957 and $11,039 (a number that often varies, but it's usually within the higher half of four digits.) In a family of two working adults, it's not unreasonable to expect that they both will want to own their own car so that they can both commute and go about their daily lives without being a burden on the other, so this yearly cost of owning a car can easily double. In a family with grown children of driving age, more so. In a walkable, people oriented city, most households would still own a car - as it's often convenient to have a car around for the few times you need it (to drive the entire family into town if you live far out, a weekend cruise through the countryside, or to help you bring that big ticket item home from the store) - in these cases a car becomes a luxury and not a necessity to go about your day. This is a critical difference between a town built to drive to, and a town built to drive through. (In the Tokyo metropolitan area, for example, one of the largest and densest in the world - 60% of households still own a car despite only 17% commute via car. They just don't need to use it every day.)
The indirect costs, such as maintaining all of that infrastructure, is eventually handed down to the tax payer through tax increases and service cuts as the bonds mature and the debt and maintenance of the auto-oriented pattern remains.
Decline of Small Businesses
I have often thought that car dependent environments are unfavorable to small specialty businesses. The auto-oriented development pattern is a high-cost environment has a high cost of entry (as I discussed above with parking and landscaping, and possibly a drive through), and as I shared on a previous blog post 'Fine Grained', I have a concern that this high cost of entry will lead to a polarized economy where the rich get richer (due to them being the only ones that can afford the high cost of entry - the Dunkin Donuts example) while prohibiting the majority from entering.
The auto-oriented development pattern - where everyone drives from store to store - isn't favorable to specialty businesses. There is a considerable overhead in time and effort to make a stop; you need to turn off the street, park your car, get out of your car. Once you are done shopping, you need to get back in your car, slowly back out of your parking spot, wait for the traffic to clear so you can exit back out onto the street, and drive to your next destination. The thought of shopping for a week's worth of groceries from small specialty businesses - going from a grocery store, to a butcher shop, to a bakery, to a newsagency, to a pharmacy for all of my needs - seems overwhelming, especially if these businesses are located in different areas of town that could take up to 15 minutes to drive between. In this kind of environment, the convenience of visiting a store where you can park once and have everything under the same roof is often the winning factor for the consumer. Contrast this to a walkable town where it takes no more than half a minute to detour into a store while you are walking down the street.
Effect on Public Health
At Strong Towns, we often talk about how the design of our streets and roads can be dangerous for all users - including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicles crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the age of 5 and 34. There's also a heavy correlation between car usage and obesity. This shouldn't seem too surprising, as we've replaced the primary form of exercise throughout human history, the act of getting from A to B, with mostly sitting in a seat. Add to that the health effects of local air pollution caused by vehicle exhaust. The latter may be solved by the adoption of cleaner fuels and electric vehicles, but not the preventable deaths, injuries, and health risks associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
I have presented a handful of reasons why car dependency is bad outside of the typical arguments of parking, traffic, and oil dependency. Walkable, human-oriented communities tend to be the happiest and healthiest, where the younger generation is looking to live, and the most financially productive types of places to build and retain. Creating human oriented communities is the essence of creating a Strong Town. There is so much great advice on this site to help you get started.