Our Evolving Relationship with the Automobile

Today's guest post is courtesy of Strong Towns Network contributor Ron Beitler.  If you are interested in having your content shared with thousands of readers, post it on the Network and we'll contact you if you "make the cut."  

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New love is always most intensive and passionate in the beginning.  No, America is not abandoning the car. But the love affair has plateaued. Don’t expect a breakup though. There will be no nasty divorce. What has happened is we’ve settled into a new comfortable relationship with the car. 

Most people can tell you, love can make you do funny things. Our initial intense love affair with the car was reflected in reactionary 1950′s planning policy. At the time blinded by the intensity of our relationship we abandoned traditional neighborhoods. We installed compartmentalized Euclidean zoning which led to isolated, disconnected pods of development. We weren’t thinking straight but it was all good at the time cause we were still madly in love.

Our love has unfortunately led to some unanticipated side effects. Communities became isolated lacking any real sense of place. Folks lived far away from the places they worked. People spent a huge chunk of their day isolated in cars commuting back and forth. But the new pattern was also very expensive and the only way to fund it was to double down on it. So we got trapped in a cycle. But blinded by love we didn’t see. Or more accurately we didn’t want to see it. We weren't thinking straight.

No, there will be no divorce but today we are returning to a more healthy balance. Young professionals are returning to the cities and walkable 1st ru.... They no longer want to spend huge chunks of their day in cars. Survey after survey show people want connectivity. They want to live in places, not nebulous collections of isolated pods. They want options. It’s a lifestyle choice but also it’s a financial reality.

No, America is definitely not breaking up with the car. We’re simply moving on to the realistic sustainable phase of our relationship with the automobile. We now want other options in addition to car. We don’t want to spend every second with them. We want a life outside of them. In the end this will lead to a much healthier relationship with the auto.

The chart below shows vehicle miles traveled, forecasts vs. actual. The black line represents the plateauing of miles driven. The colored lines are predictions by various levels of gov’t. Driving habits have changed but government remains locked into development patterns that reflect a love affair that’s cooled.

Chart from Eric Sundquist of the State Smart Transportation Initiative. For the past decade, state and federal governments have consistently overestimated future growth in U.S. road travel.


 Ron Beitler is local land use and smart growth blogger-advocate in Lower Macungie Township where he is an elected Twp. Commissioner. Lower Macungie is Pennsylvania's second fastest growing township. Ron is also a member of Smart Growth America's Local Leaders Council