"Evolution, Not Revolution" in Curbing Car Dependency


In any good game of public hearing bingo, or online-comment-section bingo, you're going to hear lines like these:

"Get rid of parking minimums? It's delusional to think nobody will need a place to park in this neighborhood."

"More development here would create intolerable gridlock. People aren't just going to stop driving cars."

"We're not just going to turn (Your City's Name Here) into Amsterdam."

Such claims are, of course, attacking a straw man. I don't know anybody who actually thinks it's possible or desirable to retrofit driving out of American cities in the wave of a regulatory magic wand, or by building bike lanes or even light rail. 

And, before anyone comments to tell me this, I'm well aware that the above arguments are often a scare tactic used in bad faith by people who oppose proposed development (for whatever their reasons may be) and are looking to win an argument rather than arrive at any shared understandings. 

But let's not scoff at it completely, because if these debates are playing out in a public forum (either online or face-to-face), people are listening who don't have their minds made up. And I've seen more than a few of those people persuaded by the above tactic, in which defenders of a car-dominated status quo stake out a claim to reasonable moderation by making the—100% true, but not very illuminating—observation that most people who drive cars today are going to drive cars tomorrow. And will want convenient parking for those cars.

We've made the case at Strong Towns many times, in many ways, for allowing cities to continually develop incrementally—meaning that successful, popular places will likely add residents and businesses and become more densely inhabited. This is, on balance, good for walkability, for safety, for local business vitality, and for the financial solvency of our local governments.

If you're persuaded by these arguments, you have an interest in making sure they're not totally the-density-Bolsheviks-are-coming-for-your-car-and-your-detached-house scary to the uninitiated. The best way to challenge someone who's intent on attacking a straw man, in my experience, is to present the calm, reasonable, nuanced version of your actual point of view, and expose their straw man for exactly what it is.

In the case of issues of car infrastructure and parking, let's start with the recognition that car-dependency isn't an all or nothing deal. It's already a matter of degree.

 From Car-Heavy to Car-Lite

If choices around driving were the binary that incremental-development opponents frequently suggest they are—either you drive everywhere or you don't even own a motor vehicle—then we'd expect to see a stark divide in car ownership between neighborhoods where people drive (most of America), and neighborhoods where they don't (most of, uh, Brooklyn?). A fascinating series of new maps from Trulia's chief economist, Issi Romem, paints a much more nuanced picture of subtle variations. Here are a few examples:

 
 

There's a lot to unpack in these maps, which illustrate car ownership by ZIP code for many large U.S. cities (measured as the ratio of individuals to cars). These ownership patterns are correlated with a lot of things besides urban form, most notably income and poverty. I.e. there are neighborhoods with fewer cars per resident because they have a lot of poor residents, but there are also wealthy neighborhoods with fewer cars per resident because the area is walkable and/or well-served by transit.

To draw some generalizations, in outer-ring suburbs where you must drive to accomplish even routine errands, 1.1 to 1.3 residents per vehicle is a common ratio. Older residential neighborhoods in Midwestern cities—the kind that would have originated as streetcar suburbs—cluster around 1.3 - 1.5 people per car. In truly urban neighborhoods that are quite walkable for many daily needs, you're more likely to see ratios of 1.5 to 2.0. And this doesn't only reflect poverty and wealth: a solidly middle-class neighborhood in Portland has a lower rate of car ownership (1 car per 1.63 people) than a comparably middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte (1 car per 1.32 people), for example, even those both of these are inner neighborhoods located immediately east of their cities’ downtowns.

The more car-oriented urban form in the Charlotte example is clear. And if the difference is not reflected in whether middle-class households in the area own cars, it does seem to be reflected in how many they own.

 
 

You only see ratios significantly above 2.0 in a few places, which are either very poor, or very urban (we're talking core parts of San Francisco / Boston / NYC urban). The modest difference in the numbers everywhere else might make this all seem like small potatoes, but those modest differences matter. A lot.

1.6 or 1.7 people per car means that many or most households own one car. (Household size averages a little over 2 people in most cities.) 1.2 or 1.3 people per car means that most households own two cars. That has huge implications not only for personal finances but for urban form, how much parking we need, and, presumably, how families are managing their transportation needs.

The annual cost of owning, maintaining, and using a car averages somewhere approaching $10,000. A household that feels empowered to go from owning 2 cars to owning 1 is saving thousands of dollars a year. And when enough changes in their neighborhood that somebody who uses a car a few times a month feels like they can take the plunge and sell the car and not replace it? That's huge. I've had a couple friends make that choice in the past year. I have many more friends than who wish they could. My advocacy is about options for them.

And options for our cities, because we need to devote less land to auto-oriented land uses, which are financially unproductive and often dangerous, wealth-destroying environments. Nobody actually likes stroads; we tolerate them because we perceive a need to accommodate the traffic they carry. Nobody actually thinks parking lots are picturesque or wants one across the street from their home; we tolerate them because we perceive a need for them.

In a neighborhood of 20,000 people, if you could go in a decade from 1.25 residents per car to 1.6, you'd be shedding 3,500 vehicles, their accompanying emissions, and the accompanying need for storage space and road space—freeing it up for other uses.

The difference between a place where a family chooses to get by with one car—because other transportation options help meet some of their needs—and a place where that family feels they need 2 or 3 cars, is very real. What's more, it’s a gap we can can start to bridge with incremental changes, without doing radical surgery on our cities.

Even if you can't imagine crossing the bridge of ditching car ownership in your own life, changes that make it possible for you to drive fewer miles are reasonable, attainable, and shouldn't be all that scary. I think most people can envision this in their individual cases: if a grocery store opened up closer to you than the one you normally go to, for example, you would save a certain number of miles each week. And so would a lot of your neighbors. People just don't tend to readily believe that this generalizes to whole cities' populations. Surely all those other people on the road aren't going to change their habits, right?

The difference between a place where a family chooses to get by with one car—because other transportation options help meet some of their needs—and a place where that family feels they need 2 or 3 cars, is very real. What’s more, it’s a gap we can can start to bridge with incremental changes, without doing radical surgery on our cities.

And yet, there is huge variation in how much we drive across cities and regions. A 2013 Frontier Group study found that per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per year varies by metropolitan area from over 14,000 miles in Birmingham, AL, to under 6,000 in greater New York / northern New Jersey. And those are for entire metro areas—the variation across neighborhoods is doubtless even wider.

Where does your city fall on Frontier Group’s list? And what would incremental improvement look like? What if your elected officials set a formal goal of decreasing that annual per capita VMT—say, by 30% by 2030—and tasked a team of planners with developing land-use and transportation strategies that had a plausible chance of making it happen.

Is that scary? Does that feel insurmountable? I don't know, but I'd like to hope I can get through to some of the unconvinced with that appeal to attainable change.

Evolutionary Progress

Alberta is the Texas of Canada, home base of that country's oil industry. It might seem an unusual place for the War on Cars™ to have any traction, but Edmonton is on the verge of eliminating its parking minimums. Calgary has already allowed some development without parking in its urban core.

The usual voices, I’m sure, are up there shouting at the usual straw men, but I appreciate the measured take of Edmonton infill-development advocate Kirsten Goa in the above-linked article, whose phrase—”evolution, not revolution”—I have shamelessly cribbed for this post’s title.

What does this evolution look like? It means removing parking requirements so developers can make their own judgments about how much parking their tenants will want or need. And yes, that often means they will still provide parking of their own volition, just less of it—here’s an example from Sacramento, in an area where minimums were removed a few months ago:

Under new city rules, the project is not required to provide any car parking, given its downtown location and proximity to jobs and light rail. The developer however plans 274 car parking spots [for 309 homes]. There would be 187 bike parking spots, another sign that private developers are expecting future generations of downtown residents to be less inclined to own cars.

It means rethinking our default approach of prioritizing traffic flow and driver comfort over the basic safety of other users of urban streets—something that unfortunately is still the default even in famously bike-friendly cities.

It means allowing successful, in-demand places to grow and evolve to the next increment of development—instead of being paralyzed by misplaced fears of congestion into locking those neighborhoods in amber.

We can keep moving in the direction of having cities where a car is a convenience, not a prosthetic device, but only if we're willing to acknowledge that it’s possible and desirable to evolve in that direction—and that it doesn’t have to mean razing Edmonton and building Hong Kong on the Prairie. The next step after that acknowledgment is to actually take the little steps to shift our priorities, incentives, and range of options—over and over and over.