Thursday, January 1, 2009

False Dichotomies: Carfree or Country?

Discussion of urbanism often runs into false dichotomies, many of which seem to be driven by the narrow viewpoints of their authors than anything else. We've got a whole generation of commentators and bloggers who've grown up with car-dependent suburbs, car-dependent houses in the country, and dirty, high-crime cities, and seem to have great difficulty imagining anything else.

If you think about it, though, the dramatic growth of car ownership over the last sixty years implies that lots of families didn't have cars sixty years ago. Most of them didn't have horses either. Quite a few of them lived in suburbs or even in the country, but they managed to survive quite well. How?

The infrastructure was different, that's how. Many places that are car-dependent now didn't use to be. As Matthew Yglesias put it yesterday:

traditionally a great deal of walkable urbanism took place in small towns rather than in cities, and also in small cities [...] and “streetcar suburbs” rather than big cities.

For example, Westchester County had two more train lines that were torn up a long time ago: the New York, Westchester and Boston and the Putnam Line. You can tell where they ran just by looking for places that "feel like" the old suburbs. Visit Ardsley, or Heathcote Road in Scarsdale, and you'll know what I mean. Binghamton used to have regular train service, and Saratoga had much more frequent service than it has now, to a station right downtown instead of the current one.

"Joe from Lowell" commented on Yglesias's blog, "I like to use the example of the towns in old westerns. People walking up and down the street, saloons and banks and churches, apartments up above, houses on side streets, usually a train station nearby - but as small town/rural as anyone could ask for."

This has changed somewhat. The NYW&B went out of business in 1937 and the Old Put in 1958. The 2001 bankruptcy of the Grand Union supermarket chain hit a lot of towns hard across the greater New York area. Grand Union's distributor C&S sold off a lot of stores to drugstore chains and other buyers who had no intention of keeping the supermarkets open, and many towns found themselves with no supermarkets.

Even so, there are still many "streetcar suburbs" and cities that even today are walkable and transit-friendly. As far as suburbs go: in Westchester there are several places where you can live within a fifteen-minute walk of both a train station and a full-service supermarket, as well as a range of shops and restaurants. Examples include Bronxville, Harrison and Tarrytown. There are similar towns in New Jersey (e.g. Montclair) and Long Island (Rockville Centre). Parts of New York City itself have a pretty suburban feel, but are still close to shopping.

Similar situations exist in medium-sized cities like Binghamton, large towns like Saratoga Springs, and small towns like Red Hook. Even in relatively car-dominated areas, there's often a significant percentage of the population that manages to live car-free. In many of those cases, unfortunately, even if you can find a house that's within walking distance of a supermarket there aren't many jobs that are within walking distance of such a house, and many desirable shops or restaurants are in unwalkable locations.

Overall, it's a lot easier to live without a car than some might suggest, and it's a lot easier to serve the populations of medium-sized and small towns than some might claim. All you need to see it is a little imagination.


C. Siegel said...

Cap'n: Here is an example of your point.

Do you remember the book Topper (also turned into a movie and TV show) about a respectable banker who has two friends who are ghosts?

In the book, Topper has spent his adult life living in New Jersey and commuting to his job in New York without owning a car. He buys his first car (formerly owned by the ghosts) at age of about 40. He doesn's need the car at all to get around.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Charles! I never heard of the movie or the TV show, but here's the IMDB page for the movie.

Really, what makes an area convenient is the infrastructure. If you build infrastructure for people to walk, it'll be convenient to walk. If you build it for people to drive, it'll be convenient for them to drive. If you build it for them to take the train, it'll be convenient to take the train.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

Living sustainably is a choice.

Many mainstream livable cities advocates seen on TV and read in the papers are trying to motivate people toward a sustainable future using technology or gimmicks, whether it's hydrogen cars and solar power on the suburban roofs of the southwest or light rail in medium-sized cities.

There is a way, today, and with little investment to live sustainably: It is as simple as living in an area walking distance to the things you need very often (groceries, the library, the school, a bus to work). As the author indicates, it's easier than some would suggest. You don't necessarily have to live in a big city in a small apartment with lousy schools.

Unfortunately, the kinds of options the author describes as available in New York in train distance from NYC aren't really available in many regions with the country's largest population growth: Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Colorado.

Cap'n Transit said...

Robert, I would say that the kind of sustainable lifestyle you describe is available in parts of California and Colorado. It's also within reach in many places in Florida, Georgia and Texas. Leaders just need to find the people who are already living carfree in those areas, ask them about their greatest frustrations, and fix them. Light rail can be a big part of the solution, and so can mixed-use zoning.

BruceMcF said...

There's a lot to the concept of a Rapid Streetcar for an area like this part of outer suburban NE Ohio ... which was once connected to both Akron and Cleveland by train and/or interurban ...

... running on a heavy rail corridor between designated TOD zones, and as a streetcar through a few key blocks of legacy town centers.

Heck, the main rail line between the country seat and the university town even runs behind Wal-Mart.

A big obstacle is that each such system in the US is a customized project requiring lots of work to get up, and then requiring extensive hurdle jumping with the FRA. The more and more quickly we can move to a regulatory framework that can handle that kind of system as a normal case rather than as an exceptional case, the better.