Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Living Carfree

I'm still trying to process this bizarre Times blog post that Streetsblog linked to this morning. It's a legitimate topic for discussion, springing off an earlier article about the Vauban suburb of Freiburg, Germany, which is trying to be completely car-free: what would it take to have a car-free town, neighborhood or city here in the US? The Room for Debate blog is one that puts questions like this to "experts" chosen by the blog owner. Sounds good, except that there was something a bit off about all the responses.

One source of confusion is that there are really four requirements for a car-free community:
  • Internal: it must be possible for someone to live in the community without a car
  • External: there must be people whose circumstances outside the community allow them to live car-free
  • Critical Mass: there must be enough of these people to make a complete community
  • Community Structure: it must be possible to fulfill all the overall community functions without cars

Many of the respondents gave answers that seem to imply that the internal requirement was not satisfied: that there are no communities in the U.S. where it is possible for anyone to live without a car. Particularly odd was the response of Witold Rybczynski:
There are only six American downtown districts that are dense enough to support mass transit, which you need if you’re going to be carless: New York City (Midtown and Downtown), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. That’s it. The breaking-point for density and mass transit feasibility seems to be about 50 persons per acre, which means families living in flats and apartments, rather than single-family houses, even row houses.Not necessarily high-rise apartments, but at least walk-ups.

Um, okay. Funny how that sweeping generalization was belied by the very next response, from D.J. Waldie: "I live in Lakewood — the Levittown of the West." (Apparently he means California; I'd never heard of it.) "Lakewood was built with the expectation that each household would have no more than one car, and it would be driven by dad to the plant while mom raised the kids at home. [...] I can’t drive. And I daily benefit from these planning choices." (Emphasis added.)

Streetsblog commenter Rhywun felt similarly: "I've long thought Witold was nutters, but this is just absurd. I've lived without a car quite easily in several cities lacking 'mass transit'." Many of the commenters on the "Room for Debate" blog voiced similar thoughts.

Rybczynski didn't seem to be the only respondent who believed that it was impossible for anyone to survive without a car in the U.S. Alex Marshall wrote: "But there will still be a need for some trips by car, and completely excluding cars strikes me as a little obsessive." Marc Schlossberg wrote: "With some small design guideline changes, these urban centers can form the basis for the suburban transformation that is needed to reduce — but probably not eliminate — the use of cars as the only available and rational transportation mode in the suburbs."

It's true that they're focusing more on the "critical mass" problem, but that's just a strong disconnect between these guys and the millions of people in this country who get along just fine without cars. Millions! These are supposed to be transportation experts; aren't they familiar with the census data that shows things like a majority in central Los Angeles? Significant minorities (over 10%) of car-free households in other cities? Sixteen percent households car-free in Waterbury? Many of these are not Rybczynski's dense cities. They're medium-sized cities and suburbs.

What gets me is that there are, as I said, millions of people all across the country who are living car-free every day. They do this in cities, suburbs and even small towns. Outside the big cities, most of them are invisible to car-oriented planners and politicians. But these respondents to the Times blog are talking about getting along without cars! And they act as though these millions don't exist! Some experts!

A real expert might actually go down to some of these places - or even right in their hometowns - seek out and talk to these car-free Americans. Find out their secret! A real expert might even be one of these car-free people. Apart from Waldie, apparently that kind of person isn't expert enough for the Times.

Next on "Room for Debate": the challenge of Sunday brunch wait times. Is it a realistic goal for Americans to someday get a table for brunch without waiting at all?

1 comment:

George K said...

Sorry to post this so late.
According to my calculations, 50 people per acre is 32,000 people per square mile. New York City has an average density of about 26,000 people per square mile, yet the percentage of autoless households is 55%. By his logic, it should be much lower. Even Staten Island, with a population density of about 8,500 people per square mile, still manages to have 20% of its households car-free.
There are more factors on what determines auto-free households. Some of it could be the walkability of the neighborhood, or even the age of the people in the community (for example, people tend to give up their cars when they become seniors and lose their driving ability).