Sunday, November 29, 2009

The supposed convenience of cars

Like most people in this country, I was raised with the constantly repeated assumption that everything is more convenient in a car. Unlike many, I did have some counterexamples: my dad's mostly car-free existence in Manhattan. The low barrier to basic teenage mobility at my dad's (a couple of subway tokens) vs. my mom's (hours of training for the driver's license, hundreds of dollars for the car, and constantly having to pay for gas, repairs and insurance). Beach traffic on the LIE being worse than beach crowds on the LIRR. Being able to change a cassette on a bus without rear-ending the car in front of me.

Here's another moment of clarity for me: I had been living in Chicago for half a year, getting around pretty well by foot, bike, L, bus and Metra, but still with the sense that people with cars had it much easier than I did. I envied the attention that the WBEZ announcers paid to the motorists who took 35 minutes to get from Mannheim to the Post Office.

I was excited, then, when I needed to move and rented a car to help with it. The car was definitely helpful; it would have been a major pain to move all that stuff without one. It only took a few hours, and since it was a 24-hour rental, I figured I'd go play with the car for the rest of the time, and enjoy my new mobility. I knew the first thing I wanted: to buy a good chair for my new bedroom. I headed off to the strip malls west of town.

I then discovered how difficult it can be to find a particular strip mall store (I think this was an Office Max) if you've never been there before. I was tooling down one of those six-lane boulevards on the West Side, and I saw a sign for Office Max, but I was too far over to the left! By the time I got into the right lane, I had overshot the Office Max. This particular boulevard was divided, so I had to drive south until I found a place to turn around, drive back north of the Office Max, turn around again, and make sure I was in the right lane when I got to the store.

I eventually got the chair, but then I got stuck in traffic getting it home, and I still had to drive out to Midway to return the car. What had started out as an exciting exploration of freedom turned into an hour or two of anxiety and frustration. I actually don't remember if I got the car back on time, or if I wound up keeping it for another day.

This was probably my first experience of Strip Mall Overshoot, but it wouldn't be my last. It may seem small, but it's just one of the many ways that cars are less convenient than other forms of transportation, even for transporting furniture. This was a small chair, it fit into a relatively small box, and at that point in my life I could have easily carried it a mile. If I had known where to buy a chair like that within a mile of my house, I could have just gone and gotten it. I could also have taken it on the Metra, and maybe even the bus.

At that point, the seed of an idea was planted in my head, and here is the fruit of that seed: there is nothing inherently convenient about cars, or about any vehicle. It is the system that makes them convenient, and that system includes both the vehicle and the infrastructure. Provide unlimited, subsidized "free" car infrastructure, and cars will be convenient. Run buses often, everywhere, all the time, and buses will be convenient. Put everything in a giant skyscraper with computer-controlled elevators, and elevators will be convenient. Trains, walking, bayou boats, swinging from vines, conveyor belts, scuba diving: whatever it is, if you throw enough money at the infrastructure you can make it convenient.

It's not useful to argue about which mode is more convenient. The better question is which system is more efficient, pollutes less, kills less people, can serve the largest segment of society, and can bring people together instead of isolating them.


Unknown said...

Automobiles dominate urban travel because they are the only efficient means of providing for the vast majority of trips. For some 90 percent of urban trips people choose to use the automobile because of its superior speed, comfort, safety and general convenience. Nothing else can go door to door, conveniently carry your computer, your shopping, reading matter, sporting gear, spare clothes, drink, children or pets. Everything else is generally too slow, too uncomfortable, too much hassle, just impractical.

fpteditors said...

Most people are in denial about the downside of the private auto, because there is not much choice. You are right to look at the system. Looking at the big picture, making public transit free is "obvious" as NYC Mayor Bloomberg once said on the radio.

CityLights said...

I work in Middletown, NJ. The only store in the area I typically shop at is the Target on the northbound side of Route 35, because I can get there in multiple direct ways using mostly local streets. Most other stores I need are on the southbound side, which means that when I pass them when going home I need to make a lengthy detour to get to them.

I end up delaying purchases or making them elsewhere, because it is just too inconvenient to drive an extra 5-10 miles in peak hour traffic for an item. How all this road infrastructure is supposed to facilitate business is a mystery to me.

saosebastiao said...

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crzwdjk said...

Since when are cars "door to door", especially for "urban" trips? They tend to be door to giant parking lot. Or door to circling for half an hour then walking 3 blocks, in the truly urban cases. As for the broader point, I think it might make sense to look at convenience provided for a given level of investment. And also at costs imposed by a given type of infrastructure, in terms of making people take time and money to own and operate a car, or waste time waiting for connecting buses, or whatever.

Christa said...

Does it bother anyone else when someone refers to cars as transportation?

A: You don't have transportation?
B: No, I don't own a car.

It seems like an American 20th century mindset.

I view transportation as an evolving system where it's success is the level of efficiency of multiple modes (as apposed to innovation in a single vehicle or service).

Scott said...

I think the first poster, Theodore, suffers from a serious lack of imagination as do most people who can't see any other way other than a personal automobile based transportation system. Once you get past the fact that this system has been created & furthered to transfer wealth to certain industries (steel, oil, automobile manufacturing, sales, repair, road construction, etc.) with a regressive slant against the lower class, you begin to see what a boondoggle it really is. Without a cite-able source at hand, I have heard figures of upwards to 1/5 GDP is spent on the Automobile Industrial Complex. That is not just a serious misallocation of societal wealth, but a literal looting of America.

Cap'n Transit said...

I agree, Christa! The same goes for the "Transportation" section of bookstores and newspapers as well.

Thank you all for the comments!

J M said...

I certainly agree with your point about autos not always being convenient. I loath having to drive to certain stores because of the huge expanses of parking lots and the traffic jams that miraculously form when i'm trying to leave. When I take the bus instead I simply walk across the street and i'm on my way.
I went to a seminar last year and one of the presenters, Alan Hoffman had this to say: "Cars are the best form of transportation for moving no one to and from nowhere at times when nobody else is going there." This might not be his exact words but I like the concept.

dirtycrumbs said...

I do think autos are inconvenient for the amount of attention and care needed to safely operate one. Driving a car demands an inordinate amount of focus and concern for your surroundings. As a result, I find driving to be impossibly stressful.

Of course most drivers don't fret over this b/c we live in a narcissistic culture where it's not terribly fashionable to think of others.

Anonymous said...

Other ways cars are inconvenient:

In the winter, you have to sometimes spend quite a while cleaning your car and leaving it running before you can actually get going -- not to mention the dangers and anxieties of winter driving.

Your car might be right next to home, but chances are wherever you're going you're going to have to trek through a large, soul-destroying parking lot.

Cars are an anchor, and whatever you do at your destination, you have to return to your car. Without a car, you can walk or take transit from A to B, walk with friends to C, and then walk or take transit back to A. You can't make discontinuous trips by car.

Jase said...


Cars are an albatross around our neck. If you've remembered your glasses, haven't had too much to drink, filled it up with gas and recently pumped the tires, you can drive.

Even If you are blind, blind-drunk and blithe re: vehicle maintenance, you can still catch the metro.

Re: Free PT, it's one of those things that is almost too'obvious', if increased ride-share is the goal, but is easy to marshall an array of Lilliputian arguments against:

Many transit advocate overlook the power of a grand gesture like 'free PT'... said...

So much of the car depends on where you are coming from. For about 99% of our population not using a car as your main mode of transportation is a radical idea. For those that do, driving a car does present many challenges.

I have lived in Chicago, NYC, and now Minneapolis car free. With some simple decision making for home and work, being car free has been a huge plus.

I would estimate that 95% of all my trips are by bike and walking. With the other 5% split with bus, LRT, and car. Since I moved to Minneapolis without a car (and didn't plan on getting one anytime soon) my choices and decisions were based on a multi-modal life style.

With that frame of Mind I live in a house that has a bus stop on the corner, I can walk downtown in 10-15 minutes, get an express bus to work, or pretty much ride my bike anywhere. I also have three car share locations within a 10 minute walk.

What we are missing is that everyone needs these options which would make leaving the car parked at home for some trips a lot easier.

Great post.