The Automobile

In my last post, I explained the ways in which small streets urban design improves walkability by making walking easier. On the other hand, such a design necessarily makes driving harder by making streets narrower, intersections more frequent, and parking scarcer, and most of all by removing the exclusive right of way for vehicular traffic on most streets.

Some might point to this as a flaw in small streets design that needs to be compensated for. Even many promoters of walkability cling to the idea that a viable urban landscape must be friendly to the automobile, an idea that is cemented in the Charter of the New Urbanism. But they are wrong. Building a truly walkable environment requires us not only to design our streets in such a way that makes walking easier, but to actively make driving harder.

This is not to say that I wish to actively impede drivers; indeed, I think any urban environment needs to be open to vehicular access and provide a reasonably dense grid of arterial streets with vehicular rights of way. But not only has our society developed a psychological attachment to the automobile, it has also constructed a myriad of ways in which drivers are rewarded at the expense of everyone. I merely wish to approximate a state of nature, where the price of driving a car is roughly equal to its total cost. In this and future posts, I want to explore the ways in which drivers are unfairly advantaged and explain how we can restore the balance.

Right now, I’d like to simply give an overview of the major ways in which automobile use is subsidized and leave more extensive discussions for later.

The biggest bugaboo here is parking. Our cities devote so much valuable street space to on-street parking and often give it away for free. But off-street parking requirements are even more insidious. Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking contains an extensive analysis of the external costs of such requirements, and they are staggering. Requiring developers to provide parking (and far too much of it) with everything they create drives up the cost of just about everything except driving. Shoup’s book is, in my opinion, one of the most important books on urban planning out there, although I feel it could be doing more good if it were a tightly written 200 pages rather than an often meandering 800. So if you don’t feel like reading 800 pages, pick any 200 of them. A quarter of the book will be more than enough to convince you that we’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong with regard to parking regulations.

Next is the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges. And it is not true that gas taxes cover these costs. While gas taxes are a clever way to internalize these externalities, the truth is that these days, they don’t even come close to covering the costs: the United States Highway Trust Fund has received tens of billions of dollars from the general fund in recent years to cover shortfalls. Many state trust funds are in similarly bad shape, if not worse. And let’s not discount the opportunity cost of all this infrastructure. Automobile infrastructure in our cities uses up a huge percentage of the most valuable urban real estate.

The environmental impact of automobile use is quite significant as well. According to the EPA, gasoline consumption from personal vehicles accounts for 20% of United States carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. I imagine the emissions created from automobile production are non-negligible as well. And in addition to contributing to global warming, automobile emissions also reduce air quality.

Finally, automobile use kills. Thousands of pedestrians are killed in the United States every year in motor vehicle collisions, and tens of thousands more are injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

All of these things are costs of driving automobiles that are not paid for by the drivers themselves. If drivers had to pay for all of these things directly, many fewer people would drive because it would no longer be an economical option for them. It may seem elitist to argue that only people who can bear the full economic costs of driving should be able to drive, but is it any less elitist to argue that we should build our towns and cities under the assumption that everyone drives, to the detriment of those who must significantly lower their standard of living because of it, particularly those who cannot afford an automobile even with all of our subsidies? The ultimate goal of small streets urbanism is not merely to promote walking over driving, but to make safe and satisfying urban living affordable for all who desire it. The elitists are those who stand in the way of such progress.

About Evan Jenkins

I am an algorithmic trader and occasional writer living in Hyde Park, Chicago. I recently received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
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5 Responses to The Automobile

  1. Daniel says:

    The 200 pages I would randomly pick from Shoup’s book would probably be 1-200. Will I miss anything important if I read only those?

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