Let’s End Our Nation’s Reliance on the Automobile

On a bit of a whim, I created a White House petition to urge the Obama administration to end our nation’s reliance on the automobile. Here is the text of the petition:

In 1964, the Surgeon General released a report on the dangers of smoking, which galvanized our nation’s largest public health campaign. Half a century later, it is time for the government to speak out against another ubiquitous menace: the automobile.

Each year, motor vehicle–related deaths total 1.2 million worldwide, nearly as many as die from lung cancer. But victims of motor vehicle crashes are disproportionately young and healthy compared to other leading causes of death; indeed, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death among children in the United States. Beyond direct deaths, automobile dependence has caused Americans to lead more sedentary lives. Furthermore, the automobile is a burden not only to our health, but also to our finances and our environment.

Since the petition’s 800-character limit leaves no room for substance, I’d like to use this post to expand a bit on the purpose behind this petition.

As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, I’ve been on a bit of a health-and-safety kick lately. Although this blog has focused mostly on the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of reducing our reliance on automobiles, I feel that the simplest and most powerful stand one can take against automobiles is that they kill many, many people. And these are not just “internal” deaths due to lifestyle choices (and indeed, it’s a stretch to call driving a lifestyle choice in most parts of the country): More children aged 1–14 die each year in the United States from motor vehicle crashes than from any other cause, and plenty of pedestrians are killed as well. This is where the importance of automobile dependence as a health and safety issue surpasses that of smoking: while smoking-related disease primarily effects older people who have chosen (albeit under the influence of strong social pressures and addictive chemicals) to smoke for many years, automobiles kill the young, healthy, and innocent.

To its credit, the Surgeon General’s web site does list transportation safety among its prevention priorities, albeit not very prominently. But its suggestions are on the level of wearing a seatbelt and not texting while driving. Nowhere do they recommend driving less. It’s as if their smoking advice were to consider switching to a “low-tar” brand. For whatever reason, we’ve decided to take a stone-age approach to dealing with the danger of automobiles that would be considered laughably anachronistic if applied to any other health concern. While overall motor-vehicle deaths have been on a mostly downward trend for the past few decades, additional safety features have diminishing returns, and the only way to really make an impact is to have fewer motor vehicles, and to have them driving more slowly around people.

As any reader of this blog knows, motor-vehicle deaths are only the tip of the iceberg of negative externalities. While some of these externalities, such as greenhouse gas emissions, are patently obvious, others are results of poor government policies that were needed to create and maintain the dominance of the automobile that we see today. Automobiles have been giving a sacred place in our urban designs and zoning codes, which makes our cities more expensive and less hospitable for people. Our state and federal governments funnel tax money into new automobile infrastructure that can never pay for itself. Other modes of transportation are crowded out, both physically and financially, so that many people have either no alternative or no incentive not to drive.

The only way to extricate ourselves from the automobilized status quo is for our political leaders to make a strong and committed stand to dismantle our current system. We must make it common knowledge that driving, like smoking, is dangerous and that the only true way to avoid that danger is to stop driving. We must demand that our local governments radically rethink how urban space should be used: for people, not for vehicles. Once we do, we will find that most of those vehicles weren’t really necessary to begin with. And we must encourage state and federal bureaucracies to make a commitment to not spend another dime on unnecessary automobile infrastructure, when we already have way more automobile structure than a truly free market could ever need. If a stretch of highway is congested, raise tolls rather than build another lane. It is well-established that the former works and the latter doesn’t.

If you agree with what I’ve said, please sign my petition. I realize that many people out there vaguely agree that something is wrong with the prominence of automobiles in this country but feel that nothing can really be done. That’s only because the current popular discourse on automobiles and transportation is practically medieval. A 21st-century problem needs a 21st-century discussion, and once we start having that discussion, we can see just how far it will take us.

Posted in Automobiles | 2 Comments

Fantasy vs. Reality

This morning’s episode of This American Life was rather coincidentally timed for me. It focuses on a county in Alabama in which a quarter of adults receive disability benefits and features an interview with a sympathetic town doctor who views his patients’ alleged disabilities from an economic perspective as much as from a medical one. The coincidence is that I had just finished watching the first season of the CW series Hart of Dixie on Netflix. Hart of Dixie stars Rachel Bilson as Zoe Hart, a young doctor from New York who moves to the fictional southern Alabama town of Bluebell. In the show, she must contend with snakebites and falling farm equipment. But This American Life reveals what she would be doing in the real world: trying to assess whether her patients’ back pain, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes render them eligible for government assistance.

Critiques of low-brow entertainment such as Hart of Dixie tend to focus on the realism (or lack thereof) in the characters’ personal lives. Escapist TV drama isn’t designed to make you think about the reality of health care in small-town America. But it seems likely that the portrayals of health care that we see in the media can affect our view of health care in the real world, and this has serious consequences when it comes to policy-making.

This, of course, got me thinking about Hart of Dixie’s portrayal of transportation and built environment. One thing that immediately struck me is that everybody walks in Bluebell. There are cars as well, to be sure, but walking seems to be ubiquitous. But where are these people walking from, and where are they walking to? Is the town really set up in such a way that there would be as high a ratio of walkers to drivers as is portrayed? And does such a place really exist?

The pilot episode of Hart of Dixie was shot on location in Wilmington, NC, and the built environment actually looks like a real place in the American South. The first scene in the town has a car pull into a diagonal parking space, the same kind that line the side of Fairhope Avenue in Fairhope, AL, which is the closest real-world proxy to Bluebell that I could find. The episode features two scenes where Zoe is walking with her mother through the town. The first has them walking from a pastry shop to a park full of dancing belles. It would be interesting to hear from somebody with knowledge of Wilmington how far apart these two locations are actually located! The second walk is completely devoid of locational context, yet it reinforces the idea that Bluebell is a place where people walk.

The rest of the series is shot on a Hollywood lot, which looks like no real town I’ve ever seen (apologies to those for whom Stars Hollow is real). While you do see parked and driving cars in the new sanitized Bluebell, it’s hardly at the density of any real southern town. So evidently, just about everybody in the town is walking, but where do they all live? There’s no indication that Bluebell has anywhere near the density that all the people engaging in endearingly quirky small-town activities in the town center would have walked there. And this is the portrayal of the perfect American town: lots of people enjoying a vibrant outdoor space, but they are there by magic.

This contrast between fantasy and reality should come as no surprise, but it is pervasive in entertainment and has proved paralyzing when it comes to making actual improvements to our cities and towns. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, people actually like vibrant, walkable, human-scale urban spaces. Tourists flock to old-world traditional city centers. Many amusement parks are built in a similar manner. And Bluebell, Alabama, is supposed to suck you in and make you want to live there. But it’s only that way because it hides the thing that prevents real towns from being like Bluebell: automobile infrastructure. And this is not just limited to trashy TV. In an interview, the lead developer of the new SimCity game admits that the game features unrealistically little parking: had they made the game require a realistic amount, the game would be boring because so much of your city would be covered in asphalt! In a game that is meant to simulate existing patterns of urban development, this is very telling.

In the fantasy world that the entertainment industry has created, we can have the perfect little town that everybody wants: big houses, big yards, cars if you want them, but it’s so nice that you’ll just walk around everywhere. In reality, we have a choice. You can have the infrastructure for everybody to own a house with two cars in the driveway and in the process make your town completely unsuitable for people traveling on foot, or you can design with people in mind, and let the costs of automobile use be absorbed by those who choose to use an automobile. The first option, which we as a society have chosen, has sold a large swath of the country into economic slavery, working to pay off their car and their house that they need to survive in this environment. I envision a different world, where people can have efficient private spaces, safe and welcoming public spaces, and no need for their own vehicle to get where they need to go. We can have the perfect little town, but Bluebell isn’t it.

Posted in Automobiles, Walkability | 5 Comments

State Street, that Great Street, that… Small Street?

Over at Streetsblog Chicago (formerly Grid Chicago), John Greenfield has written a wonderful retrospective of the failed State Street pedestrian mall and asks if and how a pedestrian State Street could be made to work today.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has suggested that the main problem of State Street is one of scale: State Street is so wide (about 100 feet facade-to-facade) that even with a decent number of people roaming it, it feels deserted. This is one of the perils of using density alone as a metric for urbanism: as you scale up the size of buildings, you scale up the size of space between buildings. Even if this results in a net increase in density, it may paradoxically make the environment more hostile for walkable urbanism. Streets built for people must be built to a human scale.

I’ve discussed before about how infill development could be used to turn the streets of Hyde Park into small streets by dividing our wide streets in two. This particular approach would fail on State Street for two reasons. First, as wide as downtown State Street may seem, it’s actually narrower, facade-to-facade, than many parts of many streets in Hyde Park, thanks to greenery and setbacks. Even more importantly, the vast height of the buildings on State Street would make an adjacent small street feel incredibly closed in and unfriendly

Nevertheless, small streets design can accommodate tall buildings. Nathan Lewis argues that tall buildings set back on a shorter pedestal are perfectly at home on a small street. He cites as an example the Empire State Building, which is set back on a very traditional city-like 5-story pedestal. The 100-foot State Street could be narrowed to a 30-foot pedestrian street by extending the existing buildings out by 35 feet to create 4-to-6-story pedestals, dimensions that are well within the parameters of Lewis’s designs.

Of course, there are other issues to deal with, particularly how to deal with traffic that crosses State. But ultimately, with this kind of infill development, we could have an entire small streets Loop, with vehicle traffic diverted around it. This would turn the Loop into what it should be as the center of Chicagoland’s transportation network: a vibrant, all-hours, people-centered environment, rather than another collection of stoplights for cars to drive through.

Posted in Infill, Small Streets, Walkability | Leave a comment

Small Streets and Student Housing

The Wall Street Journal, in its unapologetically named Mansion section, just published a feature on private luxury developments for college students. While some might view this piece as yet another sign of the higher education apocalypse (not that they’d necessarily be wrong to do so), I’d like to put a more positive spin on this trend. These luxury units, while large by traditional college-student standards, are still quite small compared to real-people standards. College is for many people their first experience living on their own, and the typical college dorm doesn’t make a great first impression for small-space communal living. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people want to move to the big house in the suburbs as soon as they can after graduation. Higher-quality student housing has the potential to nudge consumer preferences towards more efficient living options, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, these developments aren’t without their problems. They tend to be located farther from campus, which discourages walking. Some come bundled with a parking spot, which discourages alternative transportation modes. And despite the profusion of amenities they offer, they are still essentially residential-only developments. But a small streets village on the Midway could provide desirable living for students with none of these downsides.

The University of Chicago is at a critical juncture. It’s been boosting its undergraduate enrollment at the same time as it’s been closing dorms. The Shoreland shut down several years ago and was replaced by the South Campus Residence Hall, just across the Midway. This is a walkability improvement in terms of students getting to class, but a hindrance in terms of access to retail and public transportation. Pierce Tower, my old stomping grounds, is scheduled for demolition at the end of the school year. Despite the opening of the new dorm, the housing situation has been tight, and the demolition of Pierce (which will likely be replaced by another dorm, though not for several years) will make things tighter.

It seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before the luxury student housing development companies smell the blood in the water. My (rather unsurprising, given the theme of this blog) suggestion to the University is to act now and push for small streets development on the Midway. This would provide additional housing (private and/or University-owned) for students and important amenities for the now quite substantial population of students south of the Midway. Perhaps most importantly, it would show the rest of the country a new and better model for (just-)off-campus living. Students getting their first taste of independent life in a cozy small-streets village could spark a shift in consumer sentiment that would reshape our society for the better. And isn’t that what higher education is all about?

Posted in Midway Village, University of Chicago, Walkability | Leave a comment

A Symbol

In 1893, the Midway Plaisance played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of 400 years of progress in the New World, a tribute to the city of Chicago’s resurrection after the Great Chicago Fire, and an unveiling of technologies, products, and ideas that would go on to change the world.

The Midway Plaisance, 1893

Yet today, the Midway lies fallow. Ironically, the very spot on which the foundations of 20th century urban design were laid is now an empty (save for a skating rink, a statue, and now some giant lightsabers) strip of grass and pavement in the midst of one of the world’s great cities. If the World’s Columbian Exposition was a symbol of American—and Chicagoan—success, then the Midway today is as powerful a symbol of American—and Chicagoan—failure. It has become a mausoleum for our erstwhile dreams, an old thing to be appreciated rather than experienced.

The Midway Plaisance, Today

But it doesn’t need to be this way. Today’s world faces different challenges from those of 1893. The American dream, in the form that developed in the decades following the World’s Columbian Exposition, is no longer tenable. Our lifestyles, which have become so dependent on fossil fuels, must adapt. And in our quest for innovation, the Midway Plaisance can once again play a starring role.

Midway Village Flag

This flag represents what the Midway Plaisaince could be. It is based off the flag of Chicago, the third star of which represents the World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the four defining historical events in Chicago’s history. In the Chicago flag, the white field and light blue stripes represent the areas and waterways of the city. Here, they represent the Midway Plaisance. Out of the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exposition emanate small streets. By transforming the Midway into a small streets village, we can make it as much of a symbol of success to the 21st century as it was to the 20th. We must let the Midway bloom.

Posted in Midway Plaisance, Midway Village | Leave a comment

How Wide the Streets

Somewhere there’s planning
Show me the deets
Somewhere there’s drafting
How wide the streets

—Folk song of unknown origin

I’ve previously discussed street width primarily in the context of the Midway Village project, where the streets are designed for people rather than for vehicles. In such a context, there is essentially no lower bound on street size aside from issues of aesthetics and comfort.

When implementing small streets urban planning on a larger scale, however, vehicles must be taken into account. Even a walkable, transit-rich city needs to be accessible and navigable to delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles, and yes, people who drive cars. Creating a pedestrian paradise and removing all the subsidies we provide to drivers will not completely obviate the need or the desire for automobiles. Cars, after all, are useful things and can provide a large societal benefit once we remove the goggles that make every inch of urban real estate look like a nail to the car’s hammer.

So how do we achieve a harmonious blend of pedestrian dominance and vehicular accessibility? The answer in some sense already exists within the framework of our current cities. In Chicago’s grid, not all streets are created equal. Every half mile in each direction, there is a wide arterial road designed to handle a high volume of two-way traffic. Between these lie smaller, typically one-way streets designed primarily for use at the beginning and end of longer car trips. This is a sensible system, at least in the (totally insane) context of a city designed for automobile use. It just needs to be scaled down.

The smaller streets of modern-day Chicago should be replaced by very narrow streets, in the vein of those I’ve proposed for the Midway Village. These streets should, for the most part, not prohibit vehicle traffic, but should by design render vehicle traffic slow and rare. While delivery and emergency vehicles will need to be able to access these streets as usual, personal automobile use will be curtailed by the absence of parking.

What about the larger arterial streets? They should have one vehicle lane in each direction, with ample (but not oversized) sidewalks on either side, and definitely no on-street parking. Nathan Lewis shows an excellent example of this sort of street in Tokyo. As Lewis argues, there’s no room for individual buildings to have off-street parking, but the market could provide parking structures as needed. These arterial streets could be spaced more closely than Chicago’s giant arterial roads: one per quarter mile would be reasonable. Locating parking structures on such streets would suffice to keep most car owners and car sharers off the really narrow streets.

Bicycle advocates might object at this point. Where are the bike lanes? Bike lanes are an important feature of our city’s current transportation infrastructure, but I think their costs would outweigh the benefits in a small streets urban design. Both the really narrow streets and the arterial streets, while designed specifically for pedestrians and motor vehicles, respectively, would be much more hospitable to cyclists than today’s sidewalks and arterial roads. Dedicated bike lanes would not add much value for cyclists.

The costs of bike lanes, on the other hand, are large. Grid Chicago’s Steven Vance gives us a good look at what goes into street width calculations, at least under the current regulatory regime. Travel lanes take up 10 feet each. Excessive, perhaps, but let’s go with it. So 20 feet for car traffic. With 5-foot sidewalks, this brings us up to 30 feet. Installing 5-foot bike lanes would bring the total width up to 40 feet. This is still quite narrow compared to most of our streets today. But to put it another way, with arterial streets placed every quarter mile, bike lines would take up 1.5% of our urban real estate! We could place bike lanes on only some arterial streets, and perhaps there are places where it would make sense to do so. But overall, bike lanes would not have a significant role to play.

Of course, retrofitting a city like Chicago with a small streets design would require an enormous effort, involving plenty of infill development. This is why I advocate primarily for urban experiments like the Midway Village. But a small streets village shouldn’t be thought of as an isolated novelty. With sufficient political will, the same principles can guide the (re-)development of an entire functional city.

Posted in Automobiles, Bicycles, Small Streets | Leave a comment

The City as Laboratory

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has received a lot of negative press coverage recently for his proposed ban on large sodas, but he is now embarking on another crusade, which deserves our praise. He has waived zoning requirements on a Manhattan lot and has called for architects to compete to design liveable apartments sized under 300 square feet. If this project is successful, perhaps it would pave the way for the city to lower (or even drop) its current requirement of a 400-square-foot average for apartment buildings.

This sort of experimentation is something that should be happening much more often in our cities, and people should be paying much more attention to it. Why should there be an uproar when your city limits the size of your soda, but silence when your city limits the size of your home? Our cities suffer from a lack of innovation and a uniformity of poorly thought out regulations. The only way for this to change is for our city leaders to permit, and even encourage, us to try to do things differently. Let’s trumpet Bloomberg’s project and demand that our city leaders treat the city as a laboratory, lest it become a museum.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment