“No More Cars” vs. “Not More Cars”

Today on the Streetsblog Network, David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington counters the accusation that, just because he believes in less autocentric development, he hates cars. In an extremely eloquent and thoughtful post, Alpert makes the distinction between "no more cars" and "not more cars":

111149.jpgPhoto by lizjones 112 via Flickr.

Advocates for more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented places often face criticism that we "hate cars." Gary Imhoff assumes that "nothing makes [me] angrier than automobiles." And on yesterday’s thread about "green" companies giving away gas and parking, Fritz wrote, "The majority of residents of the DC Metro Area aren’t like you. It’s perhaps the greatest weakness among the anti-car brigades on this website: the near impossibility of recognizing that not everyone wants to walk or bike as their main mode of transportation."

These responses rest on a logical fallacy. I’ve advocated for new development to minimize auto dependence. But many take that to mean that everyone ought to travel by train, bus, bike or foot. However, new living patterns need not resemble existing living patterns. New residents won’t necessarily interact with communities in the exact same way as existing residents. We don’t need to get rid of cars. What we need is to avoid adding many new cars…

We are in the middle of a paradigm shift in the design of our communities. The sprawl model of development that predominated for sixty years isn’t sustainable and, more importantly, is no longer what the market wants. Prices in established walkable neighborhoods are sky-high while nearby walkable neighborhoods are gentrifying rapidly. We have enough single-family homes for the next 20 years; in fact, nationwide, analysts predict we’ll have 22 million too many.

There’s nothing evil about wanting to live in a house with a yard and a picket fence. Some government policies may unfairly subsidize that form of living with cheap infrastructure, but it’s still a totally valid way to live. It’s just that there are lots of those houses. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough condos and row houses in walkable neighborhoods…

Tom Coumaris recently suggested the phrase "no more cars," which I misinterpreted at first to mean "get rid of cars," but which he meant as "no additional cars." In effect, what advocates for livable and walkable communities want is "not more cars" — growth that doesn’t bring more cars. Some then misinterpret this as an attempt to ban cars — "no more cars." It’s a subtle difference, but an enormous one. Low-traffic growth is good for existing drivers as well. Low-traffic growth means less competition for the roadway space they’re already using, and less pollution from people driving through their communities to get to new exurban ones farther out. We should all be able to support policies that allow growth but "not more cars."

Alpert’s post has generated some great comments. Head on over and check it out.

Other things that caught our eye from around the network: New Geography has a fascinating post about the commuting patterns of immigrants that raises important policy questions about the allocation of transit resources. At How We Drive, Tom Vanderbilt wonders if there’s a silent majority in favor of red-light cameras. And Trains for America reports on how the recession has brought Amtrak’s ridership numbers down. Interestingly, long-distance routes have taken less of a hit than short hauls.

  • JK

    Excellent post and incisive remarks by David Alpert. Strangely, New York City, of all places, has development policies in place which guarantee many more cars; enough new cars to add a billion more miles of driving within the five boroughs by 2030. Even in the pedestrian paradise of brownstone Park Slope, the Department of City Planning requires developers to provide parking for 40% of any new residential units. It’s a slow motion, motorized debacle, based on City Planning’s obsolete planning premises, and it’s completely at odds with DOT’s pro-pedestrian and cycling successes.

  • I actually found the comments on Alpert’s post pretty disappointing. They ranged from supporting his “no additional cars” position to arguing that everyone should have a car. The one exception was Peter Smith.

    If you look at peak oil and global warming together, personal car ownership is clearly unsustainable and will have vanished within a hundred years. After that it will be almost impossible to build significant new transportation infrastructure. The question is simply whether we’re going to spend the next 50-100 years continuing to dump all our money down the toilet of car infrastructure, or invest it in sustainable infrastructure for bicycles and trains.

  • Spot on, JK. 3,000+ parking spaces planned for Atlantic Yards, 420 planned for the 3rd Ave./3rd St. Whole Foods, etc., etc.

    These are 20th Century projects unsuitable for a 21st Century reality.

  • In some ways personally I support “no more cars”, but I recognize the impracticality of this, however I think “not more cars” is almost equally ignorant. We don’t need to just stop growing the amount of cars, but we need to shrink the amount of cars. So we need “less cars”, accomplishing this will be hard, but hopefully with growing mass transit and car sharing programs, we can get “less cars”.

    I agree with all of the above in regards to the ridiculous parking rules. I think the easiest way to make Brooklyn better is to use all of the parking lots for useful things, such as public spaces. We make driving cars too convenient.

  • Doug

    Amen to this post. If we make this movement a binary one, one that pits people who say we need cars for everything against those who say we’ll be fine biking everywhere, we’ll never get anywhere. We have to admit that we’ll never counter the argument that people NEED cars, as illogical as it may be. It’s because it’s too emotional, too deeply ingrained in people’s psyches. The truth is that in many places and for many years to come, people will, in fact, “need” cars and it’s very hard to erase a mentality that’s had 100 years to develop. There are lots of very legitimate reasons for car ownership right now and there will always be people for who automobile ownership is important. Those people are always going to be hostile to any argument that even resembles a simplistic chant of “No More Cars.”

    What we need to do is to chip away at the idea that a car is needed for everyone all of the time. Continuing to build communities where everyone has to drive a two-ton steel machine and use a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk makes about zero sense. It defies logic, in fact.

    This movement can’t just stand up and appear to say, Frankenstein-style, “Cars bad!” Even if we think we are right, we’ll lose a lot of people who might otherwise be open to the kinds of incremental changes that lead to giant cultural shifts. We have to paint a big picture where we can build communities where someone might have a car to drive to work, but otherwise could run his daily life — errands, taking the kids to school and soccer practice — without one. Even in such biking Shangri-Las as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, there are still plenty of cars. It’s just that people don’t rely on them for everything everyday.

    The good news from this approach is that if we begin by focusing on needing cars less, eventually we will need fewer cars.

  • I hope you’re right that an incremental approach can accomplish anything, Doug.

    I also agree that NYC’s parking policies are idiotic. More illustrations: the Brooklyn Navy Yard Corporation’s insistence that if you don’t support tearing down historic buildings to build a 250-space parking lot in one of the densest areas in the country, you’re denying fresh, affordable produce to poor Black people. And Downtown Brooklyn Partnership CEO Joe Chan’s plans to build lots of parking.

    In Queens, the Hunters Point South plan would build thousands of apartments three-quarters of a mile from the nearest subway.

  • Riley

    Any useful discussion of the role of cars must consider the masssive advertising budgets of the automobile manufacturers; US$18.5 billions in 2007 (down from US$19.8 billions in 2006) according to Advertising Age.

    Cars are not or course marketed or sold as transportation. Instead, advertising portrays an unfulfillable fantasy of single cars “flying” down roads “uncluttered” with other cars, pedestrians, and red lights.

    The problem is that this completely distorts the social dialog about transporation policy and transportation policy’s fraternal twin, energy policy.

    Stated another way, what would the world look like if the automobile industry was forced to switch advertising budgets with the public transportation and bicycle industries for, say, five years or so?

  • Doug

    Cap’n, if it were up to me and if everyone thought the way most people on this blog do, I think we could accomplish a lot with sweeping changes. I’m just trying to recognize the political and cultural reality in which we live. Unfortunately, the only way we’ll get sweeping change in this country is if gas suddenly disappears or costs $10 per gallon. For now, Americans are too complacent to have a nuanced discussion about when and where car use is appropriate.

    We also have to remember that some people think that hybrids and electrics will magically solve our gas problems, allowing them to lead car-dependent lives for all eternity. (It’s not true, of course, but it is a common hope or belief.) The real truth is that cars have an environmental and societal impact beyond just their fuel consumption, from the amount of infrastructure needed to support them to the accidents caused by their use to the communities destroyed every time a highway is cut through the middle of a city. I think that’s another reason why we have to move beyond global warming and environmental arguments to appeal to people as remake communities. If, theoretically, you could power cars on sunlight as efficiently as you could on gasoline, and there was no global warming consequences to driving, what would the anti-car crowd say to people to get them out of their cars and onto bikes, onto trains, or onto sidewalks?

  • Riley: “what would the world look like if the automobile industry was forced to switch advertising budgets with the public transportation and bicycle industries for, say, five years or so?”

    A good question, but a better one might be:

    What would the world look like if TV stations — which are FCC-licensed to occupy the airwaves and to operate in the public interest — were to give free air time to livable streets and smart growth campaigns? They are as worthy as any other nonprofit groups. I’m sure the Streetfilms unit would welcome the challenge of producing ads for broadcast TV.

    A good starting point would be to challenge the license renewal of any station that airs loads of car ads but no counterbalancing spots from livable streets groups — pretty much all of them, except for public broadcasting. That would get their attention.

    I’m not knowledgable about this, so perhaps someone who is familiar with the operations of TV stations and PSAs would like to comment on the criteria for getting spots on the air.

  • Well, there are two questions, Doug. One is, “what kinds of things could alienate potential allies or radicalize potential opponents if we talk about them too much in public?” The other is, “what do we tell each other?”

  • My arguments with people on this issue center on “fairness”. People should be paying as close to possible to their “fair share” of transportation costs. Transit subsidies are very obvious to most people, but those same people seem totally unaware of the subsidies involved in the auto infrastructure. They think the gas tax covers everything. Appeals to “community” or “the environment”, while effective with some people, aren’t nearly as effective as appeals to one’s pocketbook, I’ve found.

  • ShawRes

    There is a pretty heated exchange at the original comment thread, and the pro car types are beginning to dominate the thread.

    http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=3192#comments

    A good debate: people are invoking the bay of pigs, godwin’s law (Nazism), and class warfare.

  • Jeff

    Well, there are two questions, Doug. One is, “what kinds of things could alienate potential allies or radicalize potential opponents if we talk about them too much in public?” The other is, “what do we tell each other?”

    Earth to Cap’n: Anyone can read this blog. But given the kind of things you’re prone to saying (“personal car ownership is clearly unsustainable and will have vanished within a hundred years”) I don’t think there’s much danger of most people taking you very seriously.

  • I love you too, Jeff.

    My main point is that yes, anyone can read this blog, but the comments are mostly livable streets advocates discussing things with each other. It’s different from trying to explain this stuff in a community board meeting.

    In any movement, there need to be people who modulate the message and negotiate with other groups. There also need to be people who are clear on the ultimate beliefs and goals, and don’t water things down for public consumption.

    Sure, you may not take me seriously, and a lot of others may not either. But many people who think about global warming and peak oil – and yes, Doug, carnage and obesity and social fragmentation and asthma – seriously think about them – will come to the same conclusions that I’ve come to. And we need to provide a voice to the left of the David Alperts of the world. If nothing else, it’ll help him look sane by comparison. 😉

  • “There’s nothing evil about wanting to live in a house with a yard and a picket fence. Some government policies may unfairly subsidize that form of living with cheap infrastructure, but it’s still a totally valid way to live. It’s just that there are lots of those houses. Meanwhile, there aren’t enough condos and row houses in walkable neighborhoods…”

    It is factually incorrect and it is a political mistake to imply that there cannot be walkable neighborhoods made up of free-standing houses with yards. Most Americans do not want to give up their private house, but they could be very strongly attracted by walkable neighborhoods like the streetcar suburbs built before people had cars. Check out the streetcar suburb in Brooklyn at http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2005/07/streetcar-suburbs.html

  • It is not very economical to have two electricity companies, water companies, sewage treatment, or natural gas companies serving the same street. ,

  • Malena

    Yeah I agree with you this is not at all economical rather than we prefer used cars houston

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