The Social Costs of Car-Free Living in Small Cities

What kind of a statement does car-free living make in a small city? Today on the Streetsblog Network, Aaron Renn at The Urbanophile poses that question in a provocative post. Sure, it’s about walking the walk of sustainable transportation, he says, but it also represents a withdrawal from the community structure in places such as Columbus and Cincinnati:

3605138336_20bffac6df.jpgPhoto by World of Oddy via Flickr.

In a metro area that is nearly all auto-oriented, much of the setting of civic life in that city is outside of the core downtown area and districts where it is easy to get to without a car. To live without a car is a deliberate cutting off of oneself from those activities and regions — especially suburban — and from that part of society.

I think it’s that last part that is important. Living carless is a deliberate rejection of the majority of the metro area, evidenced by actually enduring hardship by voluntarily depriving oneself of the means to travel there. I’m sure this message is not lost on the people who live in those places.

Sure, I get it that there are legitimate concerns about sprawl and other things. But I also hear these same urban advocates complain that suburbanites don’t care about the city, are afraid to visit downtown, won’t support urban core redevelopment, etc. If you are living carless in one of those cities, frankly, you have no leg to stand on in complaining about that. (I’ll make an exception for college students.)

Imagine how this looks to someone living in the suburbs. What do they see? They are asked to visit downtown and support downtown, but have to listen to urban advocates claim that the highest and best form of living is to be downtown without a car — a car that is necessary to visit the suburbs, and by extension them.

This brings to mind a recent post from Carfree With Kids about maintaining relationships with friends in the suburbs if you don’t have a car. It’s true that for all the ways in which car-free living can create and sustain a sense of community, it can also be a barrier to creating social — and political — ties in many places and circumstances. We’d be interested in hearing about your experiences and thoughts on the subject in the comments. But first head over to The Urbanophile and read the excellent post in full.

More from the network: The Transport Politic reports that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who previously flipped his position on high-speed rail, has now decided to flop. Travelin’ Local looks at the relative spatial efficiency of various transport modes. And Transit Miami laments the situation in that city Miami-Dade County, where the mayor has been handing out fat raises to his staff while cutting the budget for transit.

  • An IMPORTANT distinction need to be made, Sarah. It’s Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez who has doled out the raises, not the actual City of Miami’s Mayor.

    Please edit to reflect this reality. Thanks!

  • How can a county have a mayor?

  • My wife and child and I have happily visited our suburban friends and relatives. They pick us up at the Ramsey, Ridgewood, or Bay Head New Jersey Transit train station. If I’m totally honest, sure, it’s not as physically comfortable as it might be if we could step out of our building and into a private vehicle and have a predictable, quick trip out to those friends/relatives, but in reality how common is that kind of travel scenario? Thank goodness for regional transit. I’d sure be annoyed if NY and NJ had eschewed it for generations and had much less of it to offer than they do.

    Of course we’ve seen much more of our suburban friends and family here in the city than in their towns, because they more often come here because in addition to visiting us, there’s a lot of things here they want to do and see.

  • Dan

    This post poses some really interesting questions. In the contemporary world, our social lives are much more extended in space than they used to be. In the past, people knew all of their neighbors, not because everyone was friendlier back then, but because they were limited by transportation in the number of relationships they had access to. We can afford to be choosier now, but at the cost of the energy it requires to move us together (and maybe an increased tendency to self-segregate).

    But really, as individuals, it doesn’t do any good to debate which system is better. The fact of the matter is that social arrangements in many parts of the U.S. are built around assumed access to an automobile, and we can’t very easily as individuals choose otherwise. I suppose it may be possible to effect some kind of systematic change if a critical mass of people in the same area all agreed to be carless, and thus formed some kind of subculture and work up from there.

  • Clutch J

    This sure rings true in Sacramento. Our family is not carless for just these reasons. While the wife, kids and I all get to work or school by bike, bus or foot, we have a car for social visits, child’s play, golfing, etc on weekends.

    This is a cop-out on our part, but I do believe a “one-car” strategy ala China’s one-child strategy is a sound transitional strategy for much of America. Car-free sounds bizarre to many families who might be sold on going from 4-to-3, 3-to-2 or 2-to-1.

    With only one car for me, the wife and our in-laws, our two-household VMT, while not zero, is much lower than the region’s average.

  • The Opoponax

    I think the burden SHOULD be on the car-dependent suburbanites to maintain social ties to their more urban friends. The suburbanites are the ones who deliberately chose to live in a landscape that was designed to isolate them from others. If dead-simple social ties were a priority, they should have moved to a more urban setting where it’s easier to meet people and get around.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The developed part of Metro Cincinnait is 10 miles across as the crow flies. From central areas, most suburbs are probably no more than six or seven miles away. My bike commute is nine miles.

    Transit and walking may not work as well in small metros, but bicycles combined with occasional car rental use — and one car instead of two or three — could work if bicycle transportation was not thought bizzare and made dangerous.

  • I live car-free but don’t talk about being car-free — at least, not directly. It’s a tough sell. Instead I tell my car-dependent friends about the positive aspects of my car-free life, chiefly the fact that I have a great city at my feet. I can walk out of my apartment, fill a prescription, pick up something at the hardware store, shop for groceries, and be back in an hour. My commuting career has been divided between the subway and (currently) telecommuting. This is what I call freedom. My friends seem to find it attractive. Having seen that, I don’t push my luck.

  • garyg

    I can walk out of my apartment, fill a prescription, pick up something at the hardware store, shop for groceries, and be back in an hour.

    I’ll bet the typical suburban resident can run those errands faster in his car than you can on foot or by mass transit. And suburban stores are generally larger, with a greater selection of goods and lower prices. And housing costs are lower in the suburbs, too.

  • “And suburban stores are generally larger, with a greater selection of goods and lower prices.”

    Great selection: you can drive to the nearest strip mall and choose to eat at McDonald’s, Burger King, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or you can drive to the next strip mall, where you can also choose to eat at McDonald’s, Burger King, or Kentucky Fried Chicken. By contrast, I have dozens of non-chain restaurants just 5 minutes away from my house.

    How do the lower prices of those suburban stores compare with the $7,000 per year you spend on the car that gets you there.

  • Indeed they can, garyg. Oh wait, it depends on the suburb. And the time of day. In some suburbs, like the suburban hell of Northern Virginia I lived in for too long, prepare to sit in traffic for just running errands. Yet if you want to run errands, you have no alternative but to drive. So I guess that statement of yours wasn’t that right after all…

    And that cheaper housing – so what? I go into the suburbs and all I see are mile upon mile of gigantic, shoddily-constructed homes. So people can buy gigantic houses they don’t need in the suburbs and sit in traffic, polluting the environment for the rest of us so they can shop at their Walmart and buy their unnecessary quantities of Chinese-made goods. And they can get no exercise naturally, instead relying on new year’s resolutions to drive to the gym, resolutions they keep for all of three weeks before returning to their inexorable increase in weight and morbidity, the health care costs of which we all get to shoulder.

    Yeah, you sure do describe utopian living, there. Fabulous!

  • garyg

    Oh wait, it depends on the suburb. And the time of day.

    Obviously, there is significant variation in travel times to stores and restaurants both among suburban residents and urban ones. That’s why I wrote “typical” and “generally.” If you seriously think that in general travel times, price and selection are more favorable to an urban, transit-oriented lifestyle than a suburban car-based one, I’d love to see your evidence for that proposition. A suburban Lowe’s or Home Depot is likely to have lower prices and a much bigger selection of merchandise than a small neighborhood hardware store in the city. A suburban Safeway or Walmart is likely to have lower prices and a much bigger selection of food than a small neighborhood grocery store.

    And that cheaper housing – so what?

    So, people can afford bigger and better housing in the suburbs than in the city.

  • garyg

    Charles Siegel,

    By contrast, I have dozens of non-chain restaurants just 5 minutes away from my house.

    “Dozens?” Within 5 minutes? Where is your house? I want to look up the neighborhood on Google Maps.

  • gecko

    such a cute kid!

  • dporpentine

    garyg:

    I live in Brooklyn, where we have all the standard stupid big-box stores (with the exception of Walmart, thank goodness) and they have the same stupid big-box prices and they’re all as close to me as they are to anyone I know who lives in a suburb. (Much closer and easier to get to by bike, actually.) But those stores aren’t cheap! A few loss leaders and then slam after slam.

    There’s also this thing called the internet, which features several vendors of low-cost merchandise and which you might be surprised to discover urbanites also have access to. (In Brooklyn there’s also the Park Slope Food Coop–which sells seriously inexpensive, ultra-high-quality food and has a pretty amazing selection too.)

    By the way, I also live in not at all fancy neighborhood (with a median income well below the national level) and there are dozens of non-chain restaurants (and a few chain ones) within a five-minute bike ride of me. Email me (dporpentine a t gmail dot you know what goes here) and I’ll give you my block and cross streets.

    If you think anything is remarkable about there being this many non-chain restaurants that close to any given spot in New York, you know nothing about the city.

    As for housing, last I checked, suburban housing seemed ridiculously expensive–with famously inflated prices thanks to the bubble. Rural housing, outside a few areas, can also be pricey, but the suburbs . . . they’re for rich people . . . who don’t understand real estate.

  • gargyg

    dporpentine,

    Please tell us where it is you live in Brooklyn, such that you get the same benefits that suburbanites get in terms of price, selection and accessibility of retail outlets, plus the advantage of “dozens” of non-chain restaurants within 5 minutes.

    You seem to be seriously misinformed about housing prices. The bubble started deflating more than 2 years ago, and housing prices have fallen dramatically. But even at the height of the bubble, suburban housing was cheaper than urban housing. The bubble affected urban areas too. Central cities are full of condos that are worth far less than their owners paid for them a few years ago.

    By the way, what kind of housing do you have there in Brooklyn (apartment, condo, row house, detached house, etc.), how many square feet is it, and how much do you pay for it?

  • Rather than take Garyg’s bait, I’ll point out that this was one reason I moved back to the city. And yes, I can walk out of my apartment, fill a prescription, pick up something at the hardware store, shop for groceries, and be back in twenty minutes. The hardware store is next to the supermarket, and the drugstore is a block away.

  • Colin

    The more people that cut themselves off from the suburbs and focus their time and money on the city, the more attractive the city becomes, and the more people that will want to move there or somewhere like it.

    It’s a question of gravity.

    “Engaging with the suburbs” is pointless. Better to ignore them and let them come to the city when their own cost/benefit ratio tells them it’s worthwhile.

  • al oof

    i’m not sure what y’all mean by ‘suburbs’. in nyc, there are lots and lots of suburbs you don’t have to leave to do fun stuff. and you don’t need a car, though the mainland is hillier than i would like for bike riding.

    i know other places are different, but shouldn’t suburbanites find ‘city centers’ close to their homes? isn’t that the point of living car free? i don’t even understand what this is all about. don’t we want -more- town centers to live our lives around instead of one bigger denser one?

    and as for people ‘choosing’ to live in the suburbs, for the past 60 years people have been born and raised in the suburbs. they aren’t choosing to move away from the city, that’s just where they live.

  • The Opoponax

    “I’ll bet the typical suburban resident can run those errands faster in his car than you can on foot or by mass transit.”

    Not really, no. Or maybe you could if you were a particularly lazy suburbanite who drove to a store which is actually in walking distance.

    Don’t forget that a typical suburbanite running errands via car also has to park.

    I’ll also support dporpentine by saying that what he says is true, except when it comes to square footage. You can get a 2 bedroom apartment in an ordinary not-particularly-ritzy Brooklyn or Queens neighborhood for about the same price as you could buy a 3 or 4 bedroom home in outer exurbia. But this is only an apt comparison if you actually want a 4 bedroom home in outer exurbia.

  • The Opoponax

    “and as for people ‘choosing’ to live in the suburbs, for the past 60 years people have been born and raised in the suburbs. they aren’t choosing to move away from the city, that’s just where they live.”

    Sure. But your parents will probably want you to move out of their basement someday.

    Joking aside, of course we make choices about what kind of place we want to live. We may not prioritize density, or proximity to social connections and fun things to do, but that doesn’t exempt us from facing the consequences of overlooking those factors.

  • garyg

    Or maybe you could if you were a particularly lazy suburbanite who drove to a store which is actually in walking distance.

    No, I’m talking about the typical suburbanite, as I said. And since they’re driving, they’re not limited to buying only what they can carry. That’s another way suburbanites can save time over their urban counterparts: by not having to make as many trips.

    Don’t forget that a typical suburbanite running errands via car also has to park.

    I didn’t. Parking in suburbs is generally plentiful and free.

    I’ll also support dporpentine by saying that what he says is true, except when it comes to square footage. You can get a 2 bedroom apartment in an ordinary not-particularly-ritzy Brooklyn or Queens neighborhood for about the same price as you could buy a 3 or 4 bedroom home in outer exurbia. But this is only an apt comparison if you actually want a 4 bedroom home in outer exurbia.

    All types of housing are generally cheaper in the suburbs than in Brooklyn. If you only want a 2 bedroom apartment, you can get it for less in the suburbs and spend the money you save on something else.

  • al oof

    The Opoponax, i don’t know where you are/grew up, but i know far more people living in new york city who live with their parents at 30 (or lived with their parents until they got married in their late 20’s) than people in that situation in the suburbs (and i grew up in the suburbs). because it’s fucking expensive. if our grandparents chose to move to the suburbs, and our parents decided to stay, and our support networks are in the suburbs, and we don’t feel like there is nothing fun to do, why not stay where you and rent/buy int the place you’ve always lived instead of moving into a totally new place where you might even be displacing people who already live there (a major problem in my town). not to mention all the people who do not have the funds to move away from their support networks but already live in the suburbs. not all suburbanites are upwardly mobile middle class folks.

    people in the suburb i grew up in have had family in the town for 100 years. they are supposed to move into the city now because it’s more dense? and one of the things that works in that place, is that despite being suburban, it is fairly dense. you don’t have to leave the 3 mile square town unless you want to go to the movies or bowling or to mcdonalds. there are restaurants and shops well within walking distance. and that is great. but people still use their cars!

    i iterate, what is necessary is not everyone moving to city centers. what needs to happen is that -more- town centers need to pop up, and smaller public transportation lines need to be implemented. a trolley around my home town would make everything better.

  • The Opoponax

    “If you only want a 2 bedroom apartment, you can get it for less in the suburbs and spend the money you save on something else.”

    Yeah, like a car note, gas, insurance, and parking in the city.

    I’ve done the math on this more than once, and it turns out to be cheaper to live modestly as a single/childless person in an urban area than to live in similar means in a suburban environment, because anything you save on rent is going to be spent on car related expenses.

  • The Opoponax

    “people in the suburb i grew up in have had family in the town for 100 years. they are supposed to move into the city now because it’s more dense?”

    Of course not! Everyone should live where they choose to live. But that doesn’t mean they should be exempt from the consequences of that.

    I’m looking to move in the next 6 months or so, and right now I’m falling a little in love with the cultural offerings of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Except that Bushwick is a lot further from my work than where I live now. And it’s also less safe. I have to decide what’s more important to me – having an art gallery or gourmet restaurant up the block, or possibly getting mugged on my way home on a dark winter’s night, after an hour and a half on the subway.

  • al oof

    you might also want to consider issues of displacement and the detrimental effects of gentrification when a neighborhood’s population is not getting richer, just richer people are moving into a neighborhood.

    my point is that not everyone gets to choose where they live by considering distance from work or likelihood of getting mugged. whether they are in the suburbs or in a city or in a rural town. we need suburban infrastructure that more mixed zoning in suburban areas, so suburbanites can fill their needs without travelling 6 towns away. we don’t need more people moving out of the suburbs into the cities.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with al oof when he says that TOD can and should work in the suburbs: “we need suburban infrastructure that more mixed zoning in suburban areas, so suburbanites can fill their needs without travelling 6 towns away.” This is an excellent description of the dilemma of my hometown in NJ. It’s a wonderfully walkable old Main Street town, but while you can shop for plenty of the essentials in town, residents still need to get to adjacent towns to get to, say, a movie theater or a train station en route to NYC. Since the same main street serves several adjacent towns, a light rail line stringing them together would be enormously helpful — in fact, there once was one. Denser commercial and residential development along the main street would also expand options. Let’s recognize that cities aren’t the only places that can be made walkable and livable. Towns and villages will continue to be places where some people will want to live in the future.

  • The Opoponax

    “my point is that not everyone gets to choose where they live by considering distance from work or likelihood of getting mugged.”

    Well, OK. You’re right. Some people are so burdened by poverty that they have to take the cheapest place they can find, period, end of story. Poverty exists. I fail to see how that is a conversation ender, since building more stupid sprawling suburbs is hardly going to bring about the end of social class.

    I should also say that I agree with Mark, and with the part of your argument that he talks about. We should definitely be working to make suburbs less dense, and to improve transit and pedestrian access in all kinds of social landscapes.

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