Thursday, June 05, 2008

People like cars

People Like Cars, and There's Not Much You Can Do About It
Christian Peralta

With climate change on the mind of the world's policy makers, the auto-oriented design of our cities has been singled out as a major culprit---and understandably so. Cars burn a lot of fossil fuel, so getting people to walk, bike and use public transportation more would help cut down on pollution and green house gases.

But how to get people out of their cars? The key, many agree, is to redesign cities. Right now cities are designed for people moving around in their cars, so it's unreasonable to expect people to use any other means of transportation. But give them a city that's planned for walking, biking and public transit---and it could be a whole new ballgame.

As a car-free American, I certainly want to see cities become more focused on making living without car a practical, if not preferred, lifestyle choice. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this change in thinking is something planners and policy makers can realistically bring about---at least not by just building more transit, density and walkable streets.

As much as we all try to espouse all the environmental, economic and social benefits of a more traditional and sustainable urban lifestyle---from my perspective, most Americans are still quite happy with their auto-oriented one. Away from the planner folk I tend to naturally associate with, I don't often hear people say "Gee, it would be great if I didn't have to drive there" or "I wish it was easier to walk to the store"---at least without being prompted. Rather, I'm much more likely to hear "Why isn't there more parking?" or "I wish they would expand the freeway so traffic could move."

Even though many planners want to think that lots of people would relinquish their cars if they just had a light rail stop nearby, I feel like most Americans remain whole-heartedly committed to private auto ownership, single-family homes, big box retail stores, and the slew of other elements that have created the modern urban landscape. And the fact that cities are designed for cars is, in my view, simply a response---by both private developers and government---to what Americans have demanded.

This isn't to say that things can't change. They obviously can---and I hope they do. But I don't think that the change can come through the efforts of planners. Rather, only when a significant number of Americans begin choosing alternate means of transportation will people start to accept---indeed demand---the types of changes to the urban landscape that planners and policy makers are now fighting to achieve.

You might think this is a chicken and egg situation, and perhaps you can make an argument that the landscape has to change before people will consider changing their lifestyle. But then again most American cities were not originally designed to accommodate cars, yet today they accommodate record numbers of them. Even in New York, which arguably has the best urban form and infrastructure in the country for walking and riding transit, residents do not want to give up their driving habits---as evidenced by the recent congestion pricing debate.

So if redesigned cities won't be the catalyst for getting people out of their cars, what will? Raising the cost of driving (or changing the price to reflect the true costs) increasingly seems to be a tactic that policy makers want to try. And while it's probably true that the pocketbook is the most persuasive factor when it comes to changing behavior, education, media, demographics, and culture have roles, too. However, what's important is that many other factors are probably more likely to influence Americans' decisions about how to live and get around more than the mere presence of rail transit, higher-density housing, fancy crosswalks, or any of the other things that we claim will get people out of their cars.

What's a planner to do in the meantime? Well, probably the same thing they should always do. Listen to residents and plan communities for their needs. Clearly, planners should continue to try and foresee the future needs of a community, and encourage residents to think about the bigger picture. But at the end of the day, a well designed high-density mixed-use project is still going to be a hard sell to residents who are thinking about where they are going to park their car.

Conversely, once the majority of Americans start seeking alternatives to their auto-oriented lifestyle, that same project will probably be approved with little or no complaints---so long as it has good sidewalks.

Christian Peralta is a contributing editor to Planetizen.

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