Over 37,000 Americans died in vehicle-related crashes in 2016, making cars deadlier than firearms. Car crashes have killed 2,000,000 Americans since 1970.
That’s just the crashes. Many more die from the pollution they create. Still more die from the poor physical health that cars promote, like obesity and asthma, making us less resilient to disease.
But it’s not just our health that cars ruin, they also ruin our economy. Car crashes consume as much as 25% of the overall economic productivity of the automobile industry. Cars consume another 25% of the industry’s contribution to the economy in lost land value, mostly from parking. Cars cost consumers tens of millions more in tickets, insurance, repairs, registration, taxes, fuel, and other expenses. In many ways, we work in order to drive our cars.
Cars are expensive to own, but hard to live without, so they contribute to poverty. It’s no surprise that automobile dependent cities with low walkability, few transit options, and poor bike infrastructure also have much more race and gender-based income inequality than multimodal cities.
Cars also ruin cities’ quality of life. Cars produce sprawl, which lengthens work commutes and scatters urban amenities, making them used less often. In fact, the cities we produce today hardly function in the way cities should; they produce few of the benefits of urbanism, the very reason why humans originally chose cities thousands of years ago. I’ll talk about that more in Part Two.
So why do we still build automobile dependent cities? Why don’t we build multimodal cities: cities where you can easily use a variety of modes to complete the same tasks: walking, biking, transit, and even taxicabs.
First, let’s realize what should be obvious: that increasing the multimodality of a city and overcoming automobile dependency are two essentially different things. Even in a city which is 88% multimodal (e.g. 88% of the people get to work by some means other than an SOV, or ‘single occupant vehicle’ in Manhattan), if the city were to stop functioning because the other 12% of the public were immobilized, then the city is not functionally multimodal, but rather it can only accurately be described as automobile dependent.
Such an increase is necessary to overcome dependency, but it is not sufficient. Indeed, increasing multimodality is easy; we do it every day in cities across the world. Nevertheless, the United States has never seen a single example of a city going from automobile dependent to functionally multimodal. Why is that?
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Let’s also recognize that urban planners, designers, and activists have been trying to build a new model and reverse the automobile dependency of cities for over 50 years. How is it that despite our overall awareness of the problem of automobile dependency and all our vast knowledge about how to build better cities, not even one of the several different large-scale strategies and hundreds of small-scale tactics for decreasing our addiction to cars has seriously upset the urban development paradigm in the United States? Either alone or combined, they have failed. Indeed, entire towns have been built from scratch based on these strategies and employing all of the available tactics and yet they are still automobile dependent.
These strategies and tactics show how to make cities less automobile dependent, but they have not—indeed, they cannot—make cities functionally multimodal. Why is that?
The short answer is because none of these dominant alternative approaches to city-building (e.g. New Urbanism, Smart Growth, etc.) pay enough attention to the current underlying logic for building cities.
Frankly, many of those in urban planning and design don’t even question what the logic is. Others have a mistaken idea of what the logic is. Many of the people whose jobs and training are focused on the physical enactments of cities – that is, the forms of the buildings, the characteristics of the streets, the amenities within the parks, etc. – think that how we build cities is the logic. In other words, they think the current logic of city-building is “design that is based around the car.” But the model is not how we do things; for example, how we design cities for cars. That’s not the logic.
The logic is why we do things; the logic is our motivation for designing cities around the car, our rationale, the justification, the reasons. The design of cities for the use of cars is merely incidental; building our cities around cars instead of people is a symptom, not the disease. Thus, design will not reverse the paradigm that creates automobile-centered cities: You cannot design your way out of a problem that has little to do with design, or that is not a result of poor design.
But many of even our brightest minds who have connected the underlying logic to city-building tend to see it as being either irrelevant or a given, and don’t question it. Some even see it as essentially beneficial and try to “harness its power.” It is as if your doctor told you that the disease is part of the cure. Whatever the case, whether they misdiagnose the problem as an issue of design, or they think the disease is part of the cure, none of the current approaches make the old model obsolete.
That model, the current underlying logic of modern city-building, is the economic growth paradigm. Cars, and our penchant for designing cities around them, are merely the symptom. The only way to address automobile dependency and the problem of badly-designed cities that do not perform like well-designed cities should is to address the growth paradigm.