Reclaiming cities for citizens

About the author
J.H. Crawford was raised in North America and relocated to Amsterdam in 1990. He has worked as a software developer and real estate consultant as well as a public transport ombudsman. He is the editor of Carfree.com, an independent site dedicated to education, research, and promotion of carfree cities as a sustainable pathway to a better quality of life.
In his article, “The war against the car”, Martin Pawley draws on a vision of the future from H. G. Wells. However, what Mr Pawley foresees sounds much more like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City plan, which was indeed based on the large-scale use of cars to escape the cities that Wright so despised. The plan called for a habitation so dispersed that it never deserved the appellation ‘city’ in the first place.

Mr Pawley has boldly stated the case for auto-centric living. In contrast, I will argue that traditional urban patterns remain a vital way of life for the many who still prefer them – even despite the current tyrannical hold over cities by cars – to life in the suburbs or countryside.

Mr Pawley says, “… our official vision of the future remains stubbornly urbanised and historicised, compact and densely populated.” I suggest that this “stubbornness” arises because many people do not regard suburban or rural dispersion as an ideal way of life. They cling to cities because they like cities, which is what accounts for the high cost of urban housing.

While Mr Pawley claims that “virtually everybody” has a car, statistics do not bear him out. In dense urban areas, such as Manhattan, only half of all families have a car, for the simple reason that life in these places is both easier and cheaper without one. Unfortunately, suburban residents who work in the city are not shy about externalising to city residents their costs of driving to work in the city. That is why Manhattan is overridden by cars even though most people get to work on foot or by public transport. (Bicycle use in Manhattan is low because of the danger from crazed motorists.)

An unlikely future

For the purposes of argument, let us postulate that three comparatively unlikely events will come to pass:

  1. Enough renewable energy will be developed to continue unrestricted automobility.
  2. Technical improvements will eliminate auto-related air pollution.
  3. Computer-controlled cars will triple the capacity of existing freeways.

If all three of these events come to pass, continued (and even increased) use of cars in cities and elsewhere will be possible, but cars will still impose intolerable burdens on city dwellers. The noise and danger of cars racing through city streets will continue unabated, and cars and their drivers will continue to occupy a disproportionate share of scarce urban real estate.

I proposed, in an appendix to Carfree Cities, a design for an “auto-centric carfree city” that is founded on these three assumptions. I do not favour this design, but I believe it would work and would represent a considerable improvement upon the current auto-centric urban condition. The design permits unrestrained automobility (and, through a minor trick, allows the construction of vastly increased highway capacity at comparatively low costs). At the same time, about half of the inhabited areas would be entirely carfree, with some car usage allowed in the remaining half. A public transport system would provide sufficient capacity for all transport needs, and be faster than driving into the bargain.

A better alternative

I believe, however, that a carfree city based on transport by foot, bicycle, and train can provide a quality of life only reached in cities such as Venice, while eliminating the bane of Venice: slow, difficult, and expensive transport by water. This thesis is the principal subject of Carfree Cities.

While I have no quarrel with those who prefer to live in sparsely settled rural areas, I do not believe that they have an inalienable right to drive their cars into cities. I believe that those who prefer to live in cities have a right to continue to do so, and that city dwellers who would prefer to live in districts where cars are not permitted also have a right to realise their preference.

The so-called ‘reference design’ for carfree cities, a theoretical, blue-sky approach to the problem, is based entirely on the use of metros or trams for public transport, plus walking and biking for shorter distances. This arrangement can provide faster transport within an urban area of one million people than any reasonable arrangement of highways. (If one postulates the extension of Boston’s ‘Big Dig’ to cover an entire urban area, then car use might not unduly burden city residents, but the cost, as Boston is discovering, would be far beyond reasonable.)

The conflict between citizens and drivers

Mr Pawley asks, “If this is a fair summary of the view of the use of the motor car held by affluent country dwellers, why does it combine total dependence on the automobile with virulent anti-car prejudice?” He gives several reasons, of which three require a rebuttal.

1. Conflict between cars and human needs

Mr Pawley states, “Urban dwellers believe that there is a conflict between a ‘humane’ built environment and the continued use of the car.” This is not simply a “belief” – the conflict between urban automobile usage and human needs has now been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.

To begin with, Donald Appleyard (tragically killed by a drunk driver in Athens soon after finishing his book ‘Livable Streets’) applied sophisticated social-network analysis to study the impact of traffic on neighbourhoods. He demonstrated that, as traffic on a street increases, people retreat from the street into their homes and offices. On heavy-traffic streets, people simply don’t linger on the street, with the predictable result that neighbourhood connections are gravely disrupted and the social fabric rent.

I would challenge anyone to show an auto-centric street that is as attractive, judged on any basis, as a reasonably well-designed carfree street. I offer the accompanying two illustrations as evidence. If Mr Pawley chooses to live in an environment such as the one shown in the photograph of Los Angeles, that is his business, but I doubt that many city dwellers would share his choice, assuming that a good system of public transport could meet their transport needs.

This is, of course, the critical point. The only sine qua non of practical public transport is sufficient density of origins and destinations to make good service practical. All other problems can be solved, including the delivery of freight. (The reference design proposes a dedicated “metro-freight” system based on the widely-used standardised shipping container.)

Mr Pawley appears to believe that no other public transport choices are available to us besides “the bus culture of circa 1955”. I have made no secret of my dislike of buses and do not believe that they are a desirable means of urban transport, at least not in more densely settled areas. Instead, trams can and should be used in many urban areas, with metros being applied to the most densely populated areas, where their high cost is justified. From the perspective of both riders and those who live and work along the routes, modern trams provide far better transport than buses. Recent American experience has shown that high-quality urban rail systems are rapidly accepted and widely used.

While others claim almost miraculous results for “bus rapid transit” and other bus-based approaches, I do not believe that many people with a choice will accept bus service due to its intrinsic discomfort. Buses also impose unacceptable levels of danger and noise when they are intensively applied in urban corridors. Modern trams are free of these problems. Mr Pawley appears to assume that good public transport is simply an impossible dream, yet in Zurich, ninety per cent of commuters to downtown take public transport. Zurich is probably the richest city in the world, and the quality of its public transport is very high. If service is good, people will use it, no matter how rich they are.

2. Influence of cars on urban planning

Mr Pawley states, “Urban dwellers believe that there is a conflict between a ‘humane’ built environment and the continued use of the car. They also believe that cars have had a negative influence on the design of towns and cities because it is thought that the built environment should be designed for less mobility, not more.”

Once again, I believe that the negative influence of cars on urban planning is almost self-evident. One has only to look at the enormous distortions of space allocation that the automobile demands. Whereas streets just five metres wide (never more than ten metres) are adequate throughout Venice, streets fifty metres wide are often inadequate to provide free-flowing traffic in auto-centric urban areas. When coupled with the extreme amounts of land required for parking, cars consume as much as seventy per cent of downtown land in some American cities. This simply preposterous allocation of land to transport is still inadequate to prevent traffic congestion. The effort to adapt urban design to the needs of cars has resulted in urban areas that are barely tolerable places to live and work.

3. The need for mobility

Mr Pawley states, “They also believe that cars have had a negative influence on the design of towns and cities because it is thought that the built environment should be designed for less mobility, not more.” I believe that Mr Pawley is conflating access and mobility. Access is simply being able to reach the goods and services required to lead a fulfilling life. Mobility is one means of providing access, but co-location is the traditional way to assure ready access. Traditional mixed-use city districts provide access without demanding mobility, and these areas are typically the best-loved urban districts around the world. They are vibrant, interesting places, full of people by day and by night. It is not reasonable to expect that all of life’s needs can be met within walking distance of home, but it is certainly possible to provide for most needs within a five or ten minute walk of home.

In my own case, I have lived happily in the centre of Amsterdam for more than a decade, and I have yet to drive my first kilometre on the roads of Europe. I can meet all of my daily needs within a ten-minute walk of my apartment, and the large majority of my routine destinations lie within a five-minute walk.

The reference design for carfree cities does provide large parking garages at the periphery of the city, so that residents can drive out of the city and visitors can check their cars before entering town. The metro (or tram) system can provide superior internal transport to destinations beyond easy walking distance. Mobility would be faster, but less common, while access would improve dramatically. The two most distant doorsteps are only about thirty-five minutes apart.

Mr Pawley continues, “Today, despite New Labour’s opposition to THE CAR, Ford Focus man and woman can drive the length and breadth of England, or penetrate deep into continental Europe in a single day. They can live in Oxford and work in Southampton or vice versa. More importantly they have learned to live in the country. Today country life, ten, fifteen or fifty miles from the nearest town or city is entirely possible with a car – and entirely impossible without one.”

All this is indisputably true, but what is the cost of all this mobility? The British countryside is vanishing under a carpet of suburban sprawl. When I first visited England, in 1965, the countryside was so beautiful as to move one to tears. Today, in many places, one is still moved to tears, but for an entirely different reason. Unrestricted automobile access to the countryside has spoilt the very qualities that draw people to it.

The real argument

We come to the nut of Mr Pawley’s argument in the following statement: “Cars ARE antithetical to cities, or at least to the mythology of cities that so many people profess to believe in today.” If by mythology he means simply the city-in-history, then we are agreed. If those who value human-scaled quality urban environments – where peace and tranquility reign and where it is safe to linger in the street – wish to continue to live in this “mythical city,” then surely they will wish to do so free from the burden of automobiles.

The value placed upon this environment is clearly demonstrated by Venice, which draws about two-and-a-half times as many visitors as any other Italian city. Excepting a small area near the train station, one can stop to hold a conversation in the middle of any street, and indeed this is something that one often sees. There is virtually no mechanical noise to be heard in the streets of Venice. The presence of many people in the streets makes them safe and at the same time congenial. This is one ‘myth’ that is alive and well today, and enjoyed by twelve million visitors each year.

The solution

Mr Pawley has stumbled upon the germ of a great idea: “Make no mistake, if THE CAR remains THE CAR and is not allowed to gestate into such useful subspecies as exclusively urban forms of PRIVATE TRANSPORT, this will be a war to the death that will only end when – in the case of London – the M25 becomes a neo-medieval city wall within which cars are no longer allowed.” What a lovely idea!

We don’t actually need the walls. But a series of parking garages along the M25, linked to London by refurbished public transport (not buses, please), would make it possible to remove cars from all of London. Major improvements in both local and long-distance public transport are required, but these are much cheaper than the roads that would be required to provide the same level of service to car drivers.

Mr Pawley again: “Now there is plenty of room to build as well as farm in the countryside. Is this not where housing should be built instead of in inner London where there is so little space to build anything that house and flat prices are rising at fifteen to thirty per cent a year?” If all the space now given over to automobiles were freed up for other uses, there would be room enough to construct large amounts of new housing and workplaces while at the same time increasing the space devoted to urban parks.

“Only governments, forever dedicated to throwing good money after bad by opposing every irresistible trend, offer any encouragement to the chimera of an Urban Renaissance.” Mr Pawley has surely overstated his case here. How else to explain those surging house prices in London?

Mr Pawley claims, “Urban concentration is not efficient, it is expensive, inflexible, undemocratic and dangerous.” Let us disassemble this statement, term for term. As to efficiency, every study of which I am aware demonstrates that dense urban fabric based on public transport is far more energy efficient, per capita, than any suburban arrangement based on car usage. As to expense, almost nothing could be more expensive than suburban sprawl (if externalities are included in the reckoning).

The inflexibility is in many ways an advantage: rail systems are expensive to install and represent a commitment by the government to provide high-quality transport far into the future. Traditional four- to five-story rows of buildings have been shown by long experience to be both durable and adaptable. As to democracy, isn’t there an element of the autocratic in a car driver thoughtlessly imposing externalities on those he roars past in a “big, dark coloured car with tinted windows and central locking”?

As for danger, how many people die in public transport accidents each year? The number is small even in comparison only to the number of children killed by cars (three hundred thousand each year worldwide, see, Archives of Diseases in Childhood, September 1999). A dense urban fabric, such as seen in Venice, can thus be seen to be one of the most efficient, inexpensive, flexible, democratic, and safe ways in which to organise society.

I will be pleased to visit Mr Pawley at his country home by train and bicycle, and ask only that if he chooses to drive his SUV to visit me in the city, that he travel the last few kilometres by metro. Is that not a fair exchange?