Why Cities Must Allow Us to Love and Leave our Cars
I love cars. As a teenager, I had twin subscriptions to Car & Driver and Road & Track. My chief school-bus skill was the ability to name the make and model of every vehicle that passed. Until recently, I have always owned the best-handling car I could reasonably afford. I especially love high-revving Japanese sports cars like the one I drove from Miami to Washington, D.C. when I moved here in 2003. I remember the trip lasting about six hours, assisted by a tailwind and a top-of-the-line radar detector.
But an interesting thing happened when I arrived in Washington. I found myself driving less and less, and paying more and more per mile. Aside from trips to Home Depot and the occasional country jaunt, I had no reason to break my car out of its garage. Between walking, biking, and our extensive Metro transit system, driving was rarely the most convenient choice. And the parking lot beneath my apartment building charged a small fortune in fees. Add to that the availability of ZipCar car-sharing in my neighborhood, and it soon became apparent that going car-free was the most convenient option.
Back in my Miami days, the idea of selling my car would never have occurred to me. My apartment was in the heart of South Beach’s art deco district. My job was on the mainland, in Little Havana, about a twenty minute drive away. My gym was in Coral Gables, twenty minutes further afield. Lunch, unless I wanted Cuban food every day—a decided health risk—required another twenty minutes of driving. All told, I was spending close to ninety minutes each weekday in traffic, about normal for an American. And I was OK with that.
But, in Washington, it soon became apparent that there were other benefits to my new carless lifestyle, besides just convenience. Six months into my auto diet, I had lost ten pounds through walking and biking, and reduced my stress levels by avoiding traffic. I had gained thousands of dollars in transportation savings, and also developed a deeper understanding of my city by experiencing it at a walking and biking pace. Finally, in the ultimate mass transit payoff, I met my future wife among the masses on a transit platform. It would be fair to say that I was healthier, wealthier, wiser—and happier—all due to what transportation engineers would call a simple mode shift.
This shift was caused by nothing more or less than the design of my city. Washington, D.C. is one of a handful of American cities that can accurately be described as car-optional. New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and not many others, provide an equivalent or better quality of life for the carless, thanks to a combination of pre-auto-age provenance and subsequent enlightened planning. In contrast, most American cities have been designed or redesigned principally around the assumption of universal automotive use, resulting in obligatory car ownership, typically one per adult—starting at age 16. In these cites, and in most of our nation, the car is no longer an instrument of freedom, but rather a bulky, expensive, and dangerous prosthetic device, and a prerequisite to viable citizenship.
I got rid of my car because my city invited me to, and rewarded me in spades. Not everyone who is able to make a similar choice will benefit as I did—certainly not in the spouse department—but the benefits are clear. Independent of the global impacts of reduced tailpipe emissions and energy use, the personal financial and health advantages of losing the car are tremendous. They are not attractive to everyone, and a significant number of our fellow citizens will never trade their cul-de-sacs and SUVs for any other option. But, as we have seen, more Americans are desirous of vibrant urban living than are being offered that choice, and those cities that can satisfy that unmet demand will thrive.
This is already happening. More and more Americans are being attracted to places that offer the economy, excitement, and street life that cannot be found in the auto zone. To these people, malls are for teenagers, bicycles are cooler than cars, and a great night out includes being able to drink and not drive. Cites that have recently combined reinvestment in their downtown cores with the creation of transformative transit and biking facilities—like Portland and Denver—are the current relocation places of choice, for those who have a choice.
For those who don’t, it could be said that every city and suburb has an obligation to free its residents from the burden of auto dependence. When a city does, everyone benefits, including the city. My wife and I again prove a useful example. When we built our new house in the District, we put an office where the garage was supposed to go, and a vegetable garden in place of the driveway—never mind that it took us nine months to void the City’s parking requirement. Now I work from home and we eat (extremely) local produce in season. Without a car, we find ourselves spending most of our disposable income nearby, in neighborhood restaurants and at the farmer’s market. When we need a light bulb or an extension cord, we bike to Logan Circle Hardware rather than driving to Home Depot. All of these daily decisions, by us and our many carless neighbors, add up to more money retained within our community.
This is not an ideological discussion; we are not committed to an intentional pedestrian lifestyle. In fact, as of this writing, we are seriously considering buying a car. The birth of our second child has created a circumstance where a personal vehicle will contribute to our quality of life. Moving a pair of car seats in and out of the ZipCar is just becoming too big a chore for two parents with sore backs.
Disappointing? Perhaps, but perfectly in keeping with the idea of the car-optional city. We spent seven years productively without a car, two of them with child in tow. We will be able to live carless again in the future. In the meantime, it will be one convenient transportation choice among many, in a landscape that makes choice possible.
Walking is a simple and useful thing, and such a pleasure too. It is what brings planeloads of Americans to Europe on holiday, including even some of the traffic engineers who make our own cities so inhospitable. Somewhere, deep in their caveman traffic engineer brains,, even they understand the value of moving under one’s own power at a relaxed pace, through a public sphere that continuously rewards the senses. This same tourist experience is commonplace in Washington, Charleston, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Santa Barbara—and a few other places in America that have elevated walking to an art form. They are the cities that enjoy a higher standard of living because they provide a better quality of life. Unfortunately, they remain the exceptions, when they should just be normal.
This situation need not continue indefinitely—indeed, we can’t afford for it to. We need a new normal in America, one that welcomes walking.
The above is excerpted with permission from Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck