Sunday, November 8, 2009

Car-Free in the Suburbs

I was reading through a discussion on the MetaFilter boards about car-free cities in Europe, and their relevance to urban planning in the US. One thing that keeps coming up over and over and over is that car-freedom is only possible in a handful of places in the US, with New York City usually cited as #1. Other posters brought up the central cities of Portland, San Francisco and Philadelphia. Nobody said that car-freedom was even remotely possible in suburban areas.

Now, I know that there are vast tracts of Riverside where car-freedom is truly impossible. It took me all of five minutes to find a spot in the city with a WalkScore of 22. WalkScore says that the city's average is 49, which is still rather car-dependent. However, my house ranks a 72. Some parts of downtown cross 90. I spent the entire summer car-free and I still managed to live a very full life out here in the suburbs. Is it harder to do so here, where we have no (local) rail transit and the bus system is often sub-par? Sure. I'll say it certainly requires a bicycle. But car-freedom is possible even in certain places in the suburbs, if you're willing to put in a little time and effort.

So why is it that more people don't go car-free in the suburbs? It's not because car-freedom is harder- it is, but not significantly so, especially for a cyclist. It is because car ownership is so much easier. Most apartments come with two parking spaces, and often a garage. Free parking is abundant, roads are wide and high-capacity, and the built environment encourages automobile travel. A key point that we have to drive home as transit advocates is that, to make our towns and cities more transit-friendly, we have to make them less car-friendly. Closing roads, charging market rates for parking, and other measures that allow us to lessen the external costs of automobiles are key parts of improving our neighbourhoods and quality of life.

I want to make clear that I'm not necessarily anti-car. I own a car. However, car drivers need to understand that driving is extraordinarily cheap right now (and highly subsidized- nearly 96%, compared to 80% for RTA and 50% for Metrolink), and they need to be willing to help pay for the destructive effects of their choice of transportation. We can either gradually increase the cost of driving, or we can wait until the inevitable environmental and geopolitical effects of our automobile addiction catch up with us, and drastically raise the price of driving naturally. If we start now, we can put some of these increased costs towards the alternatives which will eventually replace the automobile. If we wait, we will be left with no real opportunity to drive, and no real alternatives to driving.

1 comment:

DJB said...

Very true, it's not impossible to get around without a car in many suburbs, just way harder than it should be. The odds are against alternatives to the car where there's not density or mixture of land uses.