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The Car As Renter of the City, Not Landlord

I have a short piece in the current World Policy Journal in response to the question of the future of the city. In this telegraphic dispatch I addressed the place of the car in the city (N.B.: The piece could also be headlined: ‘An Open Letter to Marty Markowitz’):

We spent much of the twentieth century engaged in a campaign to retrofit our cities to the car. However much this may have seemed to make sense at the time, it now looks more like a misdirected effort to save the city by destroying it. As plentiful as the benefits of individual vehicular mobility may be, the large metropolis can never comfortably accommodate any more than a fraction of its citizens in this manner, and we have learned the consequences of trying to do so. Ever-lengthening commutes have meant degraded public spaces, negative health outcomes, social fragmentation, infrastructure whose maintenance goes underfunded.

In the city of the future, we need to pursue policies that allow for safe, efficient and affordable transport of the many, while recognizing that market-based approaches that so rationally apportion space in the private sector can and should be applied to the valuable urban space — in the form of roads and parking spaces—that cities essentially give away. We need to recognize that streets are public spaces too, and not merely, in the old view of 1930s utopian modernism, channels for moving as many vehicles as quickly as possible. The car will continue to exist, but should be treated as a “renter” of the city, not its landlord. The urban car of the future should be shared, smaller, and slower.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 14th, 2010 at 2:30 pm and is filed under Cars, Cities, Commuting, Congestion, Roads, Traffic Engineering. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “The Car As Renter of the City, Not Landlord”

  1. Thomas Says:

    Car culture is so ingrained in the American psyche. Most people, especially American conservatives, resist the idea of sinking federal dollars into rail saying that the market has made consumer rail service irrelevant but they never acknowledge that this is because the government has subsidized motor transport with sixty years of highway building.

  2. Kim Says:

    Yes, isn’t it odd how drivers never see the massive amounts of money spent of road building programs as a form of subsidy (which it is what it effectively is), but rather as their right? If there were a true market, then they would have pay to drive on these roads.

  3. Biks Says:

    Some time ago I read article about the growing number of young people in Tokyo who work in the center and spend the weekday nights in the small cabins of internet cafes because there is not enough time left to go for their affordable appartment in the outskirts of Tokyo for the night. This sounds really horrible to me.

  4. John Says:

    The kind of distances and patterns of travel in the cities will lead past the word “car.” Electric bicycles come to mind.

  5. Betty Barcode Says:

    “The car will continue to exist, but should be treated as a “renter” of the city, not its landlord.” Beautifully put.

    Whoever decided that the highest and best use of our downtowns was to serve as mass storage depots for automobiles at rest and mass highway systems for automobiles at high speed has had 50-75 years to demonstrate that it produces pleasant, desirable, and economically viable downtowns. They have failed miserably and deserve curb pickup by the dustbin of history.

  6. Bill T Says:

    What, no link to the article??

    Anyhow, agreed, that was wonderful letter.

  7. Tom S Says:

    As for the roads as subsidy comment, aren’y we paying for those roads via our fuel tax? In essence, us drivers are in fact paying to use the roads. And if I’m not mistaken, that fuel tax funds much more than just roads.

  8. Ted K. Says:

    World Policy Journal (base page at WorldPolicy.org)

    “The New Urbanism : In the future, what will our cities look like ?” [PDF]

    FYI – The above link may die an early death due to a move from MIT Press to SAGE in early 2011.

  9. Nick Says:

    Tom S — you are very much mistaken. Fuel taxes pay for less than half the cost of roads, the rest comes out of general funds, usually local property taxes as most roads are the responsibility of local governments. And that’s just the cost of the upkeep of the pavement. The real value of roads is the use of the public space.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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