The Automobile Equilibrium

I've found that a lot of urbanists struggle to convey ideas about taking cars off the road. I tend to believe that most cities would be better if fewer cars clogged their roadways everyday. That doesn't mean I think every single person ought to stop driving, give up their car, or bike long and unreasonable differences, of course.

(from notcub on Flickr)

Unfortunately, that's often how these debates play out. One person says, "our city would be better if it were more pedestrian and bike friendly." Another person responds, "oh, so you want to start a war on drivers?!"

I think Steve Berg makes some good points over at MinnPost in his attempt to point out that not all urbanists hate cars. It's true, there's a lot that's inherently wrong with the machine that is a car. What's problematic is that we've designed many of our cities and suburbs to accommodate cars exclusively, which has led to less-than-livable places that are difficult to get around by any means other than private vehicle.

I've often been curious about the people who drive in Manhattan. Who does that? Apparently a lot of people, because the streets are always packed with vehicles. There are also a lot of people who walk and get around by other means. In New York, it's not that you can't drive, it's that there are typically better options.

A lot of cities would benefit from small reductions in the number of cars on the road, especially those with bad traffic problems. So let's say I think a city would be better if it had a 25% reduction of the number of people driving around it. Does that mean I think every single person ought to sell their car? Of course not.

I wish the discourse could move beyond this black and white view that life can only be lived by one extreme or another. At the same time, some of the burden lies with urbanists who would benefit from better strategy for communicating their ideas.


    On January 26, 2011 ingda said...

    I recently read something about parking policies that could be a template to communicate the need for an "equilibrium" vs. an impulse to always expand car capacity.
    Because of the buildings in a city maximum roadspace is always constrained and can be measured. So one can calculate the maximum amount of traffic that a city can reasonably accommodate without coming to a standstill. Thus one could derive the maximum amount of parking space admissible. From there one can justify parking space caps, market rate parking and in some cases congestion pricing.