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The Utility of Cars in Cities

As part of NPR's new Cities project, they recently aired a story about the "war on cars" on All Things Considered. It's kind of a stale topic in my opinion; but alas, here I am re-hashing it, so I'll admit to being complicit.

(from karen.j.ybanez on Flickr)

Now, I don't own a car. Neither do many of my friends. But almost all of us drive. How's that possible? Well... there's rental cars and car-sharing, to start. Not owning a car is not the same as never driving, a point that's frequently misapplied in these debates.

The bigger problem with this discussion is that it's framed as all-or-nothing when it's actually quite nuanced. Let's dissect a not-very-good argument from Chuck Thies, who's made some not-very-good arguments on this topic in the past. Here's his quote from the NPR story:
Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without.
OK, fine - there are lots of cars. Then he makes this point: 
When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive.
Here's the key question that doesn't get answered... of the 50 cars mentioned in the first part of the quote, how many of them are delivering a refrigerator or a bunch of 2-by-4s to a construction site? And how many of them have a single motorist transporting no cargo at all?

If the answer is that most of the 50 cars are transporting just 1 or 2 people and no cargo, then it's fair to criticize the automobile, or rather, the very non-productive way that people are using it. It's being used in a way that it's jamming up streets and causing congestion and making it harder for the refrigerator deliverymen and the construction workers and the fire fighters to get where they're going. 

There's competition for resources, in this case road-space. The debate is being framed as having four players: motorists, public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists; and they're all in competition with each other. But that's not quite right. There are really at least five players: motorists who need to use the road (like deliverymen, construction workers, emergency responders, etc.), motorists who want to use the road (like white collar office workers commuting to and from the suburbs), 
public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists. 

The motorists who
want to use the road are really the ones sucking up the most resources, relatively speaking. When someone's life is on the line and an ambulance has to spend 5 or 6 valuable minutes just trying to get around Dupont Circle because the street is jam-packed with single-occupant sedans and SUVs, that doesn't seem quite fair, does it? 

When I drive to Ikea to pick up some big bulky furniture, guess what I drive... a pickup truck. It's the most efficient way of getting myself and my stuff back home. And when I'm going to my white collar job in my downtown office building, I use a bicycle or Metro. The context is different, and the most efficient means of transportation for me is different because of it. I'm a motorist. I'm a bicyclist. I'm a pedestrian. I don't just fall into a single category.

It would be highly inefficient for me to buy a pickup truck because twice a year I need to go to Ikea, and then to drive in it alone to work everyday. Yet this is exactly the thought calculus that goes through some people's heads when they decide what kind of car to buy and how to get around.

DC has been moving in exactly the right direction when it comes to transportation planning. Some of the things the city is doing are new, different, and fly in the face of decades of bad policy. It's scary to some people, but that doesn't make it wrong. 


Paul said…
I generally agree with most of what you say. People are much too comfortable with the idea of transporting just themselves to realize that, when so many people also have the same mindset, it causes the massive clogging of traffic that we see all the time in large cities.

I was wondering what your opinion is on motorcycles? Maybe you could do a post about it some time.
Anonymous said…
Hear, hear! for your rational insistence on matching your transport mode to the task at hand. That approach dovetails with the tack Complete Streets advocates take in calling for fairer distribution of resources among transportation modes with the goal of serving all road users, not just motorists.

Also worth noting: not owning a car delivers an enormous financial benefit for the driver, and I speak from personal experience. AAA, which likely lowballs its figures, estimates that average use of a midsize sedan costs around $9,000. Since those are after-tax dollars, you need to earn $12,000 to pay that annual tab. So losing the car nets you a $12,000 raise (your results will vary with use patterns and tax bracket).

A lot of the war-on-cars argument seems to me closely tied to decades of car-maker marketing intended to convince buyers that cars equal freedom, independence, communing with nature—choose your fantasy. That’s why so many of the vehicles slowing your hypothetical ambulance as it rounds Dupont Circle are pick-up trucks or SUVs
Froggie said…
I wouldn't consider commuters as drivers who want to use the road. Instead, I'd say those using the road for recreational or social trips are the ones wanting to use it. ACS numbers that point out only 20% of all trips are commuting trips bears this out. The percentage of trips that are recreational or social is much higher.
Helen Bushnell said…
I think you are getting to the point that good transportation planning supports people rather than any particular technology. No one just drives or bikes or walks. We need to plan in a way that allows people to do the things that they need.
Froggie said…
Here's something that all of you might want to take a look at: the 2009 National Household Travel Survey from FHWA. Unfortunately, it doesn't specifically reference bicycling trips, but there are a lot of other numbers worth looking at in the survey.
Deborah Small said…
A friend told me (so may not be true but I liked it) that in Germany there are road signs that say "You're not sitting in traffic. You are the traffic." I think most of us forget that it's not cars that's the problem but how they are used and accessed.
Michelle said…
Really, it's not even drivers competing against deliveries competing against pedestrians etc. It is people and freight all competing against each other, whatever mode they are using. The question is, are they all doing so in the way that is most efficient and best for the economy and livability of the city?
cars are always useful either you want to travel alone or with your family and friends because this traveling medium is very comfortable and luxurious.
The people who goes for traveling in a strange city also prefer hiring a rental car so that make their traveling more relaxing.
Abram said…
"When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive."

There are, all across Europe and North America, cargo bikes, trailers and trikes hauling larger, heavier items. I don't see bikes hauling industrial equipment, steel rolls, or a ton of bricks, but they are very much capable of hauling furniture, appliances, and yes, a bunch of 2-by-4s.

In Montreal, Boston, and Kansas City--there are surely others--there are bicycle-based moving companies that comfortably handle urban household moves, including appliances, by bike and trailer. In Portland, OR large groups of people regularly get together to do house moves on their cargo bikes and trailers. I've done our own household move by trike, cargo bike and trailer. And I operate a business that uses trikes, cargo bikes and trailers to move up to 500 lbs of goods for and between local businesses.

There are bike-based plumbers, gardeners, landscapers and veterinarians, among other things. In an urban context, the technology of the bike is often the more convenient, efficient and sustainable mode. And for those less physically able, mass transit is another very sustainable method of transportation, and not just for commuting (in European cities, and in Toronto, parcels are also moved by mass transit).

I agree that the issue is that people, using various modes of transportation, compete for space for their movement. So what we need to do is design to make people and freight movement efficient and sustainable, using the most suitable modes to do so, all things considered. And sustainability should rank higher than every other consideration, as it is in the long term interests of our species.

Good point, too, about multimodal people. We are not all one thing or another. Most of us are many things. There is far too much dichotomous, polarized thinking going on...
o9watts said…
I'm with Abram. Bikes suitably augmented (trailers, racks, etc.) can haul a surprising amount of cargo. I have hauled all the aforementioned items on my trailers, including 450 lb loads of bricks, many of them.

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