Cars do not belong in cities. A standard American sedan can comfortably hold 4+ adults w/ luggage, can travel in excess of 100 miles per hour, and can travel 300+ miles at a time without stopping to refuel. These are all great things if you are traveling long distances between cities. If you are going by yourself to pickup your dry cleaning, then cars are insanely over-engineered for the task. It’s like hammering in a nail with a diesel-powered pile driver. To achieve all these feats (high capacity, high speed, and long range driving), cars must be large and powered by fossil fuels. So when you get a few hundred (or thousand) cars squeezed onto narrow city streets, you are left with snarled traffic and stifling smog.
Even if you ignore the pollution, cars simply take up too much space. Next time you are stuck in traffic behind what seems like a million cars, try to imagine if all those cars where replaced by pedestrians or bike riders. Suddenly, the congestion is gone.
But why am I complaining about traffic? Traffic only affects those stuck in it, right? Once all cars go electric, essentially eliminating inter-city air pollution, then there will be no more problems for pedestrians, right? Wrong!! Probably the biggest problem with cars in cities is that they require huge amounts of land for storage (a.k.a. parking). Here is a photo of Midtown Atlanta between 5th street and 12th street. This is one of the densest and most pedestrian-friendly ares in the entire state of Georgia. The red blocks indicate parcels of land that are 100% dedicated to car storage.
Dedicating all this land to car storage basically reduces the density by about half, doubles the average distance between locations, and reduces walkability. Throw in the 16-lane interstate and the 45+ mph traffic on most of these streets, it becomes exceedingly hard to believe that this is one of the most walkable areas in the entire state. Such is life for pedestrians in a car-dominated city.
It wasn’t always this way. Atlanta, like all cities, used to be walkable and people actually lived IN the city instead of commuting 50 miles every day. But as more people moved away from the city, the more Atlanta had to become like a suburb, being retrofitted to handle all the automobile infrastructure required by a million 40 hour-a-week temporary citizens. The result of this retrofit is a wasteland of asphalt and isolated neighborhoods, a slow decimation that has rolled along since the innovation of the automobile.
Contrary to how it may sound, I do not want to rid the earth of cars. I just want to use them smarter. Do you really need a 2-ton vehicle to pickup your dry-cleaning? Probably not. Although I do see the appeal in loading a family of 6 into an SUV and traveling to Florida for vacation. That is a totally reasonable use of an automobile. What I really want is clean, walkable, safe, affordable, and family-friendly cities and towns. In a strange way, I kind of want to live in Mayberry.
In the next post, I promise to discuss a few ideas that may get us a little closer to this goal.