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Imagine a Future with Car-Free Cities

Written By mediavigil on Tuesday, April 22, 2008 | 1:27 AM

Could we ever have "Carfree Cities" - the title of a recent book by J.H. Crawford?

For most Americans, the thought alone is pure heresy. Without a car, how would we get anywhere, from jobs to school to shopping to entertainment? We truly believe: cars are us.

If we waver, there's advertising to hamper deviation. Each year, the automotive industry spends $14 billion on persuasion, conveying images of shiny vehicles floating through grassy pastures or over mountain tops, with nary a traffic jam in sight.

But cities, clogged with vehicles and polluted by their exhaust, might ask about a car-free or at least a less-car-dominated future. Just look down from a high building and you'll see that somewhere between 50 percent to 70 percent of downtown space is routinely given over to traffic lanes, parking lanes and lots and garages, gas stations, drive-through banks and fast-food franchises, even plastic-flag festooned car dealerships.

Just imagine, Crawford suggests, the possibilities for people and enhanced civic places that could be created if an American city excluded cars. The pavement markings, the auto-related signs and traffic signals, the parking meters, the curbs, the vehicles - they'd all disappear.

Crawford is realistic enough to know we need to do a lot to even reduce vehicle counts in cities. That means radically expanded public transit (especially new and expanded rail systems), a big push for biking, even specialized ways to get freight into and around town with less need for diesel-spewing trucks.

Crawford has written a book the way smart folks should these days - with a pictorially rich, constantly updated Web site to back it up - www.carfree.com. Along with Jane Holtz Kay's "Asphalt Nation" and James Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" and "Home from Nowhere," the Crawford book enriches the argument for radically different 21st century approaches.

The fact is: Many of this country's cities and a high proportion of our suburbs are among the world's most pedestrian-hostile environments.

One doesn't need to advocate a car-free society, my colleague Curtis Johnson argues, to want to escape the bondage of zero choices. Example: Looking out a suburban office window, seeing a short distance to where you want to meet someone for lunch, "and knowing there's absolutely no safe way to get there except in your car."

Crawford says segregate cars to garages at the edge of cities. Johnson would let them into town but hold them at bay. He cites the example of the Lincoln Road Mall, the alluring car-free street in South Miami Beach.

People have to park their cars in Lincoln Road perimeter garages and walk. The road itself is one of America's prime people-watching spots, offering the zenith of Florida chic, a melange of the sexy young and affluent elderly mixing with regular folks and coiffured dogs, all a relaxed setting of sleek shops, restaurants and theaters in Art Deco style.

"Would you prefer," Johnson asks, "to sit on a teakwood bench on the Lincoln Road Mall observing the people, or on a concrete abutment watching a line of SUVs enter a parking garage?"

Technologically, adds Johnson, cars will get better - quieter, cleaner, sleeker, more flexible. "That's good. But we need to reverse the slave-master relationship." Europeans, he notes, love cars too - they buy expensive ones, spend what for us would be outrageously high sums on gas. "But they use autos for specialized purposes. They support a government that balances road and transit investments. They love their cars, but they're not slaves to them."

There's a fiscal side too - Americans are spending a constantly increasing share of their personal incomes on the purchasing, fueling and maintenance of personal cars and trucks. The average family's transportation outlay rose 8 percent a year in the '90s to reach $6,200 in 1998, according to a recent report - "Driven to $pend," from the Surface Transportation Policy Project and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (at www.transact.org).

Vehicles gobble up $7,000 to $9,000, as much as 22 percent of an average family's income yearly in such sprawling, auto-oriented regions as Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Phoenix. Families in more compact regions, among them Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, New York and Honolulu, pay significantly less.

All this is most serious for the poorest fifth of U.S. families. Thirty-six percent of their average income goes for cars and trucks. Result: diminished chances to save up for a home, to achieve middle-class security. Cars diminish wealth, homes add. While homes gained 3.2 percent a year in value in the '90s, cars depreciated at 8 percent a year.

As a starter, such cities as Amsterdam and Bogotá are trying car-free days - their efforts met by strong public acclaim.

No matter how you figure, it's time to stop throwing a blizzard of dollars at our auto masters.

by Neal Peirce

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is npeirce@citistates.com.
March 1, 2001 in the Seattle Times
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