Auto addiction and the planning pendulum

“Corbusier” wrote an interesting post over at Architecture + Morality “in defense of car-based urbanism.” It’s a long blog entry I found worthy of excerpting and responding too.

    ” . . . I believe people will never willingly leave their cars en masse to walk exclusively. Despite all the added problems imposed by car use and the strains on the massive amount of required infrastructure, the enhancements cars have made [on] average people’s daily life have been dramatic as the fast-growing rate of car ownership throughout the world can attest.”

I wonder, though, if part of the reason for the rest of the world adopting the automobile isn’t related to its affiliation with wealthier culture. It seems like it’s the “in thing” for cultures looking up to Westernized locales and their economic success.

paris-sprawl-2005.jpg

I’m not convinced (at all) that my own life is better because of the automobile — at least not at this point in my life. I’m glad for the invention of the technology in the past, but I often lament the beasts as necessary evils, particularly in smaller communities where there are no public transit options and city planners can’t seem to facilitate better community development. I’m convinced that my own quality of life suffers because of our vehicular vice; the felt need to own a car strains my finances, makes me lazy and generally uglyfies the built environment (even though it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way).

My second cousin in Denmark has never owned a car; in fact, she’s never driven, never had a driver’s license. She walks, bikes and uses public transit to get around. A few years back she injured her heel, and her first concern was that she wouldn’t be able to get around without a car in the future. Money that she uses for vacations throughout the year would need to be diverted to pay for a motor vehicle. To my knowledge, her heel healed and she has not had to throw her money into the rapidly depreciating money pit that is an automobile.

According to the blogger, author William Bogart suggests that

    ” . . . the monocentric view no longer applies to the reality imposed by the automobile, and suggests that rather than to urge a strict return to the traditional monocentric city, we should try to better understand and improve the dynamic nature of our contemporary polycentric cities.”

This is an important point, but not necessarily just in relationship to how cars impact culture. There is always a limit to the size of a city that is focused around a singular central node. You can only build up so far, and the natural progression of a large metropolitan area would seem to dictate the birth of new city centers as parts of the city are developed beyond a certain serviceable point.

    “To many, auto-centric urban development has yielded dismal changes that have prompted a call for a return to pedestrian-centric development, with little interest to more skillfully integrate parking infrasture as part of a desired solution. They do not intend to improve the experience or the practicality of parking, they wish rather to eliminate it entirely.”

Personally, I think the best solution would be to strive for both. Cars are probably here to stay in some form or another. As I’ve already mentioned, I believe there is a genuine quality of life concern herein, something I’m expressing from personal experience at this point more than academic understanding. My advocating for better-designed, more pedestrian/transit centric communities isn’t in the slightest related to some kind of sentimental desire to return to “the good old days.” It is instead a hopeful response to observations of our present caraholic culture.

Let’s not forget the social implications of the car either. People are more easily isolated and independent — the freedom or independence the automobile offers is largely the thesis of Corbusier’s post, though I’d counter by suggesting the resulting isolation is detrimental — , vehicular aesthetics are often questionable at best and patience seems to be in more limited supply (in my mind) in a culture where the automobile has helped foster a mindset of instant gratification.

I’ve been thinking recently on how a successful shift in our culture would look, a shift that sees what I perceive to be a more balanced community where cars are viewed as tools and not as necessities. Of course, for this to happen a radical rearrangement of our personal and community priorities would need to take place, as I suggested in this post last week. I don’t have any answers yet, but it’s fun to ponder — actually, it’s important to ponder.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

One Response to Auto addiction and the planning pendulum

  1. corbusier says:

    Thanks for the link!

    Although I’m aware some of these statements may strike many as controversial, I’m flattered that you have responded with such thoughtfulness and care.

    In some ways I’m in the same boat that you’re in, in wanting to enhance and expand walkable and dense development while preserving the option for those who want to live a lifestyle made possible by cars. For many years I’ve been reliant on public transportation and only recently have I found that the option to drive to work provides me intangible advantages to how I manage my time. Having lived in less car-dependent places like Europe and Singapore and using almost exclusively the elevated trains of Chicago and the expansive bus system in Austin, I think that I well aware of the mass transit’s shortcomings on my daily life. And having been known as one who scours historic cities tirelessly for miles, I acknowledge that few people wish to walk any more than a 1/2 mile.

    So when I see a journal column proposing to eradicate car-based urban infrastructure, I’m struck by the author’s implicit desire to limit individual self-movement in favor of a more pedestrian and communal approach. I know that to fulfill most of our cherished needs and to pursue opportunities throughout the city, relying almost exclusively on mass transit and walking would not be viable. Ever try grocery shopping at Whole Foods using the El holding dozens of bags for one hour in smelly train car with shady hoodlums surrounding you? With other comparable instances, I tend to think the call to densify and limit our choices for mobility is more political in dimension than anything else. Must be the rabid libertarian in me…

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