Sunday, February 6, 2011

Four Models of Vehicle Use

"What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles? . . . In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear, established and for all practical purposes indisputable: The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles."

-- Jane Jacobs
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 370

I'm re-reading this book, and I'm glad that I am, partly because the chapter called "erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles" is so wonderful.

In it, Jacobs makes her views on automobiles absolutely clear. They are not an intrinsic problem for cities. Indeed, compared to the horse-and-buggy days, with their feces-filled streets and the terrible racket of hooves on pavement, they can be regarded as a major improvement. Delivery trucks, transit buses and taxis are critical for city life. The problem comes when cities are forced to destroy themselves to accommodate cars, when all of the excessively wide roads and parking lots erode cities to the point that they can no longer be vibrant, diverse, and workable for people on foot.

Instead of this, cities can cause attrition of automobiles. This is very different from eradication of automobiles. Attrition, as I understand it, is the process of getting more work from each vehicle. Instead of virtually every person owning a car, as is the case in most rural and suburban places, cities that really work as cities can give people the convenience of vehicles without the burden of vehicle ownership, and hence a great number of people can live full lives with shockingly few vehicles.

This and a conversation I had recently made me think that there are basically four models, or paradigms, of vehicle use (I think these could apply, more or less, to bicycles too):

Vehicle Ownership
   1) Owning, Informal Sharing, Carpooling (rural, suburban, urban?)
Vehicle Renting
   2) Taxis (urban)
   3) Intra-Regional Public Transportation (suburban?, urban)
   4) Formal Renting/Sharing (airport/train station, university, urban)

Different urban forms specialize in using vehicles in different ways. In rural and suburban areas, you'd better own a car (or perhaps a bike) if you hope to get where you need to go in a reasonable amount of time. At the very least you have to know someone who will let you use one. We can throw long-term leasing of cars by individuals into this category as well, since it presents the same issues for cities as car ownership.

You can get taxis in some suburbs (by phone) but being able to hail a cab or go to a taxi stand is only really possible in an urban area (or at an airport). Suburbs and rural areas rarely have convenient intra-regional public transportation in the United States, because they lack the population density necessary to support it. Inter-regional transit (e.g. Airlines, Greyhound) works a bit differently and is often profitable. Real cities have networks of buses and rail lines that people want to use, partially because they are convenient. In urban areas and college campuses, formal car sharing (e.g. Zipcar) becomes possible.

In an urban area car ownership for everyone is problematic in part because population density is high and the cost of building parking is very high. Even though average driving distances are short, massive individual vehicle ownership can overwhelm the roads in a dense city. On the other hand taxis, transit, and formal car sharing are at their strongest in cities. That's as true in the truly urban parts of Los Angeles as it is in the truly urban parts of New York City.

So let's ditch the idea that lovers of cities are anti-car. More accurately we want to promote ways of using vehicles that make sense for their context and minimize the negative effects of vehicles generally.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. Clearly the automobile has its time and place. Unfortunately the we have way over balanced the system away from a good balance.