Car Wars: Should Autos Rule The Road? Part I

Scott's Denver Street.JPG

We've decided to become a one car family. Denver has proven to be the ideal locale for this experiment, of sorts. The "Mile High City," and particularly our new neighborhood, provide a range of mobility options beyond the four-wheel variety for trekking from place to place.

The metropolitan area is naturally blessed with a mobility-favorable landscape. It is approximately 10 miles by 10 miles. More importantly, our neighborhood possesses what I affectionately refer to as “accessible proximity” to local amenities such as grocery stores, coffee houses, parks, and specialty shopping centers. The immediate area is not only safe, it's engaging in its physical and social makeup, with stately homes and troves of dog-walkers along suburban style streets.

Recently, our daughter, who is eight, remarked “Ya know, at our old home it seemed like we always needed a car to go places, while here in Denver, we can actually walk places and enjoy the clean air.”

The website Walkscore, an online index, which ranks communities nationwide based on access by foot to restaurants, coffee houses, schools, businesses and other frequent destinations. Denver's score provides tangible evidence of my daughter's contention: According to the site's analytics, our Denver address registers a whopping 88 out of 100, defined as 'very walkable,' meaning that “one is able to accomplish most errands by foot. Our residence in Folsom, California — from which we recently relocated — stumbled in at a paltry 48 out of 100, defined by Walkscore as 'car dependent'.

Why is this such a big deal to us, as well as to growing numbers of Americans? I would contend that it is affordability. As Americans continue to struggle financially amid the worst economic times since the great depression, the argument could be made that location efficient neighborhoods offer a cost effective alternative to those that are exclusively auto-centric. In an era where expenses associated with automobile ownership, maintenance and fuel represent a significant slice of our household budgets, policy makers would be wise to expand options that encourage alternative forms of mobility.

Automobiles are still the transportation mode of choice for most working commuters, and for good reason, as most Americans still live a reasonable distance from where they work. But alternative forms of transportation are gaining momentum, as many struggle with insurance and other automotive related expenses.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's recently released American Community Survey (ACS), bicycling is becoming a viable option for Americans willing to pump the pedal on their way to work. Portland leads the U.S. in terms of the most bike commuters, with almost six percent of its residents using a bicycle as their primary mode of transportation to work in 2009. Minneapolis (3.86%), Seattle (2.99%), San Francisco (2.98%), and Oakland (2.53%) round out the top five.

Denver is one of a handful of cities that is actively promoting the use of bicycles as a viable short-run commute option. This year, the city introduced the first large-scale bike-sharing program in the U.S. A partnership between Humana, Trek Bicycle and the advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, this initiative flows from the shared belief that bicycles should serve as vehicles for positive health and environmental change, as well as important parts of a community’s transportation ecosystem. It’s this latter point that has gained the attention of Denver hotels and the convention center, which are seeking to provide visitors with mobility tools that compliment the downtown’s free bus system and walkable grid.

The dilemma continues to be how to efficiently travel short distances that are too far to walk. Like Pavlovian dogs, many of us are conditioned to reach for the car keys, even for the shortest of trips. This behavior is deeply embedded in our consciousness;, an auto-centric mindset that has been nurtured in us for years.

Chris Wiggins of the Folsom, California based Glide Electric Cruiser believes that a huge demand exists for short-range transportation options. His invention is ideal for short commutes and has virtually no impact on the environment. What is it? A series of motorized electric scooters with top speeds of up to 38 miles per hour. Currently in a first production run stage, these “cruisers” have attracted a wide swath of interest, from law enforcement agencies to senior groups. “I personally believe they have the potential to revolutionize short-range commuting in the U.S. and beyond,” says Wiggins. “My greatest hope in developing them is that they will have a meaningful impact on the quality of life, as well as improve the environment.”

Recognizing that car-based travel will continue to be a reality for most Americans, innovative companies like Zip Car and Car2Go have adroitly positioned themselves for where I believe the auto market is headed: Short-term, just-in-time rentals that eliminate the expense of owning a car. And since my family has only one car, I personally am exploring these and other options to assist with those commutes beyond my immediate, local area.

There are many factors affect the viability of a mobility option. Density currently receives the greatest amount of air-time. I’m often reminded of a business trip several years ago to the wonderful island community of Bermuda. I was intrigued to discover that because of its dense configuration and its size, cars weren’t allowed on the island until 1946. Today, only residents are permitted to drive cars on the island, and only one car is allowed per household. As Bermuda is a heavily trafficked tourist destination, I wondered what forms of transportation were available. An amused hotel bellman directed me to a lot full of mopeds and scooters.I discovered that these low-power transporters were the predominant form of transportation for residents as well as visitors to the island.

While it could be argued that population density is the raison d'etre for alternative mobility options, there are other factors that should be taken into consideration. Much talk of late has centered around a concept called “intersection density,” which refers to the number of intersections in an area. The greater the intersection density, the shorter the blocks, and it is these short blocks that are the main contributing factor to neighborhood walkability. In Travel and the Built Environment: A Meta Analysis, which appeared in the summer 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero, urban planning academics at University of Utah and U.C. Berkeley respectively, found that of all the built environment measurements, intersection density has the largest effect on walking — more than population density, or distance to a store or to a transit stop, or jobs within one mile. According to the authors, it's this ease of accessibility that spurs walkable foot-traffic to high destination nodes such as shopping and recreation.

Density, unfortunately, is often associated exclusively with large urban environments that possess tightly packed, downtown center-cities. This undermines the enormous advantages of many suburban style cities such as Naperville, Illinois; Traverse City, Michigan; and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, all of which offer a plethora of local amenities within walking distance of their adjacent neighborhoods.

Our deeply ingrained auto-centric habit makes it hard to say if any of these lessons in metropolitan mobility will gain traction, and if so, where they are likely to lead us. But one thing is for certain: A new narrative for how to approach short-distance trips is fostering a debate that is, at the very least, a carbon footprint in the right direction.

This is the first of a two-part series in which different writers examine the centrality of the automobile in urban and suburban life. Tomorrow, read a very different viewpoint in Part Two.

Photo by Michael Scott of the author's Denver neighborhood.

Michael P. Scott is an associate with Centro, Inc, a Denver-based consulting firm focused on the future of our city centers. He can be reached at

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Tx1234 - perhaps the solution is for planners/developers to build more traditional-style, "New Urbanist" neighborhoods. I see no reason why the attractive neighborhoods you describe should only be historic relics. Part of why they are so expensive is because there is a supply/demand imbalance, and supply must be increased.

To the author: what do you mean when you describe the Denver metro area as 10x10 miles? Isn't the metro area much larger than that?

Also, can you please give a little more information, even anecdotal, on why high intersection density correlates to more walkers?

Otherwise, great piece. I look forward to the sequel.


Thanks for your comments. In terms of the 10x10 reference for Denver, I am referring to the city limits and should have left out the term "metro area."

High intersection density simply reflects the ease in walkability inherent in short blocks.

Michael Scott
Centro Inc

Walkable Minneapolis

I live in St. Louis Park Minnesota and walk when it's not icy and dangerous which if we are lucky is about 8 months in the year.

I think you were right about Minneapolis having almost 4% of the people bicycling to work, but after Saturday's snow, I'll bet that drops to the 6 nut cases who are willing to risk their lives on slippery roads in close proximity to two ton vehicles that have the stopping distances double when the weather reaches 20 below - as the high temp! So from now till the end of March that 3.86% will drop to about 0.0386%

While I say we do walk, it get's kind boring to walk to the two over priced restaurants within a mile. Choices are greater if we go two miles (which we often do in the summer), and even more at three miles.

Here is the problem with the number of intersections - you are right that it indicates more walking connections, but we have built streets to walk instead of dedicated walking links to walk. Thus we introduce many conflict points mixing vehicles and people, fill our landscape with excessive streets, and significantly increase run-off.

If planners separate the pedestrian systems and streets, we reduce streets and increase pedestrian connectivity and leave much more room for homes and businesses.

Just some comments...

Rick ... again

Honestly Rick, you should really just keep your comments to yourself.

Here is a summary:

1) I don't like to walk (so why would anyone else)
2) Driving is better because it protects us from mother nature
3) Space is more important than place

You are a broken record that enters the conversation with pre-conceived comments.

I guess to me the only

I guess to me the only problem I see with walkable neighborhoods isn't the fact that they're walkable, but rather that you'd be hard pressed to find such a neighborhood that's actually affordable. Look up just about any metro relocation web site and all of the cute, historical, walkable, and squeaky-clean-safe neighborhoods are also the most expensive in that area. I live in California and everywhere I've lived so far has been walkable and I enjoy it. But we could never afford a house here. That goes for most any other neighborhood in every other metro we've looked to move to and that includes cities like Austin, Raleigh Durham, Atlanta, and so on. Thus for most people the only affordable option is to live out in suburban sprawl land. There is a major disconnect here. Given the choice, Most Americans would love to live in a safe, walkable, cuter neighborhood. Most can't afford it. Thus the reason why we are in the car-centric situation we're in because its nothing more than financial necessity rather than desire.

The price is just a

The price is just a reflection that people are voting.

Higher prices means there's just higher demand and short supply for walkable neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, people are priced out of tradition neighborhoods. People's only option is pay more for an older, walkable neighborhood or pay less and live in an auto-dependent neighborhood.

Price matters.

This is another reason that numbers of people living in the suburbs is not a true market indication. Would people prefer a walkable option or mindless sprawl? That question can be asked, and I think I know the answer for most people, but the option of a walkable neighborhood inside of an auto-dependent suburban area is simply not there.

So how can we tell what consumers want? Are demographics telling of what they want or just what they have available to them?

People aren't handily choosing suburbia for the sake of suburbia; they're choosing suburbia because it's the only option and/or it's in their price range.

Price Matters

Yes, price does indeed matter in terms of where people choose to settle. But there may be other trade offs in terms of cost of living expenses. In our family's case we estimate a 23% drop in our overall housing and transportation expenses moving from our single family suburban home in California to our condo right in the heart of Denver. We are now driving fewer miles, have no lawn maintenance and pool service costs, and have a lower tax obligation, among other expense reductions.

Prices sure DO matter

Yes, prices certainly DO matter.

The "fringe lots" price is the denominator of the price of all urban land.

In a typical economically healthy monocentric metro, land prices escalate around TEN TIMES from the fringe to the innermost, efficiently located suburbs.

In a "multinodal" metro with more mixed uses of land, the price "premium" for the most efficiently located land is only around THREE times.

Now do the math. Fringe lot, $30,000. The most expensive efficiently located lot in multinodal metro, $90,000. The same in a monocentric metro: $300,000.

Now drive up the price of fringe lots. $200,000 is typical. If the metro is multinodal, the most expensive efficiently located lot will be around $600,000. If the metro is monocentric, the price will be $2,000,000.

Question for urban planners. Where are people going to have the MOST CHOICE of efficient locations? And why do almost all you guys know JACK about what causes land price bubbles and how to avoid them? Because land prices are crucial to all this.

Alain Bertaud's studies reveal that in Portland and Curitiba, unnaturally high density redevelopment is occurring in INEFFICIENT locations FURTHER AWAY from the urban core; precisely because no-one can afford the prices nearer the urban core. These areas nearer the core have turned into an elite low density area which is also conveniently located to everything.

This might come as a shock to the people who think Milton Friedman, Freidrich Hayek, et al, were wrong about "the invisible hand of the market" constantly thwarting planners who do not understand economics.

Actually Phil

Most planners must take a few economic course to get a masters. Also, re-read what you wrote ... you almost make the point for urban planning!

You libertarian-free-marketeers are just pathetic!

But then again you moved

But then again you moved from California- an expensive state with expensive metros- to a "cheaper" state. The question is it less expensive due to comparing where you came from or is it in reality expensive by local economics?