Car Wars: Should Autos Rule The Road? Part II

Rick Harrison's Car.jpg

We have a severe drug problem, we've been told, that mostly affects suburbanites. The dangerous drug is not taken by mouth, nor by injection, yet it is used daily by every family member and must be stopped before we, as a nation, are utterly destroyed. According to many experts, our “dependence” on cars must stop.

Internet rumors abound that we are about to be legislated out of our stupor, and be taxed into high density, inner core cities. Should this rumor become fact, let’s look at what effect it will have on our economy, and, quite frankly, on the American Dream of home ownership.

Today, the housing market is still dealing with the disaster of plummeted prices. Since 80% of the new home market this past decade has been suburban, it would be safe to say that 80% of Americans that bought in this century are the hardest hit, because these new homes have dropped to pre-boom pricing. It has been young families, generally, that have driven out to the suburbs to find new homes, the promise of lower density, and newer safe schools. In addition, many (most) of these families believed that their homes were a source of income; after all, values were increasing 10% or more annually, and that equity could be tapped in loans, (both suburban and urban).

While many think of the suburbs as pure white, that is no longer true. The suburbs today, in general, are intermixed with all races. But the new race being ridiculed by many is the “suburbanite”. The suburbanite yearning for his or her daily fix of the car, consuming our fuel, and spewing carbon into our atmosphere must be eradicated at all costs.

So how do we eradicate this vermin? There are rumors of a carbon tax that will place a financial burden on those vehicular junkies. Who cares that this major portion of America's population is under the most financial pressure since the depression. If we tax these infidels, that will surely bring them to their senses , and we can cure their dependence on Chevys, Fords, and Mini-vans. Let’s break their backs once and for all, so that these families will abandon what is left of the suburbs and be forced back to the inner core. If reason does not work, we can just legislate it.

Let’s imagine this new future filled with promise of a new America. In this fantasy, we visit the Smith family, who moved from their 10,000 foot suburban lot into the urban core. Adam Smith, the father, now must take the bus to the train station for the new light rail line that goes to Edenville, his job out in the suburb as a plant manager (it seems that his place of employment did not make the move). With connections, he can make it to work within an hour, whereas his 10 mile commute from suburb to suburb took 20 minutes.

Lilly Smith (his new wife, as the old one refused to move into a 20 story inner city high-rise) works at Bester Buy on the edge of the city. She needs two bus connections to get there Having a car is not an option, since parking costs are prohibitive in the city. Luckily, the kids are old enough to be left alone; Josh is 8 years old, Jane is 12, and Joey, who is 15, watches over the siblings. Today is a holiday and they are home from school, but the cold rainy day keeps them inside, along with hundreds of other kids who play in the vast corridors.

Lilly arrives at work, only to remember that Jane had a dentist appointment which she forgot about. She shivers, thinking about the old days, and the warm comfort of the Mini-van she once relied on to take her kids to appointments. She breaks out into a sweat and falls into a stupor. Her fellow workers recognize the symptoms, as they too have been weaned of their dependence upon personal vehicles. Her manager, Ralph, lets her take a week of sick leave to get help.

Ralph is lucky. He lives in a single family neighborhood on the edge of the city. He has his own large lot, a spacious 35 feet wide and 90 feet long. He and his wife each posses a car. His luxury two story home, setback five feet from the sidewalk, is 25 feet wide and 50 feet deep; the house itself is a massive 2,500 square feet, over twice as large as the Smiths inner city apartment. He also has three children who enjoy the privacy of their back yard. The garage adjacent to the 12 foot wide alley consumes 440 square feet of their remaining 1,200 square foot rear yard. Still, with 760 square feet of green space, the kids are lucky.

Ralph and his wife, Mary, both drive electric cars. Mary has the larger vehicle, with a 50 mile range per charge on a warm day. Their daughter wants to play with a cousin who still lives in the suburbs, 20 miles away. This is a cold day, which reduces the range of the vehicle to 35 miles, and their cousins do not have a charging station, so their 11 years old daughter is driven to the Light Rail station, a mile away.

A week later, back at the Smith apartment, an argument starts between Adam and Lilly about her desire to get out of the city. Even if they did move out to near Adam's plant, they would need Lilly’s paycheck to make ends meet, so she would need the light rail and two bus connections to get to work. Lilly begins to sweat and shake again… When Josh asks what is wrong with Mommy, Adam explains about the days when Americans were drugged out on their cars, the days when people were free to go when and where they wanted. As he describes those terrible times, he too yearns for those days. Adam and Lilly dream of moving out to a place with space, if only the carbon tax on moving out of the city could allow it, but alas, it’s only a dream that only the wealthy can now afford.

A fantasy? Here is what I’m experiencing as a planner. When I met with a city official a few weeks ago I was admonished for a proposal that included attached garages. I explained that attaching the garage reduces 40 feet of exterior wall to be built, and here in Minnesota, an attached garage means you do not have to shovel snow between the home and the garage, nor slip on the ice. Why would I detach a garage, I asked? The city official explained that according to his planning staff, the space between the garage and the home is a social gathering spot where neighbors can stop and talk about their day. I had thought that’s what that large front porch we are proposing on the homes was for.

There is a movement to prevent the toxic drug — the car — from infecting our lives. For me, no way you are taking me off my ERPT -- Extremely Rapid Personal Transport -- dependence.

This is the second of a two-part series in which different authors examined the centrality of the autombile in urban and suburban life.

Photo by Rick Harrison of the author's ERPT -- his Porsche.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are and

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And again there is a

And again there is a disconnect as to 'why' people move to the far-flung burbs: Expense. The middle class has gotten pummeled for the better part of 30+ years and in the meantime those urban cores have become heavily gentrified. Home prices in many metros went up as much as 200%-400% in some extreme cases especially in California. I live in the Bay Area and in all reality, anything even remotely decent is still $500,000. I'm certainly not poor and make a six figure income. But I'm not about to spend 50%+ of my income on a house either.

What's more is that even in these metro cores, there is a micro-economic cost factor in regards to proximity to jobs. Homes and rents in San Francisco and Silicon Valley- where the bulk of the jobs in this area reside- cost a good 30-40% more than the surrounding immediate Bay Area. A typical house anywhere near Silicon Valley is easily $600,000+ and as much as a million for what amounts to a very mundane tract home.

The pattern of migration in the US has changed drastically. It used to be that in order to escape the high costs of living families would simply move 10-15 miles out of town. That trend has changed to moving out of state entirely. Most any recent chart shows a heavy stream of domestic migration out and away from some of the most economically significant states in the country- California, New York, etc. Almost all of this is due to housing costs.

I also don't entirely buy that cars are necessarily evil. The type of car you buy can make a significant impact. For example my wife and I carpool in a prius. The car gets around 48 MPG. We have a long commute ( see above as to why) and we use around 8 gallons of fuel per week. Now if we both owned two large SUVs that got around 18MPG each we would be using almost 5 times that amount.

Speaking of cars, 2011-2012 will perhaps be the most significant in terms of automotive technology progress. The Chevy Volt just won car of the year. The car goes 40 miles on a battery before kicking on the engine. GE just bout 12,000 of them and the demand and interest has been staggering. Nissan has the 100 mile range Leaf. Ford will have an electric Focus next year. Toyota has a deal with Tesla to produce electric Rav4's. The electric vehicle is becoming a reality and cars like the Volt prove you can have your cake and eat it too. Thus as of this upcoming year it will be totally possible for a family living in the suburbs to have long commute to the city AND not use a drop of gasoline while doing so. I fail to see anything wrong with that.

But in summary, if we were all somehow supposed to live in a perfect world and the world was to be better by having everyone live within urban cores, then urban planners and city officials along with community leaders are going to have to address the problem of affordability. That trumps anything. If an area is unaffordable people will move away. Its really as simple as that.

"I fail to see any thing

"I fail to see any thing wrong with that."

The problem is that the prevalence of the automobile means that vast amounts of public money is spent on the upkeep of roads. Also, the expense of cars is not only in the price of purchasing and buying gas, but insurance costs and the cost of maintaining them. There is also the issue of space to park once a commuter reaches his/her destination. The emphasis on the car also excludes a large portion of the population that cannot drive for whatever reason.

I agree that there is a lack of suitable public transit from many suburbs to employment centers. No one can expect people to NOT use cars when there is no viable alternative. That is why there must be a movement towards Transit Oriented Development. In order for people to rely less on cars, it must be more convenient (b/c of costs or time) to use alternative forms of transportation.

Reducing our "dependency" is not about sacrificing convenience or paying more, it is about creating a convenient system for all and reducing costs and waste over time.

Additional comments

I'm originally from Detroit, so the gentrified theory does not work, but your point is well taken, that there are two major reasons for moving to the suburbs - one the gentrification as you said, and the oher is failed urban cores, which is more unfortunate.

I agree that the Chevy Volt represents a deal changer, and two years ago I placed a down payment on one to be the official first order in Minnesota. I've decided though NOT to go through with the purchase, primarily because I think the technology will change quite a bit as competition takes over (the Leaf). The Cadillac Urban Vehicle just anounced looks fantastic and gets 65 MPG. This is also a deal changer as it's the first American micro luxury car. That said I only travel 5 miles to and from my office, so the impact is low.

Yes- you are right that not

Yes- you are right that not all metros are gentrified. But most any that have at least halfway decent job markets are. At least their urban cores are. For example, much has been made about Raleigh and Austin these days- they are often touted as the "new" places to move to along with the rest of TX for that matter.

As someone who actually tried to move to Austin last year, that is definitely easier said than done. First of all the competition for jobs is fierce- much worse than in the Bay Area. Secondly, the jobs - even senior level positions in my field- paid less... a LOT less. As in more than 50% less than what I make now. That's not as big of a deal since we've saved up a lot for a house in advance. The bigger issue was just finding a job there period.

Lastly, property taxes are high in TX. We're talking 2%-3% per the value of your home. That's $6,000 a year for a $200,000 house. These cities are only cheap to some extent because many moving there already have money and the prices are less than the overpriced coastal metros they're moving from. In reality a lot of the walkable, less sprawly neighborhoods in Austin were as much as some of those in the Bay Area. I found a similar situation in Raleigh as well. But of course you could easily move to the burbs and pick up a cookie cutter house for $150k or less. I can't deny I find that tempting even though I would not care so much for the sprawl.

I've been investigating alternative cities to move to for about 5 years. In each and every case the affordable cities on the list have a huge supply of affordable housing. But in most cases what turns out to be affordable is in the burbs and not the center city cores.

To be honest my line of thinking these days is to simply avoid large or even medium metros altogether and move to a small metro and live literally in the sticks. In many cities in the Southeast this is still possible. The only problem is a lack of jobs. Thus I plan on saving up more money for the next 4-5 years and basically semi-retire to such a place and maybe get some sort of local "Joe job" as a means to pay utilities, etc. The house will have been paid for in full.

In Texas there is no state income tax.

To compare areas one needs to look at total taxes. Texas has no state income tax, which makes up for a lot of the difference in property taxes. Of course the taxes are higher in the city than in the unincorporated areas, because you have to pay for the fancy city planners and the like. (Now Austin and San Antonio have cheaper electricty than Houston and Dallas, because the city provides the service, as well. (let alone looking at CA electric prices. As long as natural gas stays low the electric price will be low in these cities)

Research, evidence and ideology

TX1234 and Michael Harrison, you are both thinking in the right direction. See my comments about urban economics on 2 previous threads.

The trouble is, virtually NO-ONE in the planning profession has any knowledge whatsoever of the research that has been done and is being done in the field of urban economics. Libertarian think tanks get dismissed by them as "ideologically driven", even if people like Wendell Cox know more about the subject than just about anyone; but meanwhile all the completely objective academic work is not getting promoted by anybody. I mean papers by Uni professors like Gordon, Huang, Raphael, Quigley, Levinson, Malpezzi, Green, Crane, and a score of others. Glaeser and Gyourko are probably the best known, and even their papers alone should have caused the urban planning profession, if IT was ideologically neutral, to drastically re-hash its approach.

One paper I discovered recently actually attempted to quantify the factors driving suburbanization. It is certainly unfair to blame "love affairs with the auto". Urban planners zoning and urban renewal projects, for the best of motives re social and health outomes at the time, are really the main cause all along. Now the current generation of planners tries to tell the American people it is all "their fault" that urban sprawl happened.

What is not to say that a future generation of urban planners will be trying to reverse what the current lot are trying to achieve, because the criteria being pursued has changed yet again?

The evidence is well and truly in that none of the "planning" has a remotely worthwhile effect anyway. Even in Europe, the percentage difference to the USA re "sprawl" and VMT and so on, remains in the single figures - in spite of rip-off gas taxes and urban cores high density and walkability and so on having been retained pretty much since WW2. THEIR planners tried "renewal" in the 1950's too, only the public resisted it a lot more successfully than in the USA. That is really the main explanation for the few % they remain ahead of the USA. Point that out to urban planners who love European cities.

But the urban planning profession will not be changed by anything that is said on "New Geography". It is the ideological capture of THEIR journals and web sites and other sources that they DO follow, that needs a breakthrough.

The problem with getting on THEIR Journals

My experience is that if you do not spew New Urbanism, your not getting posted on most planning web sites, the ULI or NAHB - at least that's been my experience. You see in the good old USA - from those in planning Innovation need not apply if that Innovation does not conform to the rhetoric that the organization wants to promote.

Luckily for us, land developers, civil engineers, and a select group of architects and planners who have not drunk the Kool-Aid believe in more sustainable solutions and as such has made us profitable.

It's a shame that the good 'ol USA is losing it's MOJO!