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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re:But then you moved

Yes, it is indeed a comparative issue in terms of Denver's lower cost of living vis-a-vis California.

By the way you presented some great insights in terms of the land use element. I'd like to digest this a bit further and talk some more.

Michael Scott
Centro Inc

You're thinking along the right lines, TX


Your mind is running in the same channel as mine.

See what you make of my theoretical observation above about land prices.