Diamond, Geoff (University of Illinois-Chicago)

Henry Ford and Dwight Eisenhower are, perhaps, the biggest villains to have ever graced the American landscape. Seems like a radical statement, doesn’t it? It’s not. Ford should be lauded for his contributions to industrialized society, namely the concept of the assembly line – but we also must hold him accountable for the vile product which spawned his revolution: the personal automobile. Makes sense. But why chastise Eisenhower? Quite simply, it was Eisenhower’s 1956 “National Defense Highway System” legislation that, quite literally, ripped the United States’ urban fabric to shreds. His blunder wouldn’t have been possible without Ford’s invention; likewise, Ford’s automobile wouldn’t have been nearly as destructive without the system of highways and byways that allowed the mass-exodus of the American populace from urb to suburb and, eventually, to exurb. In the last century, we, as a Nation, have literally turned one of the most fertile natural environments on the planet into a wasteland, of sorts, consisting of onramps, offramps, interchanges, parking lots and garages. From the late Central Artery in Boston, to the Dan Ryan Expressway on Chicago’s south side, to the West Side Highway that separates Manhattan from its waterfront we have continually, intentionally or otherwise, used automotive infrastructure to destroy healthy urban conditions.

A blighted urban landscape is far from being the biggest casualty in the automobile’s attack on America – there are myriad environmental, safety and economic concerns that are entirely related to the use of personal motor vehicles in the United States. Did you know that the leading cause of death for children (ages five to fourteen) is automobile accidents? More than 120 Americans are killed in automobile accidents each and every day. Our cars are directly responsible for one-quarter of all the greenhouse gases that we emit each and every day. Eight million barrels of oil, per day, is combusted by automobiles in the United States. That’s nearly three billion barrels per year. The direct cost associated with all that oil is more than $200 billion, annually. That doesn’t even begin to speak to the billions of dollars spent, each year, to ensure that overseas oil supplies continue to flow, unimpeded, to US shores. Cars create more than seven billion pounds of un-recycled scrap and waste each year – all this garbage ends up somewhere as a permanent fixture on the American landscape. Even though the United States accounts for only five percent of the World’s population, we’re responsible for consuming no less than one-quarter of the World’s oil – half of that consumption is directly related to automobile use. Did you know that every tire on the road will shed one pound of rubber a year? All these particulates end up in our atmosphere, our water supply, our playgrounds and our lungs. That does nothing to mention the more than seven billion discarded tires rotting across America. Maybe we could just burn them.

Aren’t numbers fun? There’s more.

During the last century, an area equal to all the arable land in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania was paved, at a cost of trillions of dollars, to make way for the mighty automobile. Unfortunately, it costs even more to maintain it than it does to build it in the first place. That figure? Something like $200 million a day, just at the federal level. Why does it take so much infrastructure to handle the Nation’s automotive traffic? First, you have to understand that the average vehicle occupies 300 square feet of space when it’s immobile – a person, in contrast, absorbs just five square feet. Things get worse if you actually want to go somewhere. A car traveling at sixty miles per hour demands 3,000 square feet of real estate – a pedestrian needs just ten. For every single automobile in the United States, there are six parking spaces that must be constructed. We don’t know whether you and your vehicle are going to be at the office, the grocery store, the bank, the school, the movies or Applebee’s – so, we’ve got to make sure there’s a parking space available for you, at all times, at each and every one of those locations. Now your car’s taking up another 1,500 square feet of American soil at any given moment. In addition to all the money spent at the federal level for automotive infrastructure, Washington provides municipalities all over the Nation with more than $28 billion per year in aid to maintain and expand motor-vehicle infrastructure. All told, the surreptitious cost of the American car culture is more than $465 billion, annually. That’s serious cash that could be spent creating a more efficient, healthier transportation network for one of the World’s most mobile societies.

Are you shocked and disgusted yet? You should be.

The bottom line is that industrialized nations, in general, made a terrible collective mistake when they turned to the automobile as an instrument of improved personal mobility. The car brought with it major unanticipated consequences for urban life and has become a serious cause of environmental, social, and aesthetic problems in society at large.

The challenge is to realize the follies of our ways and begin to take steps, not just to mitigate, but, rather to eliminate the problem entirely. To uncar, so to speak. The changes would be radical. A paradigmatic shift in the way we live; the way we function. They would be unprecedented. They would be unpopular. They are undeniably necessary to preserve ourselves, our children and our planet.

The automobile can only be supplanted if a better alternative is available. What would happen if we began to design our cities to work without cars? Is it possible to be free of the automobile while keeping the rapid and convenient mobility it once offered? Public transportation, as it stands, is typically a disagreeable and slow substitute for the car - it needs to become a pleasant experience and should attain an average speed near that of a private automobile in typical traffic conditions. Much of this can be achieved using proven technology that’s already available; although a certain level of re-centralization is necessary for the ultimate success of any economical public transportation system. Fortunately, an increase in density, if properly managed, is directly correlative to an increase in quality of life.

Numerous studies conducted by municipalities and urban planners across the Nation have indicated that the minimum density required to sustain a viable bus-based transit system is seven people per acre; that number rises to nine per acre to sustain light-rail systems. Thus, it can be reasoned that it’s the sprawling nature of the American landscape that presents the single biggest challenge to a successful car-free society – the psychology behind the desire for each citizen to occupy as much land as possible must be reversed. The upshot is that it seems as if much of the necessary “unlearning” is already occurring; cities are (again) becoming increasingly desirable places to live. Even those misguided attempts at crafting suburban and exurban “lifestyle” centers – in which retail and residential programs are mixed into a single development – affirm the trend. So, if the catalyst for car-free living, density, is already acting, how do we ensure that we’re not just setting ourselves up for disaster? The trouble is, if you increase density, you simply must decrease dependence on the automobile – otherwise you’re left with more of a logistical nightmare as a dense car-centric population than you would be as a sprawling car-centric one. In fact, this is how the whole mess started. America grew into its own as a collection of dense urbs; private transportation (cars) became increasingly attainable and highways more prevalent, so we began to spread into the hinterland – after all, who doesn’t want an acre or four all to themselves? As more and more people left the city center for the periphery, they continued to spread themselves further and further from the center of their given metropolis. This required exponentially increasing amounts of infrastructure to support the necessary trips from these so-called “bedroom communities” into the City and back. So, we littered the suburbs and exurbs with office parks and Best Buys and Circuit City’s and Home Depots and Office Depots and Applebee’s and Red Lobster’s to combat those nasty trips to the City. Woops. Each and every one of these things has its own infrastructure requirements. Worse yet, people refused to live in the same suburb or exurb where they worked – so, in addition to the daily ebb and flow of people from the city center, we had to create infrastructure to support people who just wanted to go from one suburb to another, and, eventually, from one exurb to another. And from a suburb to an exurb. And from an exurb to the City. And so on and so forth. Luckily, the fine people on Capitol Hill made sure that we had I-90, I-94, I-57, I-80, I-55, I-88, I-290, I-294, I-355 and I-190. Of course, these just serve Chicago. There are hundreds upon hundreds more highways, just like them, spreading across the nation like a pandemic.

That said, how must we fix the problem?

It may seem strange, but, we should begin by looking at the air-travel industry. More than 600 million passengers are shuttled around the Nation each year by the major US air carriers. They are moved, with incredible efficiency, through a system known as a “hub and spoke.” The concept behind the hub and spoke system is simple: you are brought closer and closer to your destination on a smaller and smaller scale. For example, if a passenger wanted to fly from Atlanta to Boise, they would likely fly, first, to Denver. The trip from Atlanta to Denver – undoubtedly a popular one as these are two of the Nation’s busiest air hubs – would likely occur on a large jet with several hundred other passengers and would be available at many different times throughout the day. Upon arrival in Denver, those passengers with a different final destination would all board smaller aircraft with fewer passengers to get to increasingly localized destinations. The flight to Boise might only have a hundred other passengers on board, and probably wouldn’t occur nearly as frequently as flights to larger destinations. To take it a step further, let’s assume that the passenger traveling to Boise was actually interested in ultimately getting to a small town named Sandpoint (500 miles north of Boise) – they would probably board an even smaller plane in Boise with, perhaps, as few as ten to fifteen other passengers that may only be scheduled to occur once a day. The trip from Atlanta to Sandpoint may have taken hours upon hours, but, a similar trip in car would be measured in days.

So, naturally, air travel would remain a vital cog in a car-free American infrastructure. But, what happens on smaller scales? The first step is to realize the value of the hub and spoke system and to apply that methodology to other modes of transportation. The second step is to make those other modes of transportation more available. No, the private automobile is not one of those modes. So, in essence, car-free America is composed of an intermodal hub and spoke system. One in which much of the required infrastructure is already in place.

First, the Nation is divided into regions. Seven of them, to be exact: the Northwest region (consisting of Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), the Southwest region (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), the North-Central region (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan), the South-Central region (Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana), the North-Atlantic region (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine), the Mid-Atlantic region (Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, the District of Columbia and North Carolina) and the South-Atlantic region (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida). Each of these regions has a designated hub (respectively, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Richmond and Atlanta). All cross-continent travel (we’ll call these trips over 1000 miles) occurs, primarily by air, via these seven hubs.

From these hubs emanate the first signs of the “spokes,” – each leading to a subsequently smaller hub. Long-distance travel (trips fewer than 1000 miles) are handled using one of the two new pieces of infrastructure introduced into the system: high speed rail. One of the reasons that high speed rail has been so successful in handling much of Europe’s travel needs is the close proximity of destinations relative to those in the United States. The system has proven far more effective than air or motor vehicle travel for trips approximately five-hundred miles in length. Our current inventory of railroad in the United States isn’t appropriate for high-speed use: turns are too sharp, obstacles too often and conditions too poor to safely travel any faster than our existing fleet of heavy-rail vehicles already do. So, in an effort to minimize the capital cost associated with introducing such long expanses of new infrastructure, high speed rails should be laid along some of the major east-west and north-south highway axes already in place – one direction of travel on an existing highway (northbound, for example), with its gentle grade and slow, banked turns could be retrofitted to support new rail infrastructure at a greatly reduced expense, while the opposite side (southbound, in this example) could be repurposed or recycled. According to a 2007 article in USA Today, Amtrak was quoted as estimating the cost of a dedicated high-speed rail line between Washington, D.C. and New York at $10 billion – or roughly $43 million per mile. Of course, this includes astronomical costs associated with land-acquisition in the densely inhabited northeast corridor – the cost would be half of that total to create a system of the same length in California. If we were to extrapolate that capital expenditure and assume an average cost of $30 million per mile (even this figure is inflated given that we’d be using existing highway infrastructure as a base to build upon), we could build seven miles of rail each and every day just by diverting the funds we currently use to maintain our highway infrastructure. That means we could create ten entirely new high-speed-rail-based spokes (of 250 miles each) every year without spending a dime more than we spend just on freeway maintenance. In less than a decade, each of the seven top-tier hubs previously outlined could be connected to fourteen second-tier hubs – again, all done with no extra expenditure. In less than a decade, Chicago could be connected to Springfield, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Omaha, Bismarck, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Indianapolis – all via high speed rail.

With the top-two tiers connected, we can continue to focus further and further in until we reach a more municipal level. The challenges become increasingly complex, and the obstacles far greater each time we “zoom in,” so to speak. The MSA, or Mean Statistical Area, is where most of the changes in American settlement patterns must occur. An MSA is, essentially, what you would consider to be a metropolitan region. This is where we must reverse the aforementioned psychological idea of the “American Dream.” A bigger lawn is not correlative to a more fulfilling existence. If people insist that the suburbs remain an alternative to living at the center of the MSA, the system can cope with that, albeit clumsily, through regional rail systems (Chicago’s METRA rail, Northern California’s Caltrain and South Florida’s Tri-Rail are relatively successful examples); but, the exurbs begin to become increasingly problematic. It simply isn’t cost effective, based on the ultra-low densities that epitomize exurban existence, to create any kind of meaningful mass transit systems to serve these areas. Citizens of this Nation have got to convince themselves that it is okay to live at a density higher than a half-person per acre.

The next step, beyond the acceptance and proper implementation of regional heavy rail, is the introduction or improvement of light rail at the City level. Many of the Nation’s largest cities already have such systems in place: New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and Pittsburgh, to name a few. These vital bits of infrastructure would need serious repair and efficiency improvements as many of them have operated for nearly a century without major upgrades. The local light rail system is one of the most important parts of the entire intermodal system, as it allows a passenger to traverse a great urban distance (from one end of the City, perhaps, to another) in a relatively short period of time. Since many of these systems reside underground, there impact on neighboring real estate is almost all positive – no noise at grade, no pollution at grade (electric systems don’t generate pollution at the point of use anyway) and no unsightly infrastructure. A simple stairway into the underbelly of the City is enough to spark the development and success of an entire neighborhood.

Delving one step deeper into the system, one step beyond the municipal light rail that connects quaternary hubs, we finally unleash the second of the two types of new infrastructure previously alluded to: the personal rapid transit system, or PRT. This fascinating alternative transportation system is already finding a place in localized infrastructure schemas around the World: the ULTra PRT at Heathrow Airport in London is scheduled to open in 2008, as is a similar system to shuttle workers around the Dubai International Financial Center in the United Arab Emirates. Several large-scale office parks in the United States (primarily in Texas and California) are also considering using PRT to cut solo car trips in half during the work-day. The system is deceptively simple and stunningly brilliant all at once. The PRT is, essentially, a network of small vehicles under independent or semi-independent automatic control, running on a fixed guideway. The idea attempts to address a number of perceived weaknesses of public mass transit including fixed timetables, limited routes and sharing travel space with unrelated travelers. The definition of the PRT does nothing to specify any particular technology – electric motors, linear motors, magnetic levitation, rubber wheels, etcetera – rather, it is the functionality, efficiency, scalability and service provision that is important to comprehend. The smaller scale of the vehicles used (typically equipped to hold one to six passengers) is directly responsible for allowing smaller guideways and support structures when compared with light rail systems; this results in lower construction costs, smaller easements and a less visually disruptive infrastructure. A 2002 study, conducted by the European Union, addressed the feasibility of using PRT in five European cities – they concluded that the only barriers to PRT deployment on a massive scale were political in nature. The idea was even embraced by U.S. President Richard Nixon upon announcing a federal PRT development program in 1972. He said “If we can send three men to the moon 200,000 miles away, we should be able to move 200,000 people to work three miles away.” The PRT is such an effective system because stops are located off of the main guideway – on a shoulder, of sorts. This allows vehicles bypassing any given destination to maintain their speed (approximately 30 MPH) while a vehicle in front of them uses auxiliary track to embark or disembark passengers. When a vehicle has reached its final destination and its passengers have been offloaded, it simply waits at that location for a new passenger, or set of passengers, to board the system with an entirely new destination. Rides could be free, pay-per-use or set up on daily, weekly, monthly or annual passes according to the desires of the municipality which operates the system. Moving people around a dense urban environment at a consistent speed of thirty miles per hour is no small feat would represent a huge leap forward from current transportation standards – private automobiles can’t even match that pace on congested city streets.

The final piece in the puzzle that is to become the most extensive car-free transportation network in the World relies on the most private means of mobility and occurs at the smallest scale of daily life. These means include walking, cycling and even motorized methods of personal transportation such as the Segway. Once a traveler has arrived as close to their final destination as any combination of air travel, high speed rail, heavy rail, light rail and PRT can allow, a passenger could use any number of means to, ultimately, arrive wherever they chose. It is the reintroduction of human-powered transportation that may just prove to be the most beneficial aspect of the entire system. A more mobile population is a healthier population; more walkable neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure leads to improved perception and reality of place. No more would every street in America look the same as the one before it – Cities can once again be allowed to grow amorphously; free from the orthogonal constraints of automobile-centric planning.

All of this, of course, is contingent on a paradigmatic shift in the way the industrialized World thinks about mobility and conditions of habitation. Those accustomed to suburban living may think that the required population densities are too high and it’s certainly true that not everyone wants to live in a dense urban core. Historically, the density required to make America car-free is not unusual, and the low suburban densities now common have only developed since the automobile initiated the process of urban sprawl. The perceived congestion of modern cities is, actually, largely a consequence of trucks and cars. On a sunny afternoon, the Italian city of Venice has one of the highest population densities of any city in the world, yet it never feels oppressively crowded. When streets are dedicated to humans, rather than machines, the perception of congestion is considerably reduced.

Another common argument to the urban lifestyle comes from families with children who prefer to live in the suburbs because of perceived disadvantages to city life. However, many of these disadvantages are eliminated once the danger, congestion, noise, and pollution of the automobile have been removed. In addition, the presence of large, nearby open space afforded by the removal of so much infrastructure provides an outdoor environment superior, in many ways, to the suburbs. Finally, the removal of the automobile makes cities safe for children.

The four billion inhabitants of the developing world seem eager to adopt Western patterns of private automobile use; they must be aware, however, of the costs and encouraged to think about better solutions. The planet simply can’t carry the ecological burden.

A car-free America is possible. A car-free World is possible.


Anonymous said...

Great topic, but too long - need to summarize.

Anonymous said...

I agree with last comment - summarize here so that we can get the big picture faster.

Anonymous said...

Your a fuck

Anonymous said...

^-- very mature. Well stated.