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City of Bikes
November 4, 2009 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Car-free cities: an idea with legs
Car-free neighbourhoods are no unrealistic utopiathey exist all over Europe.
posted by kliuless (101 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The unrealistic utopian part is imagining that concepts that work in outlier (dense, often rich, and unusual even for Europe) neighborhoods have much to say about how people live in normal areas of Europe, much less the US, Canada, or elsewhere.

I mean, I'm as pro-cycling and pro-environment and pro-whatever as the next person, and my reaction to this is "so fucking what?" I'm happy for the people in those neighborhoods, but the path to transportation rationality in the US or in the rest of Europe is not going to come from comparisons like this, but from changes that make sense in the context and limitations in which most people live their lives.
posted by Forktine at 6:03 AM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


Want car-free Tokyo. WANT.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:03 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem is that these neighborhoods have always been like this, they weren't retrofitted. In Holland we've been a nation of bikers since before we built our motorway infrastructure, we didn't just wake up one morning and build a few bike paths. Low density areas will never be pedestrian or bike friendly, nor will they get adequate public transportation.

The whole point of the exurbs is their low density and there is no way around that.
posted by atrazine at 6:13 AM on November 4, 2009 [7 favorites]


I read the FPP as being about "Cat-free cities" and was coming in here to register my heated opposition to the concept.

However, I thought the summary in the Reuters piece was about right:
How do other cities get there from here? Slowly. You don’t do everything at once, but instead just add things incrementally, until you reach the point at which cyclists outnumber car drivers. Lots of attitudes need to be changed, including those of today’s cyclists, who, in car-centered cities, tend to be highly aggressive. And attitudes change slowly. But it can — and should — be done.
I think the biggest change that could be made in most places in the US (and this is actually an issue to a far greater extent in small cities, suburbs, and towns than in big metro areas) is changing zoning laws to favor mixed-use instead of single-use.

Dropping in bike lanes is good, and I'm certainly not against them, but they don't change the fundamental problem of people living way too far away from where they work. I'd argue, strongly, that the choice of transportation mechanism is actually secondary to this structural issue.

As you decrease commute distance you'll see people become more open to the idea of bikes, because a 5 mi bike commute is a whole lot less daunting than a 35 mi one. Plus, on the days when that bike commuter just doesn't feel like riding, they're using a fraction of the energy that they would have on their longer commute.

It might seem more difficult to change living/working patterns than transportation, but I don't think this is necessarily the case; the average lifespan of a mortgage in the US is said to only be about six years. Even factoring in refinances, people move all the time. So it might not take as long to start seeing results from changing attitudes in planning and zoning as it might appear on first glance.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:17 AM on November 4, 2009 [9 favorites]


The recent explosion of bike traffic here in Stockholm has nothing to do with environmentalism, health concerns or any other such reason. People bike because it's the only way to get to work in time. When there is no more room on the roads and in the subway people go by bike.
posted by uandt at 6:26 AM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Compare with: One Child Policy - Hey, it works in China!

I'd love to not need a car in the US, but it isn't going to happen for cities without "New", "York", and "City" in their name.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:30 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


"...the fundamental problem of people living way too far away from where they work. I'd argue, strongly, that the choice of transportation mechanism is actually secondary to this structural issue."

This is just another way of saying that housing costs have fucked us in yet another way.

I'd be perfectly delighted to live within bike or walking distance of my workplace. However, the only choices for housing a family of four in a radius around downtown San Francisco are gangbanger ghettos, somewhere in exurban Mount Distant Farry Farlands Village in County Far, or outlandishly expensive housing. I ain't got a million dollars to blow on a place to live, and I sure as hell am not going to raise my kids in H-P (I went to high school out there, and trust me, it's not a pleasant place), so that pretty much leaves the sub-sub-suburbs as one of the only practical options.

Twenty-plus years of continuous flipping in the urban housing market is the cause of that "structural issue" you're talking about. People commute really huge distances because that's all they can afford.
posted by majick at 6:33 AM on November 4, 2009 [6 favorites]


Low density areas will never be pedestrian or bike friendly, nor will they get adequate public transportation.

I don't know about that. I mean, get rid of zoning that keeps people from running businesses from their homes -- considering people will actually start doing that as employment in large businesses fail to make up what will be lost in the ongoing recession(s), combined with increasingly volatile energy costs contributing to a decrease in use of personal vehicles and a subsequent drop in road repairs as local government budgets shrink -- and I think the suburbs could very well turn into a pretty pedestrian friendly place. Remember, the homes in the suburbs have bigger lawns (sometimes) and bigger houses which can be cohabited by many people (in order to trim costs and otherwise share scarce resources, as is already common in many countries).
posted by symbollocks at 6:34 AM on November 4, 2009


Symbollocks has it. The problem is single-use zoning.
posted by anthill at 6:40 AM on November 4, 2009


I'd love to not need a car in the US, but it isn't going to happen for cities without "New", "York", and "City" in their name.

It'd work for any city, of almost any size I think as long as there's not much sprawl and they've been wise to keep things nice and dense. Lots of people here in Portland go without cars.
posted by floam at 6:43 AM on November 4, 2009


I read the FPP as being about "Cat-free cities" and was coming in here to register my heated opposition to the concept.

I read it as 'cat-free cities' and asked if we can have dog free as well while we are at it.
posted by Megami at 6:48 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


The thing is that in the U.S. urban policy is incredibly pro car. The car centric culture of america is not the natural state of affairs, but has been actively encouraged by the government, from federal highway policy to local zoning laws that require minimum amounts of parking, and public parking provided in central cites at rates vastly below market rates.

Car free would be nice, but I'd go for policy that was merely car agnostic.
posted by afu at 6:49 AM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


The US will never be car-free because there's just too damn much US. Where I live, for instance, is surrounded on all sides by farmers all-too-willing to see to developers. No natural barriers exist to expansion.

There was an article about emerging "Car-free" suburbs in Germany in the Times last year. Essentially, the idea is to create several little, tiny, walkable suburbs that are isolated in the middle of nowhere but connect to one another and to a central urban center via rail. That obviously could work.

But I've learned the hard way that, like an above commenter has said, many people don't want density. The comment a particularly virulent detractor made to me was, "I don't want to be scrambling all over other people like rats." This was followed by some derogatory racial and political comments (of course).

As long as there is cheap land in the US, someone will buy it and build a horrible, car-dependent exurb that someone who buy to get that much further away from people they don't like.

We can only hope that gas gets too expensive to continue subsidizing ignorance.
posted by jefficator at 7:00 AM on November 4, 2009


I don't know about the rest of you, but in Ottawa about a third of the year there's snow on the ground. I know it's possible to bike on icy roadways and I'm sure a lot of the cyclists on metafilter do just that, but when one has personal autos if he can afford them, public transportation if he can't, he parks the bike and starts driving. I think this is a great idea two thirds of the year, but I'm curious how bad the winter gets in Vauban... is it anything like this?

Car-free temperate cities, he types bitterly as he sips hot chocolate on a cold morning.
posted by battlebison at 7:03 AM on November 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


The thing is that in the U.S. urban policy is incredibly pro car

I know that technology and medicine made unprecedented advances in the twentieth century, but the more I learn about Detroit, the more I wonder: is the entire story of post WWII American prosperity the story of the auto-industry? Between the Big Three Auto Makers, the petroleum industry, and the National Interstate Highway project--wasn't the vast majority of American growth directly attributable to this single conglomeration of government and industry?
posted by jefficator at 7:04 AM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I once lived in a city -- okay, a large town -- that had many more bicycles than cars, because the downtown streets weren't any wider than the map I've just linked. It was wonderful to live there -- and those areas which really were only accessible by car were considered to be the least nice places to live.

But it was this was not through accident, or lack of growth, but because the powers that be (a mix of university power and city/county planning) ensured that development was much denser than happens in places like North America and Australia. Partly, this was to preserve the precious farmland which surrounded the city -- it's not like Britain has land to spare, but also because people liked it that way.

I now live in Toronto, Canada, a city with decent public transit and a plan to increase density. But all around the main city, the suburbs and ex-urbs are eating away at our precious farmland - which frankly, Canada can't afford to lose either. We have a lot of land, but not that much of this quality and in this climate. But the city councils in the suburbs and ex-urbs are controlled by developers and are only concerned about how to increase their tax base by building yet more low-density housing with no thought to the issues of density, transit, or even neighbourliness.

We do make choices about how to plan our cities -- and they are planned for cars. And it's not just the powers that be -- all of us also reinforce or repudiate those choices when we make our own. When we look for houses with lots of land to them, we are reinforcing low-density development. When we vote in city-councillors who don't support good urban planning, we reinforce bad planning.

Maybe I'm just inherently on the other side of this discussion, since I'm someone who does not know how to drive and I grew up in one of those bad areas which a lot of people who know how to drive avoid moving to. But I see people every day making choices that reinforce this sprawl -- sprawl which has serious detremental effects on both the physical environment and the social environment of a city and community. They have reasons that they will justify to themselves - it's the only place they could buy a house (do you need a house? why not an apartment?), it's the only "good neighbourhood" (except that your children will be trapped when young, and drink and drive as teenagers -- something we city kids were never tempted by), my kids need a backyard (yeah, but they take up space - why not enjoy a massive park like I had when I was a kid? Better than a backyard, because there are other kids there).
posted by jb at 7:11 AM on November 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


The snow is a bad argument -- Toronto gets its share, and the TTC still goes. How do you think poor people get around in winter?

For cycling, maybe we just need to develop bicycles with big snow-tires.
posted by jb at 7:15 AM on November 4, 2009


No natural barriers exist to expansion. [...] As long as there is cheap land in the US, someone will buy it and build a horrible, car-dependent exurb that someone who buy to get that much further away from people they don't like.

I beg to differ. How about the cost and production of the energy powering that expansion?
posted by symbollocks at 7:15 AM on November 4, 2009


I don't understand why the denser American cities don't have pedestrian zones like you find in the middle of most European cities. Take the six most central, dense streets. Block them to normal car traffic; only local dropoffs/pickups and the pedestrians have the right of way. It would work great in so many cities: at least San Francisco (Union Square), Portland, Seattle, New York, Boston, probably a lot more. And it wouldn't really disrupt car traffic, you're only closing streets that no one wants to drive on anyway.
posted by Nelson at 7:16 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Before making a place car-free, you need to make it car-unnecessary. How to do it:

1) Fix a rigid urban boundary to limit sprawl, and set a proportion of new development that has to occur in built-up areas.
2) Get rid of minimum parking requirements, or turn them into maximum parking requirements.
3) Rezone promising streets to mixed use, of say 4 to 8 stories.
4) Put transit infrastructure (e.g. rail) along important corridors both as attractive transit and to cause residential and employment uses to sprout up there instead of elsewhere. Build transit infrastructure in lieu of new highways (though not for the same sprawl-encouraging purpose).
5) Fix missing links in sidewalks and paths, and make them usable in all seasons.
6) Charge user fees for highways.
posted by parudox at 7:19 AM on November 4, 2009 [8 favorites]


This would never work in most of the Midwest (except Chicago). Kansas City, where I live, has had a light rail initiative fail 8 times before passing. The only problem now is that the city government didn't plan on how to pay for all this.

I see a few issues with public transport succeeding here:

1. The car culture is ingrained in people. There's a certain romanticism, along with a need to feel free to do what they want, that makes people bristle at the thought of having to get around using someone else's schedule.

2. People in the suburbs don't want poor people from the inner city to have easy access to their neighborhoods. This is more insidious, but I can gather this is a problem. It's often conveyed as a desire to not have the crime rate increase, but really means that people who live in outlying areas want to have poor, possibly minority, people infiltrating the neighborhoods they live in. There is a reason for white flight from the inner cities, after all.

3. Sprawling cities can't easily set up an infrastructure that will serve the majority of the population. The people in the suburbs are loath to subsidize a project that will not have a big benefit on their communities.

I'm a proponent of public transit, but until these fundamental issues are resolved, I don't see the majority of the US being able to go carless.
posted by reenum at 7:20 AM on November 4, 2009


London is very very interesting in this respect. First of all, Greater London is far too big to have people cycling everywhere so if you're in the further suburbs, about zone 3 on the tube map, then you can't cycle around unless you're willing to cycle for at least an hour into work. (I live close enough to cycle in and it's great to realise that cycling is always faster than taking the bus or the tube unless you start pushing the outer outer reaches.)

But, traveling by car is also not really an option unless your London's so Great you might as well be living in another town. The congestion charge (essentially a toll both) means it's incredibly expensive, parking means it's incredibly expensive and it's just generally painful what with the traffic and tricky road system. The urban system actively discourages you from driving around.

So in the end those who travel by car are making a point to travel by car at the expense of their time, money and just general convenience.
posted by litleozy at 7:21 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Right, biking is cool. Please (seriously) tell me how I bike to work in slushy snow, heavy rain, or high summer heat and humidity here in Boston and arrive at work looking professional and ready to run a meeting or meet with customers?

I'm a big fan of public transportation -- I love me the subway and some well-placed bus routes. And I'm all for living close to work instead of way out in the 'burbs. But I think biking, with the associated exposure to the elements and physical exertion, only works for a subset of commuting people. Also worth noting the first linked article is not about bike cities, but rather about car-free cities. The "biking" bit was added by the OP linking those two other articles. So how are we going to convince cities to implement serious public transportation instead of half-assed bus services? If cities can manage that and reduce car traffic, then the cyclists can go nuts on the newly roads.

I grew up biking everywhere in my suburb before I could drive, so don't think I'm completely anti-bike as transportation, but I admit my time in Boston as both a driver being cut off by bikes and a pedestrian being nearly run over by bikes has jaded me a bit. The third article is right to say that "attitudes" need to change.
posted by olinerd at 7:22 AM on November 4, 2009


Low density areas will never be pedestrian or bike friendly, nor will they get adequate public transportation.

Low density areas are only sustainable when oil is cheap (as it has been throughout most of the post-WW2 period). When prices rise above a certain limit, heating those palatial McMansions and driving for 10 minutes to pick up the groceries (not to mention an hour to get to work) become unaffordable.

When this happens, economic forces will cause several things to happen. High-density urban areas will become more desirable, and the suburbs less. The poverty, crime and social problems that blight inner cities will move to the impoverished suburbs. Eventually, housing densities in low-density areas will have to increase, with higher-density hubs forming and the spaces between emptying out. Which will facilitate improved public transport (it's easier to run a train line to a place if it's not spread out over a wide area).

Low density areas may never be pedestrian or bike friendly, but they remain low density areas due to circumstance, rather than nature.
posted by acb at 7:23 AM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


(do you need a house? why not an apartment?)

Removing all inhibitors to doing so such as money, my feeling is that the vast majority of humans will choose to live low density. I think it's a built in natural state of affairs to want open space and room to breathe. Forcing or convincing people to not yearn for this and to not seize it the minute they have the opportunity is a losing battle - you're fighting nature. So yeah, I think people 'need' a house and land and space. In the long run thought it's detrimental to 'humanity' as a collective and just not sustainable.
posted by spicynuts at 7:24 AM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm here in the UK, living in the second largest city in England where there is plenty of population density and a nice mild climate to allow year round riding. It is even pretty flat for England. I ride 18K a day and do you know what the attitude towards cyclists is in this ideal environment?

It is the worst I have ever experienced in my life (most of which had been in Canada which doesn't exactly have a cycle friendly climate for half of the year). I've been harangued by pedestrians and car drivers. I've gotten the door prize. At least twice a week some car bullies me out of a roundabout turn.

The city council builds bike paths that require cyclists to be suicidal and empty out into high traffic right in a turning driver's blindspots while trapped on the road by pedestrian fencing or even better the cycle paths run you right into poles.

I ride because I love it and need the exercise but I ride in fear here all the time knowing that I am at best in people's way and at worst hated by drivers and pedestrians and completely neglected by my city council.

This is not really about urban/suburban geography at all. It is about culture and who you are as a people.

Those car free zones are there because the people there care about each other in a way that people in other places simply don't I bet if you take a good look you will also see low cost day care, free health care, farmers markets and quality public education and probably no huge income divisions or ethnic conflicts.
posted by srboisvert at 7:27 AM on November 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


(do you need a house? why not an apartment?)

same reason most people have a car when they don't need to: status symbol
posted by litleozy at 7:29 AM on November 4, 2009


oh god i read the post as "cat-free cities" and i was like how did they do that
posted by m0nm0n at 7:29 AM on November 4, 2009


majick: "However, the only choices for housing a family of four in a radius around downtown San Francisco…"

True, costs are a serious problem. But the cost of housing in a major city are just one side of the coin — the other issue is bringing jobs out to where people actually live.

Most cities are already mixed-use, so there's not a ton that can be done there, zoning-wise. Flipping and cheap credit during the bubble probably drove up prices significantly, but even without that I think you'd still have a supply/demand issue: more people want to live in urban centers than there is space available, and some people are willing to pay a lot for it.

But one major problem that could be addressed is "bedroom communities" with restrictive zoning laws that lead to no jobs except in the nearest city. I have seen cases where companies have actually wanted to move out of an urban area out to the suburbs, because that's where their employees live and because rents are lower, but they are basically prohibited from doing it. Or someone wants to build a commercial/residential complex with dining and shopping alongside (or above/below) condo or apartment units, and there's just no provision for anything except pure residential or pure commercial zoning.

If you can bring good mixed-use development to the suburbs, they suddenly stop feeling like "suburbs" (in the sense of endless miles of houses that you leave in the morning and come back to at night) and instead feel like small "edge cities" in their own right. There's no reason why traditionally suburban communities can't support industry; they just need to give up the 'sleepy bedroom town' image first.

Bringing more industry out to the suburbs/exurbs might relieve some of the demand pressure on urban housing as well, leading to lower costs for those who really want that environment.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:31 AM on November 4, 2009


2. People in the suburbs don't want poor people from the inner city to have easy access to their neighborhoods. This is more insidious, but I can gather this is a problem. It's often conveyed as a desire to not have the crime rate increase, but really means that people who live in outlying areas want to have poor, possibly minority, people infiltrating the neighborhoods they live in. There is a reason for white flight from the inner cities, after all.

Bingo.

But then there's the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies Report.

An interesting demographic twist called The Echo Boom is about to start in full force. Generation-X is too small to have registered any significant impact in comparison to the Baby Boomers. But Echo Boomers will be the largest population wave since The Baby Boom, and their habits will have impact. Of note...

1) Echo Boomers have grown up in integrated society and have less of a fear about urban areas. They have no great personal relationship to race riots or other factors that make them irrationally frightened to live in close proximity to urban areas.

2) Echo Boomers are coming of age in the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. They are highly unlikely to develop the same spending habits as the Baby Boomers. This is the first generation in American history whose earning potential is predicted to be, on average, less than that of their parents.

3) Growth, development, and expansion in the US have largely followed the progress of the Baby Boomers. As they have had bigger families and bigger salaries, they have demanded bigger houses and bigger cars. As they retire and move en masse to sunbelt communities, these houses will become vacant. Generation X doesn't need them. Echo Boomers can't afford them. Minorities with large families are likely to perceive large houses as desirable. Echo Boomers with smaller families and smaller salaries than their parents are likely, then, to rent in urban areas or to buy smaller houses closer to the city cores.

The Harvard report predicts a great flip, with minorities and lower-income people moving into the suburbans, and whites moving into urban areas.
posted by jefficator at 7:32 AM on November 4, 2009


I'd love to not need a car in the US, but it isn't going to happen for cities without "New", "York", and "City" in their name.

NYC's by far the most car-free-friendly city we've got, but it's not the only one. I know a few folks in SF doing it - admittedly, also a very pricey city - and a couple in Chicago. But more personally relevantly, I live in Philadelphia. Of my friends who live in the city, only two own cars. One only keeps it because she already owns it and the insurance is dirt cheap. Other than that, nobody at all bothers with one. There's the higher-income solidly middle-class people who don't bother; there's the people working hourly wages; there's the grad students; there's the bartender... people all over the economic spectrum, all perfectly capable of living car-free. There's walking, there's public transit, there's biking, and we get by just fine.

Admittedly, Philly has dense, pre-auto construction, and lots and lots of mixed-use areas with ground-floor retail and upper-floor housing. Car-free living is viable in many parts of the country that have older, denser layouts, which generally means 1700s and 1800s on the coast. But it's definitely misleading to say that NYC is the only place you can go if you want to be car-free.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:34 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Afu is right: even American cities that pay lip-service to the concepts of reducing driving and encouraging cycling and densification still require a certain amount of dedicated parking for every business (to pick one point), which enshrines the car and places a pretty limit on density. Cars thrive in low-density environments. Other means of transport need high density to be effective.

The website Carfree has been around for years (a decade, even), and lays out a plan for a carfree city of 2 million. The method of transport the author proposes is not primarily bikes but high-frequency, free light rail and a city plan rigorously organized around the rail lines. Although his plan seems like something that could only happen in a new city built from scratch around it, the author believes that it could be retrofitted gradually onto existing cities once they reach certain levels of density and annoyance with cars.

To get people out of cars will require carrots and sticks. The stick will emerge naturally once an area reaches a certain level of density and the hassle of traffic and parking make you think hard about whether you really want to bother driving. The carrot will be in the form of alternatives that are obviously preferable to driving.

Bikes are great. I get around by bike a fair amount, but there are plenty of situations where I'm unwilling to ride, because of distance, weather, or the amount of crap that I'll be schlepping. And my breaking point may be farther out than a lot of other prospective bike commuters. Right now, the alternative for me is my car, partly because it's easy and partly because the public transit in my city is awful. But except for small town with consistently mild weather, the real path to limiting or eliminating cars is going to be through excellent public transit.
posted by adamrice at 7:40 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]



Removing all inhibitors to doing so such as money, my feeling is that the vast majority of humans will choose to live low density. I think it's a built in natural state of affairs to want open space and room to breathe. Forcing or convincing people to not yearn for this and to not seize it the minute they have the opportunity is a losing battle - you're fighting nature. So yeah, I think people 'need' a house and land and space. In the long run thought it's detrimental to 'humanity' as a collective and just not sustainable.


I respectfully disagree. I think this is the way my parents and their parents thought, and it was probably a result of little more than advertising. It's why my parents chose to raise me in a suburb. We had a big house and a big yard, and I got a car when I was 17. I hated it. It depresses me to see large plots of land just sitting there for the landscapers to mow once a week, especially now that parents don't even let their kids outside to play. My old neighborhood feels like an expensive, well-kept ghost town. A couple days there and I'm clawing my eyes out: going anywhere where you can actually see other people means driving, and usually involves the mall. Unless you're into looking at cookie-cutter houses and empty yards, you can't take an interesting walk. My parents have houses that are too big for them and most of the rooms just sit empty.

Now I live in a very walkable city in a small, well-located apartment, and I just love it. If I get married and have kids, I know with 100% certainty that I'd rather live cramped in a city than with space in a suburb. The only thing I would change is where I work-- my job is outside the city, so I have to drive. It's without a doubt the worst part of my day.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:40 AM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Don't forget small towns. They tend to be fairly bikable. I'm going to college in Iowa City right now, and there is no part of the urban area I can't reach by bike in under 2 hours.
posted by LSK at 7:44 AM on November 4, 2009


No natural barriers exist to expansion.

This is what Urban Growth Boundaries are for. They only work if they're constricting enough to actually be promoting redevelopment and actual building-up though. Some cities have them and just expand them every few years.
posted by floam at 7:47 AM on November 4, 2009


The Harvard report predicts a great flip, with minorities and lower-income people moving into the suburbans, and whites moving into urban areas.

This is already happening in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in the East Bay in California (and even further outlying counties like San Joaquin and Stanislaus). People who are tired of the expense of living in Oakland and/or Berkeley (or the crime) move to outer-ring suburbs in Contra Costa or Alameda Counties that are more affordable and, at least on paper, more livable. Meanwhile, some parts of Berkeley and Oakland are becoming more gentrified and densely-developed than ever, whether it's because Oakland and Berkeley are perceived as more "hip" than the areas east of the Caldecott Tunnel or for other reasons. I don't know that the change is generational as much as it is economic. Housing is far more affordable in Brentwood and Antioch than it is in Oakland and Berkeley, often by a factor of 2:1 or even 3:1. Along with that comes other problems, though -- people signing on to mortgages that they can't keep up with (thus high foreclosure rates), and longer commutes, many of which are vehicle-driven, since the public transit in the East Bay, while functional, has never reached out in any meaningful way to those far-flung suburbs and probably won't for another 10 years.
posted by blucevalo at 7:50 AM on November 4, 2009


It depresses me to see large plots of land just sitting there for the landscapers to mow once a week, especially now that parents don't even let their kids outside to play

This is not what I'm talking about. You are talking about subdivisions. I am talking about country. I am simply saying that removing all barriers including need for job and money, humans would want space and nature and lots of it.
posted by spicynuts at 7:50 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was just thinking the other day about how it might be possible to make a transition like this where I live; I live in a suburb of a Michigan city on the decline. We used to live in the city, but there were so few services available downtown that my partner and I realized we would drive less if we moved to the suburbs, where we would have a grocery store, restaurants, doctors' offices, and so on close by--we had to drive out of downtown to go to any of those kinds of places.

During the housing bubble, there was some development downtown near the capitol and near a nice minor-league baseball stadium--lofts in old warehouses, block-long condominium buildings with (space for) restaurants and businesses on the first floor. I look at those buildings with lust, not least because one thing I've learned from living in the suburbs is that nobody in my family is in the least bit interested in yard work, but also because I have a fantasy of rolling out of the house and strolling with the kids to the big downtown branch of the library, or to the hands-on science museum, or to the park, or of having a quick run to the store to get an ingredient I need for dinner being a quick trip on foot.

We're a family of five now, though, and it's hard to imagine any of those places being large enough for us; I think the developers were imagining hip young urban professionals, folks working for government who have disposable incomes and would want to go out at night to clubs and restaurants, not people with small children who would litter the sidewalk with tricycles.

Still, we'd consider it, except that as early adopters there'd be a fairly high cost for us--we'd be driving again, to access services only available in the suburbs. We have enjoyed using less gas, paying for less gas, and wasting less time by living where we do. So there's this problem of getting enough people to make that change that developers will put a decent small grocery downtown, and a family doctor will move in, and somebody will open a diner you can take the kids to instead of just sports bars, and the restaurants that are downtown will stop closing at night because there's no business after the government workers leave at 5.

There need to be pioneers who are willing to take on all the inconveniences with few or none of the advantages, in the hope that enough will follow them that the advantages will appear. It's hard to be that optimistic here in mid-Michigan, even before the bubble burst and unemployment started to climb. And we have too many ties here, both locally and regionally, to move to somewhere more dense in order to have that lifestyle, though we have considered that, too.
posted by not that girl at 7:51 AM on November 4, 2009


I'd be happy with even an electric car. Unfortunately I can't. I live somewhere that regularly sees -35C. I need big smelly HOT petroleum engines.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:52 AM on November 4, 2009


Removing all inhibitors to doing so such as money, my feeling is that the vast majority of humans will choose to live low density. I think it's a built in natural state of affairs to want open space and room to breathe. Forcing or convincing people to not yearn for this and to not seize it the minute they have the opportunity is a losing battle - you're fighting nature. So yeah, I think people 'need' a house and land and space. In the long run thought it's detrimental to 'humanity' as a collective and just not sustainable.
posted by spicynuts at 10:24 AM on November 4 [1 favorite has favorites +] [!]


If it were human nature, then individual homes and low density would be the preferred mode across all human society. But it isn't - the single family home is a very specific cultural desire prominant especially among Anglo societies. In urban France, multi-family dwellings in cities and towns are common; just think of all those rich Parisians living in apartments, while poorer people lived above them. In NYC, people with a great deal of money who could easily live in the suburbs instead pay more money to live in apartments in Manhatten.

Now, I'm not advocating high-rise development, which has all sorts of problems and is worse than low-rise, low-density on a social level. But low-rise, high density is very sustainable, and very liked by lots and lots of people around the world; it is only in specific cultures that a detached, single family home with a large garden or back-yard is seen as "natural" and the most desirable way to live.

Of course, the way you were raised changes your culture. My father-in-law grew up in a low-density town in New Zealand; his ideal house (his current one) has a large backyard/garden. But before moving to this house, my husband's family lived in a semi-detatched house with a small garden in a denser neighbourhood; this is now my husband's ideal. I grew up in a 12-storey apartment building, and I think that there are a lot of problems with apartment buildings, but I like low-rise, high-density places best (like row-houses, 2-3 story apartment buildings). Both my husband and I look at our in-laws big yard and just see a burden, something that takes hours of work every weekend to care for, and which no one uses but the cat.
posted by jb at 7:53 AM on November 4, 2009


I appreciate what you are saying about space and nature; I love that too -- what I loved about Cambridge most was cycling in the countryside.

But I liked living in a village which was itself more densely populated than a North American exurb. We lived in a dense village and had a garden the size of the average driveway, which thus left space for lovely fields and meadows all around us.
posted by jb at 7:57 AM on November 4, 2009


jb: How on earth are people living in highrises in dense development worse than low density?
posted by floam at 7:57 AM on November 4, 2009



This is not what I'm talking about. You are talking about subdivisions. I am talking about country. I am simply saying that removing all barriers including need for job and money, humans would want space and nature and lots of it.


In that case... I still disagree. I know I'm not alone when I say that if I won the lottery and never had to work again, I wouldn't buy a plot of land (no matter how beautiful) but instead a nice condo in the West Village. Some people want to be around large numbers of other people.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:58 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


oinopaponton, considering the world's population distribution (ie, mostly "one on top of the other"), i'd say you're:
1) not alone in this desire
2) part of the majority.

Lots of private space is for avoiding strangers.
posted by vivelame at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2009


As someone who's been living the car-free lifestyle for a few years now, I firmly believe that nothing will get Americans out of their personal cages other than the price of gasoline going through the roof and becoming too expensive for average Americans to drive regularly.

Lexi & I were too broke to repair or replace the car after it broke down for the last time. That's what got us out of our cage-bound lifestyle, nothing else. Best thing that ever happened to us, but we wouldn't have signed up for it in advance. Now, the money we used to spend of gas & insurance & parking tickets & broken windows we put into our bicycles with PLENTY to spare, and we're healthier than we've ever been.

I suspect that James Kunstler is correct: places like the suburbs and others designed to be unlivable without a personal car are going to suffer massive levels of practical failure. Car-dependent suburbia has no future, and I personally think we shouldn't waste what resources we have lest propping it up. Let it die.

Hell, I say stab it once or twice, move the project along since we're heading that way anyway.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:03 AM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


Like others , for whatever reason, I initially read this as "cat-free cities", which lead me to wonder why the hell there weren't more comments. Car-free cities are rather more reassuring, but it still makes my Spidey sense tingle.

I don't drive, and I would love to see more people not driving, but advocating "car-free cities" doesn't seem like a feasible answer to the problem. I think a massive automotive overhaul is much more likely and realistic for the kind of issues we're seeing in urban life. Smaller cars with a smaller footprint, and an emphasis on electric and solar power would help to seriously reduce so many of the problems cars create in urban environments. If you combine that with increased light rail service, higher gas prices, and better community planning to reduce sprawl and eliminate the notion of expansive suburban lawns, we might have a shot at reducing the number of cars on the road, but advocating a "car-free" movement is going to be incredibly divisive and ultimately fruitless. People aren't going to give up their cars, but you can change the way they use them.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:06 AM on November 4, 2009


So, all we have to do is go back in time and grow our US cities like LA and Houston in the Middle Ages rather than in the post WW-II consumerist, automotive blitz of the 1950's? Wow, it's so simple it might work!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:09 AM on November 4, 2009


2. People in the suburbs don't want poor people from the inner city to have easy access to their neighborhoods. This is more insidious, but I can gather this is a problem. It's often conveyed as a desire to not have the crime rate increase, but really means that people who live in outlying areas want to have poor, possibly minority, people infiltrating the neighborhoods they live in. There is a reason for white flight from the inner cities, after all.

How do their domestic staff get in to work? (I don't mean full time servants obviously, but once-a-week cleaners and such)
posted by atrazine at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2009


The Harvard report predicts a great flip, with minorities and lower-income people moving into the suburbans, and whites moving into urban areas.

This is what many European cities are like. The best parts of London are relatively close to the centre (to the North and West anyway, South and East are very different), Central Amsterdam is an expensive upper middle class area and the poor immigrants live in tower block exurbs.
posted by atrazine at 8:14 AM on November 4, 2009


The assumption that low-density living is more conducive to human wellbeing neglects (a) the (experimentally verified) correlations between social interaction and psychological and social wellbeing (and numerous knock-on effects of the amount of social interaction in communities, such as crime rates, sense of safety, and such) and (b) the socially atomising effects of low-density living and car dependency. In higher-density environments, people naturally interact, and end up forming numerous weak links, which are socially beneficial. In lower-density environments, this happens less often; people might make a special effort to visit friends for a barbecue from time to time, but outside of that, don't see anyone outside their household often.
posted by acb at 8:18 AM on November 4, 2009


So, all we have to do is go back in time and grow our US cities like LA and Houston in the Middle Ages rather than in the post WW-II consumerist, automotive blitz of the 1950's? Wow, it's so simple it might work!

Or we could have a traumatic, slow-moving forced shift when the structure and design of our cities becomes fundamentally unworkable/unaffordable for most peopl.

Then there's all sorts of unhappiness, failure, and dislocation while the generation that comes after learns to fundamentally adjust how life is lived and how one gets around in an urban environment that can no longer support the transportation mode is was designed for.

Welcome to The Long Emergency.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:21 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


In higher-density environments, people naturally interact, and end up forming numerous weak links, which are socially beneficial. In lower-density environments, this happens less often; people might make a special effort to visit friends for a barbecue from time to time, but outside of that, don't see anyone outside their household often

I can't forget the staggering number of older people I saw shuffling around the "marketplace" in European cities.

We have tended to stick out older adults into nursing homes--out of the public eye. I hope that the growth of retired Baby Boomers promotes tighter, more walkable communities.
posted by jefficator at 8:22 AM on November 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


A lot of hyper-defensive reactions to this post. Nowhere in the linked articles does it even suggest going car-free in North America.

Otherwise, what better way to lower pollution than this? And for those that do need their cars, think of all the gasoline left to burn once more people are on their feet, bikes, and trains.
posted by romanb at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2009


I actually like suburbs, I just wish more of them had sidewalks and some sort of "center", even if it's not much. I don't mind a short drive; a resturant, a bar and grocery and book within 5 or 10 minutes are fine. It's when you have to drive half an hour just to buy some eggs us when I get annoyed.

That being said, I'd prefer too long drives to cramped, loud places where I never feel alone. I find too much noise oppresive.
posted by spaltavian at 8:53 AM on November 4, 2009


My neighborhood was built in the 1860s and '70s so obviously it was car free for quite a few decades of its existence. It's a mix of apartment buildings and townhouses and a few free standing houses and back in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was very dense since each residence typically had at least half a dozen occupants. So in theory, I should be able to live car-free there but it's not easy for a number of reasons.

In the sixties, the city tore down both business districts in the area, one for a shopping mall that quickly failed and one for an interstate highway for the suburban commuters. Since then the big-box suburban stores killed off any remaining small retailers. And our transit system, while extensive, is designed mostly for the purpose of getting commuters from home to their offices in the downtown skyscraper district, so that any lateral travel via bus requires at least one transfer.

I don't drive much, my car sits idle so much that the brake disks keep rusting but it would be hard to live without it completely. Hauling ten bags of groceries home from the supermarket on the bus is impossible and I just don't have the time during the week to shop in smaller increments. I try to buy as much stuff on-line as I can but UPS won't leave packages in the city and since I'm not home during the day, I have to drive to the UPS center to pick them up. We do have Zip-Cars in the area so that's a possibility but again, that takes extra time and planning that makes having your own car easier. I do know a few people who do survive without cars but they usually end up having to get friends to drive them around.

In theory, I love the idea of a car-free city but we've just spent the last hundred years designing our existence around cars and it's going to take a huge change in attitudes and then a giant build-out of infrastructure to make it possible for most people.
posted by octothorpe at 8:54 AM on November 4, 2009


As a motorcyclist, I am fully in support of car-free cities. And highways.

Barring that, let's restrict cars with automatic transmissions to folks with disabilities. Much harder to hold a cel phone and coffee when you're shifting gears with one hand. Also, let's triple the speed limits so that folks have to focus 100% on driving.
posted by Eideteker at 8:55 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or we could have a traumatic, slow-moving forced shift when the structure and design of our cities becomes fundamentally unworkable/unaffordable for most people.

Aren't traumatic and slow-moving antonyms? But, yes, we could abandon the things. I don't really see that happening in any of our lifetimes without a traumatic, fast-moving catastrophy. We're not going to wake up tomorrow and realize that there suddenly isn't any more oil. Sure, peak oil may be pretty much reality, but that just means we have a few decades to move to a new energy source. We only took a few decades to get here in the first place. Yes, and people will migrate to where the jobs, water, and food are and life is (seemingly) better once we've moved on to the next central technology. So far "solutions" just look like minor alterations of the way things are right now, e.g. electric cars, telecomuting, and slightly more efficient consumerism.

Besides, the paradigm of the modern exurb is really a function of newer cities. Those of us on the East Coast have two hour commutes not because of lack of density or great distances, but because of density in our pre-car towns. The solution here is to lay down the street car tracks that created our street car suburbs in the first place. Not to bulldoze and start over (read: consume more).

There are plenty of ruins of old cities around Europe. Some places you can't sink a plow without digging up some classical statuary. Seems only natural that we would have ruins in the Western Hemisphere too. Oh, wait...
posted by Pollomacho at 9:05 AM on November 4, 2009


(do you need a house? why not an apartment?)

same reason most people have a car when they don't need to: status symbol


Nope. We live in an older suburb rent house, with one car for three adults (us and a roommate) plus one preschooler, and we're pretty cramped in 1200 sq. feet. But paying less for it in house form than we would closer in, in apartment form. And we have a small yard, a school nearby, and grocery stores that you don't have in downtown.

We're unusual in having a roommate and only one car, but I suspect with the downturn, not as unusual as we used to be. The bus line runs at the end of our block, and it's usually half-full; the trains downtown in our suburb are full every morning and evening. In fact, every time a hotly-contested train line opens up, it's flooded with riders. Clearly, once it exists, public transit is popular with a lot of people who also have cars.

I think we're the future, actually; less car use, but not eliminating it. I have relatives that live out in the real country, that I visit every month or so; not even Greyhound goes out there.

People do still cling to status symbols, because they feel like they are supposed to want that giant house out on the prairie, but that doesn't mean their children will feel the same, or that the convenience of being closer in isn't a powerful draw.

I don't think McMansion vs. Tiny Apartment has to be the only choice. Modest house not too far from the bus line/train stop is a perfectly good compromise, and far more do-able for your average American in flyover country.
posted by emjaybee at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read the FPP as being about "Cat-free cities" and was coming in here to register my heated opposition to the concept.

Don't fret. Your dose of toxoplasma will arrive via vaccuum tube, which is infinitely cooler than either cats or conventional transportation.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:14 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Vacuum. Goddamn.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:15 AM on November 4, 2009


Many larger English cities were - for the want of a better word - "remodelled" to a greater or lesser extent in the 50s and 60s. New ring roads, motorways, tram lines torn up, railway lines closed, low density suburbs, city centers "accessible" to car drivers. It was possible because of the damage done during the war, and the need for slum clearances, coupled with a general idea that car ownership was the future. Car ownership wasn't actually general until the 70s though, as the cost for many was too high. But by the 80s and 90s we were fully there, and also imported the idea of malls and strip malls ("out of town shopping centers"), just to add to the damage we did to our cities. Lots of people still act as if the country is or should be organized in this way, that the old patterns of urban areas are history and those patterned according to the needs of drivers are much better. Certainly there is a very strong identity/culture/conception of the car driver as normal or standard.

But there's been a lot going on in the last 10-15 years. We've built a few light rail systems, and many more have been planned; urban living is more desirable, with the biggest property boom in city-center apartments; and every development on green belt land (on the out side of the urban growth boundary) is protested. Something changed, and I don't know what, but the idea of living in a city is far more desirable to young people than it ever was. And local politicians/planners have for a good part been behind this move, even if they haven't always done enough. But we're still nowhere near the European standard, and I can imagine we'll not be ready to cope with any oil shocks hitting transportation.

For me, we can't possibly move fast enough to reducing car use because I think we're at the end of an era. My father was the first generation in his family to own a car, but even he didn't learn until he was almost 30. A couple of his children don't drive, and probably never will now. I don't drive because I feel planning my life around being able to use a car is short-sighted. Car culture was always a blip, a fad, a phase, but we didn't - or couldn't - see far enough ahead. The few decades in my country where we've adopted that culture so fully have damaged to geography of our society, and I hope by 2020 we'll have gone much further in repairing it.
posted by Sova at 9:24 AM on November 4, 2009


In that case... I still disagree. I know I'm not alone when I say that if I won the lottery and never had to work again, I wouldn't buy a plot of land (no matter how beautiful) but instead a nice condo in the West Village.

Ok I'm willing to concede the point, but answer me honestly...if money were no object you would never desire both? The west village condo and the farmhouse to get away from it? I mean, I've lived in NYC for 12 years now and I don't know anyone who doesn't want a getaway in the country. I'm just trying to say that I don't think you can eradicate the need for open space in a human. Perhaps permanent residence in such a scenario is not required and I'm over-reaching the argument.
posted by spicynuts at 9:40 AM on November 4, 2009


(do you need a house? why not an apartment?)

same reason most people have a car when they don't need to: status symbol


This is an incredibly dumb and close-minded statement. The idea that people wanting more room for their kids, for guests, to listen to music/watch TV without disturbing others, to paint, to have a garden - to indulge in all sorts of pleasures in life - is nothing but a status symbol is simply evidence of some sort of strange class hatred going on that I can't really figure out. Homeowners=elitist snobs? Say what?
posted by Dasein at 9:51 AM on November 4, 2009 [6 favorites]


Barring that, let's restrict cars with automatic transmissions to folks with disabilities. Much harder to hold a cel phone and coffee when you're shifting gears with one hand. Also, let's triple the speed limits so that folks have to focus 100% on driving.

Good ideas. Also, let's replace airbags with giant iron spikes mounted in the middle of steering wheels. That'll do more to encourage safe driving habits.
posted by acb at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


...the fundamental problem of people living way too far away from where they work.

Agreed, but from my experience in LA, "too far" is two blocks. Laziness really is ingrained in the culture in many (most) citites.
posted by klanawa at 9:56 AM on November 4, 2009


let's restrict cars with automatic transmissions to folks with disabilities. Much harder to hold a cel phone and coffee when you're shifting gears with one hand.

Ontario has just banned hand-held cell phones, which means lots of people are buying Bluetooth. Which will do very little for safety, because it's the distraction of carrying on a conversation that causes people to crash (though having one less hand could be fatal if you need to make an emergency manoeuvre). More specifically, it's the fact that while someone in the car you are chatting with will shut up when you're making a difficult left because they see you need to concentrate, the person on the other end of the phone has no idea when they need to shut up, so they keep talking or expect you to talk, and you therefore listen or talk at the moments that you really need to pay attention. Then you crash. Not good. I think that when you talk on the phone in the car you should tell people that if you stop talking, it's nothing personal and you'll be right with them.
posted by Dasein at 10:17 AM on November 4, 2009


jb: How on earth are people living in highrises in dense development worse than low density?

It's not worse for the physical environment, but for the social environment. As bad as low-rise housing is for establishing networks with your neighbours, high-rise dwelling is worse -- and I say that as someone who grew up in high-rise dwelling. There really are no places to meet and greet, and there are no eyes on the hallways, so crime happens with people just on the other side of the doors. And highrises often aren't even that dense -- because of all that land left around them. But that land isn't a small garden or communal courtyard people can sit in and meet their neighbours; it usually becomes a landscaped wasteland which belongs to no one.

Low-rise, high-density is the best for creating good neighbourhoods.

I wouldn't say that chosing to have 2000+ square feet of detatched house, not to mention the yard, when you know and understand that this kind of development is destroying our cities and physical and social environment is elitist; after all, most people who do this think that everyone should have this. But it is deeply ill-conceived, and based on upper-middle class ideas of what is "necessary" for decent living. I'm staying in a house right now with four adults -- all of whom do a fair bit of work at home; there are four offices fit in here. I can understand the need for space and distance from others. But I could redesign this house to reduce its size considerably, and still leave plenty of work and relaxation space. We have a lot of wasted space -- wasted largely because the rooms are larger than they need to be, and there are rooms (like dining rooms) which could be dual purpose and are not, and also space is wasted because a large part is open concept without the ability to divide it off from the rest.
posted by jb at 10:27 AM on November 4, 2009


I think that North-American cities with sufficient size and density can (and probably will) gradually become less car-centric in the following ways:

- when levels of downtown traffic become unbearable and it's no longer feasible to add more roads or expressways, then the only recourse is to ban parking on arterial streets, and provide more dedicated routing for public transit, and both of these usually make biking more feasible

- urban infill development is usually less-accommodating to cars, so as this happens there will be fewer car-users downtown

It will be a street-by-street change; we won't see car-less urban centers in North America until some visionary builds one.

The stimulus money should ideally be going towards this sort of city-improving, in preparation for a future with less oil.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:35 AM on November 4, 2009


- when levels of downtown traffic become unbearable and it's no longer feasible to add more roads or expressways, then the only recourse is to ban parking on arterial streets, and provide more dedicated routing for public transit, and both of these usually make biking more feasible

- urban infill development is usually less-accommodating to cars, so as this happens there will be fewer car-users downtown


Most sprawl today presently occurs along long arteries running out of city centers that until fifty years ago were dusty roads between cities. What you'll likely see is major redevelopment in the central core of cities. Hopefully what you'll see at that point would be a public transportation option--like a light rail, perhaps?--running along that artery and stopping at points where the artery intersects major branches. Redevelopment would then begin in circles at those stops/intersections and spread out. "No-man's land" between the stops would suffer, but could perhaps be bulldozed and turned to park land.

The average person will walk fifteen minutes or about a quarter mile and consider this walkable. More requires public transit options.
posted by jefficator at 10:45 AM on November 4, 2009


I read the FPP as being about "Cat-free cities" and was coming in here to register my heated opposition to the concept.

Yes, but that would be a much longer and much more heated discussion. Say what you will about cars, but don't get MeFites started about CATS.

On topic: I've lived in both Boston and Providence without a car and gotten along just fine. Between Peapod delivery for groceries and public transportation, I didn't miss it. I have to have a car for my job, but if I didn't need it for that, I probably wouldn't have one at all.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:54 AM on November 4, 2009


A few tips on transitioning to bikes in an inhospitable environment:

The first thing to do is realise that, though Milwaukee does have its share of really cold and icy days, there are certainly many summer days in which you can try out biking to work. Really, it won't kill you to try it for a few weeks, and you might even enjoy it.

Once you've tried cycling a bit, and determined that it's a good idea to the extent that weather and whatnot permits, it's time to do a bit of math. Sit down and figure out how much you save per day on car expenses by using your bike as daily transit. If you keep good records, you can also factor in a bit less car maintenance and perhaps also lower insurance. Multiply this number by the number of days per year that you can realistically bike to work under current conditions. This is your Bike Budget.

Now you use the Bike Budget to get a new bike that makes commuting simpler in one regard or another. Here's a few tips:

+ If you live in a place that ices over a lot, you can get a tricycle. When I worked as a messenger in Eugene, OR, we would use a trike on any day when there was ice on the roads. Keep in mind that some trikes have the paired wheels in front, which adds quite a bit of stability.

+ For rain-gear and cold-gear, REI is expensive but has other perks. When I was an Oregon messenger and got rained on for four months, I spent about $200 on rain gear. If any part of it was less than perfect in its ability to keep me dry in the rain for eight hours, I would take it back the next day and try the next thing on the shelf. In the end, I was a rain fortress. (Hint: Waterproof shoe covers rock.)

+ The whole showering at work thing is a bit tougher, but maybe there's a gym nearby you could get a discount membership at?

+ Have a lot to carry? Consider a cargo bike, like an Xtra-Cycle. That particular variety can carry up to 250 lbs, and are freakishly easy to maneuver.

Each such change increases the number of bikable days available to you, increasing your ability to reduce your dependence on the car. Eventually, it might make sense to ditch the car entirely and save all of the cash from insurance, maintenance, and fuel. If you have multiple cars in your household, you might be able to reduce the number of cars your family pays for.

Once you're fully optimized for urban cycling, all this money just becomes savings, of course...
posted by kaibutsu at 10:55 AM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I live in the Netherlands. We don't have a car. But everyone I know has one. Of course we are not the only car free people in the city, but it is still rare for 30-somethings with children to not have at least one car. I often hear people SAY that, yes, they would love to live without a car too, BUT... And then there's always something, even in our flat country with all the bikelanes and the relatively short distances and good public transport.

BTW: the "they exist all over" link goes to a piece about bicycling in Amsterdam. Some people may read this FPP and think that Amsterdam is a car free city. It is most definitely not. I don't know of any car free cities or even villages in the Netherlands and we are arguably one of the bike-friendliest countries in Europe.
posted by davar at 10:57 AM on November 4, 2009


Car free really isn't for everyone. But, I think more areas are trying to make it a little easier. Near the Baylor University Medical Center just east of downtown Dallas, TX is a nice area with retail/offices on the bottom, condos/apartments on the top, right next to a brand new DART light rail line. There are quite a few office/loft buildings in the area, along with the attempt to revitalize the Deep Ellum arts & music area. The bus routes in the area are decent, along with the new DART light rail lines. (DART is actually expanding in several directions)
I think Minneapolis, MN has tried to do some of the same things.
posted by drstein at 11:25 AM on November 4, 2009


Shower access is the killer for me, kaibatsu. That and weather (but I'm happy busing on nasty days -- I have no intention of becoming a two-wheeled rain fortress).

But on the pro-side, don't forget to include the exercise you don't need (in terms of spare time, and possibly money for the gym) if you're getting your exercise as part of your transportation. That to me is the #1 benefit.

Still, nothing replaces a car for large grocery trips and other such errands. (And I put my time in for many, many years, without) The solution to my mind is not eliminating cars but eliminating car ownership. Car share programs are an excellent tool, because when you have a car, why not use it? When in reality, you probably only need it for a subset of your errands.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:32 AM on November 4, 2009


Car free really isn't for everyone. But, I think more areas are trying to make it a little easier. Near the Baylor University Medical Center just east of downtown Dallas, TX is a nice area with retail/offices on the bottom, condos/apartments on the top, right next to a brand new DART light rail line. There are quite a few office/loft buildings in the area, along with the attempt to revitalize the Deep Ellum arts & music area. The bus routes in the area are decent, along with the new DART light rail lines. (DART is actually expanding in several directions)

There's a lot of urban renewal going on in Fort Worth right now too, with mixed used developments going up around the cultural district and the near south side. And hopefully a streetcar coming soon linking up those areas with downtown.
posted by kmz at 11:39 AM on November 4, 2009


Okay - I just started watching "The End of Suburbia" linked by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey, and I'm not far enough in to say anything as to its quality, but...

Why is a documentary about suburbs and Americans and the American Dream using footage of a GO Train in Ontario, CANADA?

I've seen this before -- on a nature program by David Attenborough, who is otherwise a genious -- the narrator going on about the "American" raccoon and its adaptability while showing footage of raccoons running in front of a TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) streetcar and rummaging in Metropolitan Toronto garbage bins.

Apparently, Toronto is so much the centre of the world that even cinematographers wanting to show the States feel obliged to come up and film here.
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on November 4, 2009


Apparently, Toronto is so much the centre of the world that even cinematographers wanting to show the States feel obliged to come up and film here.

Toronto has stood in for so many American cities that Americans forget what their own cities look like and need to be shown something familiar. Ah, the economics of Hollywood. ;-)

FWIW, I do believe it's a Canadian production.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:08 PM on November 4, 2009


Our raccoons work for a fraction of the table scraps.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:10 PM on November 4, 2009


I'd love to not need a car in the US, but it isn't going to happen for cities without "New", "York", and "City" in their name.

this is likely already addressed but still; i have lived most of life in the portland metro area in addition to austin, texas, and minneapolis, all without a car, only a bike(s) and the occasional bus or light rail ride. i'm not exceptional in any way, lots of people do this. you just have to make the choice to do this.

For cycling, maybe we just need to develop bicycles with big snow-tires.

my experience from biking in minneapolis winters is that skinny-ish road tires work just fine.
posted by rainperimeter at 12:34 PM on November 4, 2009


Everyone knows that the only reason people ride bikes is because they cannot afford cars.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is it Canadian? Seems British, what with a partially British setting, and the fact that they are calling gas "petrol". Also, kind of high budget for Canadian.
posted by jb at 12:54 PM on November 4, 2009


Oh - sorry, I'm mixing up the video linked with another one about oil crisis.
posted by jb at 12:55 PM on November 4, 2009


Mackinac Island

The 'c' is silent. Thank the French.
posted by jock@law at 2:03 PM on November 4, 2009


I want to live in a neighborhood where a dedicated parking facility is available at the edge of town, and everyone in the neighborhood walks/rides everywhere (including to/from the parking facility when they have further to go.)

I also want to live in a neighborhood where cars travel through the alleys and park there, while the side streets running parallel are blocked off to all but emergency vehicles, so we can let our kids run around and ride their bikes on the street without fear of being hit by a car.

I'm sure places like this must exist, but I haven't found them yet.
posted by davejay at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2009


I also want to live in a neighborhood where cars travel through the alleys and park there, while the side streets running parallel are blocked off to all but emergency vehicles, so we can let our kids run around and ride their bikes on the street without fear of being hit by a car.
Where I live, children can run around on the streets and ride their bikes. There are cars, but they know there are children, so they drive very slowly and children go to the side of the street when there is a car. Of course this only works on small streets, but still, it is not uncommon here. And the parked cars in the street are excellent for playing hide-and-seek :)

We also have Woonerfs here. That looks even more like what you want.
posted by davar at 3:20 PM on November 4, 2009


I'm just trying to say that I don't think you can eradicate the need for open space in a human.

I agree. That's why Central Park in NYC exists. But humans don't need to own that space individually to reap the benefits.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2009


cars travel through the alleys and park there

This is less cool than you think. We have many condo (5 or 6 adjoined small-house sized units) developments in town where the parking is in alleyways behind the buildings. It just means that the front is dead, since your car isn't out there. You still can't walk anywhere useful, but now you don't even go out front.
posted by cschneid at 3:56 PM on November 4, 2009


Right, biking is cool. Please (seriously) tell me how I bike to work in slushy snow, heavy rain, or high summer heat and humidity here in Boston and arrive at work looking professional and ready to run a meeting or meet with customers?

Huh. I did that for six years in Boston (ok, not meeting customers but...). On the truly bad days, I took public transit.

I now live in Calgary. It has approximately 10X as much winter as Boston, though I'll admit that in some cases rain and high heat pose bigger problems than cold. But in any case, as we think about how to improve our living spaces, I don't think anyone is saying that everyone should immediately stop driving and get on a bike. I think it would be better if most people walked / biked / rode transit at least some of the time. My girlfriend broke her back (twice!) and is understandably not the type to want to charge out in traffic with ice on the streets and -20C temps. But she bikes on the good days, buses on the other days. We live in one of the most car-focussed cities in Canada, and only drive for a weekly grocery and trips to the mountains.

Ideally, as we re-think the development and zoning in our cities, it should become easier to be less dependent on the automobile. This cannot be a radical idea, right?
posted by bumpkin at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2009


Tokyo is halfway there...but there are just as many cars as there are bikes, so the bikes and cars mixed together can create some seriously clogged streets. And sidewalks! Tokyo bike riders largely have no qualms whatsoever zipping down the sidewalk at high speed, many if not most sidewalks being very narrow--enough for two people to walk abreast. So they speed down the sidewalk and sometimes you have to jump out of the way, sometimes I have to veer my baby's stroller to avoid a crash...and two feet to the side there could be a completely empty street, completely void of car traffic. Drives me batty. Since taking my baby out on walks, I've begun doing the very taboo, crazy-gaijin act of yelling at strangers "ride on the street, dammit!". Tokyoites don't have the mentality to ride on the damn street, and not the sidewalk. If they do, Tokyo would be a much better place to get around.

Ok, now I feel better.
/rant
posted by zardoz at 4:26 PM on November 4, 2009


Car free cities are a really good idea.

If only there was some way we could harness the hopelessness that explodes like pus whenever a good idea raises it's ugly head.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 4:41 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


One barrier to developing car-free districts in Ontario, Canada, at least, is a Provincial law that forbids it. Specifically, the law says that streets can be for all modes of transportation or pedestrian-only, nothing in between.

Streets that allow bikes & pedestrians, or delivery trucks, bikes, & pedestrians, etc. are forbidden. Now this isn't a Canada-wide thing - Quebec allows multi-use streets with no ill effects. I have no idea why this law is on the books.

As a year-round cyclist, I love trucks! They mean commerce, and jobs, and an economy. Trucks actually carry cargo. And they're driven by professionals. Bring on the trucks. The private automobiles on the other hand...
posted by anthill at 5:08 PM on November 4, 2009


"There's a lot of urban renewal going on in Fort Worth right now too,"

Yeah, that's true.

It's interesting to see the DFW area doing what the SF Bay Area and NYC have only been talking about for years.

We're adding several commuter rail lines, too. It's pretty cool.
posted by drstein at 6:46 PM on November 4, 2009


As bad as low-rise housing is for establishing networks with your neighbours, high-rise dwelling is worse -- and I say that as someone who grew up in high-rise dwelling. There really are no places to meet and greet, and there are no eyes on the hallways, so crime happens with people just on the other side of the doors. And highrises often aren't even that dense -- because of all that land left around them. But that land isn't a small garden or communal courtyard people can sit in and meet their neighbours; it usually becomes a landscaped wasteland which belongs to no one.

Apparently some of Le Corbusier's original high-rise projects (in the Netherlands, I believe) were well designed, with communal internal spaces and shops, and succeeded in being a vertical community. The problem is that the architects who followed copied one aspect (the verticality) of the idea, threw away the rest (presumably seeing them as unimportant or merely "nice to have" but not justifiable on local government budgets) and created the hellholes we know and loathe today.
posted by acb at 7:10 PM on November 4, 2009


jb, The End of Suburbia was shot entirely in the GTA because the filmmaker is a Torontonian. The fun part is that since there are only so many developers here and they all build the exact same house, try and figure out where any of the shots of suburbia are. When I first watched it I thought I knew but then realised I had been on the exact street they were shooting in at least five different suburbs.

I am lucky to live in a small town and although we do use our car more than necessary my family has the option to walk to the grocery shop, farmer's market, school or my husband's work within ten minutes or so. I actually bought my car based on the fact that the closest mechanic was five minutes from my house and only serviced Japanese cars. This all sounds dandy except that I can't get a job in my town since my husband and I work in the same industry (public libraries) and their policies forbid relatives working together. So I have to commute to my job, about 20 mins (and $5 in gas at most) by car, or two-three hours and $16 by public transportation. But increasing public transportation wouldn't work because the volume of people going from my town to the city I work is relatively low.

Many dual-income families I know have had to compromise with one person getting to live close to work while the other person has a commute. I don't really see a solution for it, although a lucky few get to work in the same town.
posted by saucysault at 8:49 PM on November 4, 2009


Specifically, the law says that streets can be for all modes of transportation or pedestrian-only, nothing in between.
So you do not have limited access roads (I hope that's the correct word) and bicycles are allowed everywhere? That sounds dangerous.
Isn't it also just a question of terminology?. There are no car free streets in my city. There are many bicycle lanes though.
posted by davar at 11:58 PM on November 4, 2009


Davar - I wasn't very clear, partially because I don't know the exact wording of the law. We do have 'limited access roads' or freeways, which are motor-vehicle-only. We also have bike lanes/carpool lanes/bus-only lanes on streets that are also open to cars. However, if your city council wants to restrict a street to delivery trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians, that's forbidden. There has to be a lane that allows cars, or no vehicles at all.
posted by anthill at 9:08 AM on November 5, 2009


So they don't have any walking/biking paths connecting parks and stuff?
posted by floam at 11:06 AM on November 5, 2009


There's no problem with finding places to go ride a bike recreationally in Ontario. Plenty of nice parks and paths. But multi-use paths aren't streets! They don't have fronting property, mail delivery, utilities, etc. They have no businessplaces or residences, or anything that a "tax-paying productive member of society" would need to visit.
posted by anthill at 1:47 PM on November 5, 2009


jb, The End of Suburbia was shot entirely in the GTA because the filmmaker is a Torontonian.

I noticed that the narrator said "North America" and "North American", whereas the Americans being interviewed just referred to "America" and "American". But I still find it interesting/sad that a Canadian documentary filmmaker who is visually exploring Canadian suburbs and exurbs didn't tell his interviewees that his subject wasn't just the United States and American culture. Our suburbs and exurbs clearly aren't about pursuing the "American" dream -- rather about a certain kind of vision influenced by the US but which also played out across other large, Anglo settler colonies like Canada and Australia.
posted by jb at 8:05 AM on November 6, 2009


I was asked by MeMail to explain the Ontario legal situation that blocks municipal 'car free' streets. I may be perpetuating a rumor, but from my reading of the Highway Traffic Act, I'm pretty sure it's correct. I may have mischaracterized the laws - it's not that there is a law prohibiting shared-use streets, it's that there is no law enabling them. Looking at Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8,

R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 154 says that "any lane may be designated for slowly moving traffic, traffic moving in a particular direction or classes or types of vehicles". So bike lanes are OK. Lanes for HOVs (s.154(1)), and 'border approach' (154.2) are OK as well.

"Highways" (aka streets), on the other hand, can be designated as one-way (s. 153), or as prohibited to pedestrians or any class of vehicle s.185(1). It would seem that that's the key to getting car-free streets - just prohibit the 'car' class of vehicle. BUT - look closer, the law only gives such authority to the Provincial Minister.

For municipal suckers, s.185(2) allows council to "prohibit pedestrians or the use of motor assisted bicycles, bicycles, wheelchairs or animals" on any road under its jurisdiction. Notice how they're not allowed to prohibit cars.

If a municipality tries "prohibiting or regulating the operation of motor vehicles or any type or class thereof on the highways" beyond what the HTA allows, that law will be repealed. (s.195(1)).

Can any law wonks back me up here?
posted by anthill at 12:02 PM on November 6, 2009


s195(1) for anglos
posted by anthill at 12:03 PM on November 6, 2009


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