City Killers
April 15, 2019 9:56 AM   Subscribe

“The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary. An ideological (“cultural”) revolution would be needed to break this circle. Obviously this is not to be expected from the ruling class (either right or left).” The social ideology of the motorcar - André Gorez, 1973. (Uneven Earth)
posted by The Whelk (54 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse.

This is one of those things where people who are otherwise evidence-driven policy-minded still get tripped up - they still can't listen to urban planners and transportation researchers, because they're still trapped in this mindset that car ownership and use makes everybody free.

Worth noting that because of private automobiles, the speed of some buses in Manhattan is under 4mph - quite a bit less than walking speed.

Cars ruin cities, and I didn't really get that until I experienced cities where public space was given instead to everybody, to transit, to allocations of space that more people can use. How much better everything works - including car use.
posted by entropone at 10:38 AM on April 15 [25 favorites]


Great essay. As for "Why is the car treated like a sacred cow?", in addition to the noted reasons—the triumph of bourgeois ideology, and the mythology of the car-as-luxury-object—there's also some much more... material reasons.

The auto industry employed (and to some extent continue to employ) a large percentage of the American workforce. Car factories' inefficiency compared to mass transit is a boon here; if we all used trains or buses, which last much longer and simply require less metal per passenger, there would be fewer people kept busy building them. The auto industry is a makework project par excellence, in that it doesn't look like some Stalinist command-economy project, but keeps a lot of people busy and not sharpening their pitchforks.

In peacetime this is useful just for itself, but the advantage really comes out in wartime: automotive factories are ideal for producing war materiel. The nation with a bunch of factories it can quickly switch over to defense production, vs. having to build those factories and find the workers to run them, has a significant advantage in pre-nuclear total warfare. And that's really the tip of the iceberg; the supply chains to feed those factories, and the fact that the only product they remove from the economy by being switched to defense production is essentially a luxury good, makes it even better. I.e. if you start using a tractor or locomotive factory to produce tanks, well, now you don't have new tractors or locomotives, which are strategically important. But if you use a passenger car factory, everyone just has to keep their cars going for a few extra years. Again, the peacetime inefficiency and irrationality becomes a wartime benefit.

Even the American penchant for redesigning cars every few years—which is silly, and doesn't happen in planned economies, because it's largely the result of advertising-induced artificial demand, and incredibly wasteful in terms of the unfashionable-but-working cars it produces on the backend—is a plus, because it means the factories are equipped and used to quick tooling changes and redesigns. The positive way to view this is "agility", but it also means not iteratively optimizing the hell out of a particular design, like you see in long-running European designs (VW Beetle, VEB Trabant, etc.). The fact that US car industries were used to annual retooling is often credited for why they were able to switch to defense production so quickly in WWII (Chevrolet was making bomber engines by late 1942, 340 days from RFQ to full-rate production).

And when the war's over, the reverse also applies: taking the formerly-car-now-tank factory and turning it back into an automobile factory isn't a huge leap. Just pull the tooling back out of storage, and hope you haven't misplaced too many pieces. There's the slightly-awkward question of what to do with the people who've been working in the factories when the soldiers come home and start looking for jobs (which the US solved very neatly with institutionalized sexism), but it lets you start showering the masses with consumer goods—one they probably have a pent-up demand for—pretty soon after the war's over.

I don't think any of this was lost on Eisenhower et al when they started promoting the car over other forms of transportation in the immediate postwar era. And in fact the US basically tested this whole process during the Korean War—although it was also the last real large-scale industrial mobilization before that type of war basically became obsolete.

But if you look at the auto industry in context, as a product of the pre-nuclear phase of the Cold War, when US strategic planners thought the country would have to gear up and outproduce the Soviets in a third Great European Land War of mass production and conscription... suddenly it starts to make sense. Unlike other relics of that era, though, we're still paying for that decision, because our economy and society became addicted to it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:48 AM on April 15 [83 favorites]


mindset that car ownership and use makes everybody free.

Not only that— a sentiment I see over and over in pushback to urbanist movements towards better mass transit and cycling/walking is that one is only free when drivership is made an inalienable right. Unimpeded, untaxed, subsidized even.
posted by supercres at 10:49 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


That is some rhetoric in that article!

I especially enjoyed:

Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any moment is figuratively killing the “others,” who appear merely as physical obstacles to his or her own speed.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:49 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]


The positive way to view this is "agility", but it also means not iteratively optimizing the hell out of a particular design, like you see in long-running European designs (VW Beetle, VEB Trabant, etc.)

Yes, but also having cars that don't kill you is a huge plus. And that's still improving, despite the hideous arms race for size and height. The death rates have plateaued a bit, mind. They're still twice as lethal per mile in the US as they are in Europe.
posted by ambrosen at 11:06 AM on April 15


> The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking.

My wife and I own a car, almost entirely because the primacy of automobile culture has resulted in a situation where there is no convenient or cost-effective bus or rail service between Toronto and the cities in which my parents live and she is currently going to school and working. We drive within the city as little as possible because doing so is a stressful misery. Every time I see endless lines of cars inching along the DVP or the Gardiner, honking at each other and belching smog into the air I wonder how anyone can stand doing that every working day, but then I remember that the alternative to spending a fortune on driving your car back and forth to work and living like that is spending a smaller fortune to cram yourself onto filthy, overcrowded buses, streetcars and subways which are subject to constant service delays and filled with people who go out of their way to make the experience even more miserable for everyone because the state of public transit here implicitly hangs a sign at every entrance reading "WE DON'T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOU." So it's a feeback loop; people drive their cars because transit sucks, which makes transit even worse and more ineffective so people drive their cars.

Of course, you can ride your bike.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:11 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


The auto industry employed (and to some extent continue to employ) a large percentage of the American workforce. Car factories' inefficiency compared to mass transit is a boon here; if we all used trains or buses, which last much longer and simply require less metal per passenger, there would be fewer people kept busy building them. The auto industry is a makework project par excellence, in that it doesn't look like some Stalinist command-economy project, but keeps a lot of people busy and not sharpening their pitchforks.

On the other hand, public transportation would employ people as drivers, cleaners, and in other maintenance jobs, only some of which are current jobs in the personal auto focused setup that we have in North America. It's like folks say about self-checkouts at grocery stores: we've been duped into doing what would otherwise be someone's paying job, transporting ourselves in our regular commutes, for free.
posted by eviemath at 11:23 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Of course the same could be said of someone who bicycles on their daily commute...
posted by XMLicious at 11:54 AM on April 15


There are some solid critiques of the ubiquity of the automobile in our city planning, but this article is not one of them.

The point I think that I am most boggled by his audacity is the idea that cars are what make cities dirty, and that during the good old time of horse-and-carriage - you know, the time when there was horse manure constantly through said streets - that cities were neither noisy nor smelly.

In sincerity, though, I really hate the way things are framed as a war between public and private transportation, rather than focusing on what it would take to get more public transportation. “A cultural shift” is not an answer. You have issues like - most of the cities in the US were designed and built for the amount of people they could conceive living in them, which proved woefully inadequate when the population rose. And it’s really hard to dig new subway, or to find spaces for an elevated train, when you’ve already allowed a host of buildings to spring up that would block the way. .

And the problems of transit are hard to fix. You can’t, and shouldn’t, exclude people from public transportation. But a lot of the problems of transit are other-people problems. What do you do about someone who is loudly shouting at other public transit users? What do you do about someone who is causing a public-health problem for others? And how do you do this without making the lives of those whose lives are already hard even worse?
posted by corb at 11:56 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


And the problems of transit are hard to fix.

Sure, but I think that the difficulty is political willpower, not complexity of the problem. Many problems of moving people boil down to space allocation, and money. Cities that have addressed them with evidence-based approaches have found successes pretty easily attainable.

Everybody wants progress, but not everybody wants change.
posted by entropone at 12:36 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


My driver's license expired recently and because of the difficulty of dealing with the DMV I procrastinated a month before getting it renewed. So: a month of being car-free. Now it turns out that I live in a walkable area and have a workable if sometimes aggravating public transit system so I was fine but it gave me a window into the world of carlessness. Transit is a huge advantage. Walkability is amazing. And the option of Lyft can save your ass in a pinch.

And in the aftermath, I would say that there are the elements of a revolution here. Improve transit, for sure. The current economics of car-hailing services are terrible, but some version of it is a great backstop. Having amenities within walking distance is great.

Even when I lived in what had ultimately become a commuter suburb, history tells me there used to be a train depot for long-distance travel and a trolley system for local travel. Sadly neither of those things persist today... but they, or something equivalent, could exist tomorrow if we choose to have them.

At the time, I had an impractical vehicle (a Jeep) but it was OK since my commute was short and if I needed to go a longer distance I would rent a more practical vehicle (typically a Prius). Extrapolating a bit, carlessness does not need to be a total lack of cars, but the option for using a car when that is the best option. It can be way cheaper than owning a car!

I've done some travelling recently and have visited places with real transit options. London, for all of its flaws, has workable public transit, and congestion pricing has made the streets safe(r) for pedestrians and bicycles. It is not constant gridlock (Londoners, feel free to contradict, but this was my impression). Barcelona is entirely navigable with public transit and, again, the streets are not clogged with cars. Even Paris has improved within my memory. It can be done.

It took us half a century to retool our environments to the car and it might take another half-century to retool them for public transit, but it is possible and can be done.

Perhaps cars should be a luxury, defined as a thing you can aspire to but do not need. Maybe they will become seen as an obscene luxury, eventually, with a certain aprobrium around them. But for this to be the case, we need workable alternatives. If we were to redirect resources from the automobile infrastructure to a practical transit infrastructure, we could solve this problem.

Sadly, even there, resources are misdirected. The always controversial California high-speed rail project(*) is a case in point. It has now been reduced to a line between (I think) Bakersfield and Modesto. Well, hmm, ok then but.... Wouldn't it be better to increase transit options within metro areas than between them. Somehow we are sidelined by pie in-the-sky megaprojects (studies, studies, and more studies) and totally miss the achievable local projects. High speed rail here would require electrification of, elimination of grade crossings on, and increasing capacity of a rail line that already exists. Progress is excruciatingly slow. This is a shame because it's a win either way and could easily have been done already if we had the will to do it.

Keep your mag-lev and hyperloop fantasies away from me. Focus on practical, high capacity public transit options for metropolitan areas.

I'm not a huge fan of public/private partnerships because they are often captured by private interests. But, if you look at urban transit options, subways are the way to go. It is not very expensive to bore a tunnel (that is the easy part, Elon!); it is expensive to build stations. Cities with good subway systems have learned how to subsidize the stations with private development. This can be a win/win situation. I wish I knew why it works in some places and fails in others. (OK, I think I know, but whatever.)

We can evolve our cities if we really want to, it is already happening to some extent, and some places are far ahead of others.

(*) I love the idea of long-distance train travel, have travelled on the TGV and loved it, but this is a second-order thing we (meaning the USA, I guess) can deal with after we have made our cities and metro areas transit-friendly. There's a lot to do and we can do it.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:47 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]


I'm learning to drive and the biggest thing that frustrates me is basically that my values and views align with this essay, whereas the people around me (like say aunts and uncles and family acquaintances who encourage me to learn it) are completely ignorant of these questions. Thus I don't feel understood or truly supported on my terms, and that impedes my progress and motivation in a basic way. Car culture inhabits the mind and learning to drive in this milieu really made this obvious to me.
posted by polymodus at 12:50 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]


Every time I see endless lines of cars inching along the DVP or the Gardiner, honking at each other and belching smog into the air I wonder how anyone can stand doing that every working day, but then I remember that the alternative to spending a fortune on driving your car back and forth to work and living like that is spending a smaller fortune to cram yourself onto filthy, overcrowded buses, streetcars and subways which are subject to constant service delays

I'm going to put in a vote for the Toronto subway system. The Yonge-University line is insanely crowded at peak hours - and the Bloor platform is a safety hazard waiting to happen when crowded - but it's orders of magnitude better than being stuck in car traffic. I don't have to pay attention on the subway - I just plug in my headphones and zone out. And subway riders, on the whole, are less obnoxious than drivers. (In Toronto, drivers are getting more aggressive because they are frustrated by the congestion, which is putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk.)

I am lucky enough to live in a neighbourhood with a high walk score (after growing up in one that was very car-dependent). Not needing a car to obtain the necessities of life is wonderful.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 12:55 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


You can’t, and shouldn’t, exclude people from public transportation.

This is a real problem, I will admit. Accessibility of public transportation is a real problem.

It's also an obstacle to building more public transit (in the USA).

The London Underground has a separate map for the underground that is accessible. This is both laudable (yea, they try to provide useful information) and terrible (boo, the system is, by and large unaccessible.)

The truth is you could not build most of these systems (or many of the few existing systems) in the USA because of the ADA.

This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but we do need some serious research into how to make transit safe and accessible. Nobody wants to use the befouled and often inoperable elevators for our current subway systems (much less the largely shuttered public restrooms). I am convinced these problems can be solved, and must be.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:57 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


To those who say this shift can't be made, look at Amsterdam. Everyone now knows it as a world-class haven for cyclists and pedestrians, but in the 70s it looked like any other car-clogged city. Activism and government buy-in changed this - it didn't just happen.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:57 PM on April 15 [30 favorites]


But, if you look at urban transit options, subways are the way to go.

Bus Rapid Transit is cheaper, quicker, more scalable, and easier to make ADA-compliant. Even in places where a subway would be ideal, BRT can be a great stopgap measure.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:01 PM on April 15 [9 favorites]


Public transit solves for the majority of commute travel. It does not solve, on its own, for other types of travel, like grocery shopping, going to the hardware store, buying appliances, visiting rural areas not served by public transit, etc. One of the reasons why car ownership is so low in NYC (meaning Manhattan and Western Brooklyn / Queens) is that other amenities, like bodegas, are distributed in a way that makes them easy to get to on foot. Hardware stores also sell rolly carts for transport of laundry, etc. Philadelphia, for example, does not. Most major employers are also outside of the city, which makes not having a car very difficult since commuting by bus and rail is either not an option or exceedingly slow. You can't just legislate major businesses into your city center. The entire infrastructure and economy of any given city has to shift to make public transport work in such a way that car ownership will decline.

It is possible, but definitely complex and not just a question of "political will." And you will never get rid of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and delivery vehicles.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:03 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


I'm sure I related this here before, but...

I once saw a study that showed the relation between the population density and per-capita automobile ownership across the world. The paper contained a graph that was simply too good: it showed a 1/x relationship that was simply too close to be merely measured data: the data fit too well. There must be something else going on.

So I pondered a bit and did some algebra. It turned out that all that the data was saying is that there are only so many cars you can fit into a given area: cars were proportional to the area you can fit them in. That isn't really so surprising, after all. But think again: it means that we are already saturated with cars! We need to find a solution that does not rely on cars because we can't just keep adding cars. There simply isn't room for them.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:08 PM on April 15 [10 favorites]


I worked as a personal lines (home and auto) insurance analyst for a year. Everyday I compiled a large accident report as my first task of the day that was emailed out to all the business development reps (to terrorize them into pressuring brokers to avoid selling insurance to high risk groups or something?).

Day after day reading about deaths, dismemberments and spinal injuries. The company I worked for had about 5% of the provincial market. There were major claims every single day I worked. Typically at least 5.

I stopped driving 25 years ago because I did not want to be directly responsible for ever hurting anyone that badly.

The only downside has been that IKEA is inconvenient.
posted by srboisvert at 1:23 PM on April 15 [11 favorites]


Nobody wants to use the befouled and often inoperable elevators for our current subway systems (much less the largely shuttered public restrooms). I am convinced these problems can be solved, and must be

Perhaps a return to paid elevator attendants and restroom attendants in busy public places?
posted by Secret Sparrow at 1:45 PM on April 15 [12 favorites]


Perhaps a return to paid elevator attendants

Indeed.
posted by alexei at 1:57 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Not only that— a sentiment I see over and over in pushback to urbanist movements towards better mass transit and cycling/walking is that one is only free when drivership is made an inalienable right.

This is always so weird to me, like - sure having access to a car is convenient, being able to to take medium-distance road trips is nice, but realistically if I didn't have to drive the same 50 miles round trip every day I could probably get by owning maybe... 1/4 of a car - if that - without seriously affecting my lifestyle.
posted by atoxyl at 1:57 PM on April 15


And you will never get rid of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and delivery vehicles.

Does anyone want to?
posted by atoxyl at 1:58 PM on April 15 [12 favorites]


BRT can be a great stopgap measure.
Especially now that electric buses don't have to spew diesel fumes everywhere.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:59 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Day after day reading about deaths, dismemberments and spinal injuries. The company I worked for had about 5% of the provincial market. There were major claims every single day I worked. Typically at least 5.

I stopped driving 25 years ago because I did not want to be directly responsible for ever hurting anyone that badly.


This wasn't just confirmation bias on your part. Traffic fatalities have just surpassed AIDS-related deaths worldwide, and are also the #1 global killer of children and young adults, surpassing all diseases. And those numbers don't include deaths caused by pollutants, or by global warming.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:15 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]


The car problem is going to be fixed incrementally, where you slowly reduce the number of private cars sharing the streets with ambulances, police, disabled, buses. And think of the small and weak and vulnerable, not the big and brave and strong, when designing cities; some people drive because they're afraid not to, or because they are small people hauling three kids and six bags of groceries.

Some things I would like to see:
  • Allow for taxis. Some people need taxis. If using taxis means they don't buy a car, that's fine. But make the taxis all quiet and electric.
  • Identify places where pedestrians could and would be pedestrians if encouraged. In each of those places, take lanes and parking from cars and convert it to seating, sidewalks, bike paths, and stops for buses, trams, trains, and taxis.
  • Try things like one-lane, one-way, low-speed streets in city centers, where cars are expected to share the road with bicycles and scooters at bicycle/scooter speed.
  • Require that all schools be accessible by safe sidewalks and bike paths by some percentage of the students. A low percentage. At first.
  • Require all new housing to have sidewalks and bike paths on every street linking them to daily needs (schools, stores, and public transport). If there's going to be sprawl, it's going to be pedestrian-friendly sprawl.
  • When driverless public transportation arrives, replace every driver with a guide/guard/bouncer to make sure everyone is safe and welcome, even alone at midnight. It could be someone who knows nothing about driving a bus and everything about kicking assholes off a bus.
  • Keep expanding the size and number of walkable areas, keep linking those areas together, and keep increasing the percentage of students who walk or bike to school.
posted by pracowity at 2:20 PM on April 15 [8 favorites]


Try things like one-lane, one-way, low-speed streets in city centers, where cars are expected to share the road with bicycles and scooters at bicycle/scooter speed.

As someone who bikes in a city with predominantly one-lane, one-way, supposedly low speed streets: a whole lot needs to change in terms of driver mindset before this effects any positive change in driver behavior. Until then, us low speed road users just look like speed bumps to a rage-filled cager behind the wheel of a two ton weapon.
posted by supercres at 2:53 PM on April 15 [11 favorites]


If they look at all.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:00 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


a whole lot needs to change in terms of driver mindset

Cars also need to change. A small car that won't let you drive faster than 10 mph in a 10 mph zone would do a lot to tame the goon behind the wheel. He might even give up driving and ride his bike. He'd still want to be the fastest and coolest rider on the street, of course, but he would be just a couple hundred pounds of danger and he would have to look out for himself and others a lot more if he couldn't hide in his car and zoom out of sight.
posted by pracowity at 4:04 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I live in a suburb of NYC, work in Brooklyn, and can do so because I happen to live in one of a handful of suburban towns where you can walk to a Metro North train. I hate driving, don’t have a car, and am in (well adjacent to) the #1 city for public transit. AND I STILL HATE IT. Because! Living a commutable distance to NYC means paying a ton in rent.

I want to move to Cheapwalkersburg :( Where is it and are there singles :(
posted by Kemma80 at 4:11 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]


“The typical American devotes more than 1500 hours a year (which is 30 hours a week, or 4 hours a day, including Sundays) to his [or her] car. This includes the time spent behind the wheel, both in motion and stopped, the hours of work to pay for it and to pay for gas, tires, tolls, insurance, tickets, and taxes. Thus it takes this American 1500 hours to go 6000 miles (in the course of a year). Three and a half miles take him (or her) one hour. In countries that do not have a transportation industry, people travel at exactly this speed on foot, with the added advantage that they can go wherever they want and aren’t restricted to asphalt roads.”
It's a nice set of data, but it misses that, because of the transportation industry in the US, most people don't have the option of "walk to work instead of driving." And walking takes substantially more personal energy - most people could walk to a shopping center two miles away, but walking back with purchases isn't just a matter of how much time is involved.

The message we need to push isn't "we need to get rid of cars" (of course we need to get rid of cars, but we all know how well that message goes over) but "y'know, if you and your next-door-neighbor shared a car, the cost of maintenance would be cut in half, and you'd just have to carpool - hey look, less freeway hassles! - and arrange shopping on different days."

Cars are one of the worst examples of individualism gone amok, where the manufacturing industries have persuaded everyone that they need their own copy of something that would be perfectly serviceable at a "one on every block" level.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:53 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Cars are one of the worst examples of individualism gone amok, where the manufacturing industries have persuaded everyone that they need their own copy of something that would be perfectly serviceable at a "one on every block" level.

So, thinking about it, I actually think cars are an example of a thing that are made necessary for many by other forces getting weaker in our country. I feel like there have been times where 'one car for a few houses' might be reasonable, but the way that we work - or more specifically, the way bosses treat us - makes things like cars (and other untenable solutions) necessary.

For example - I don't know if they still did it, but for a while when I was younger they used to give "late transit tickets", where if a bus you were on wound up getting to its destination later than it was supposed to, you'd get a piece of paper you could take to your boss. And your boss would say 'oh, cursed transit' and you wouldn't get in trouble for being late.

Now, even if the transit people did do that, I don't know that bosses would care. They have used computers to fill their needs down to the minute, so if someone is ten minutes late because of transit, they say "not my problem" and penalize workers.

So people think "well, I'd better go myself, in a way I can control, and I'd better go super early, at a time transit wouldn't be running, to make sure, because i can't afford to lose my job."
posted by corb at 6:05 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]


Re: groceries without a car

This is a solved problem.

Before I moved out to a rural area, I had a cargo trailer for my bicycle. It was basically a big rubbermaid tub on wheels. I could lock the lid to the tub, and lock the whole thing to a bike rack. The coupler that attached it to the rear wheel of my bicycle was secure while riding but super quick and easy to attach or detach, and the long axle that attached to the bicycle also doubled as a handle for wheeling the trailer behind me like a two-wheeled cart while walking. It was perfect for groceries and small errands, and I even brought home some larger loads from time to time. If I had mainly walked rather than bicycled for my errands, I would have gotten a four-wheeled cart of some sort. I hear that one can buy specialized four-wheeled carts to carry babies and smaller humans, that also have some dedicated cargo space. Or, my family used to have just a regular old radio flyer wagon that we used for bringing laundry to the laundromat (two to three baskets plus detergents was our family's weekly laundry) or groceries home from the grocery store. Something also four-wheeled but a little more vertically oriented would be better for bus or subway use. In some neighborhoods, those more vertical pull carts with one pair of wheels and a pair of legs to rest on while stopped are quite common, but I think I'd want something with four wheels if I had a particularly heavy load of groceries to carry.

Stores that sell appliances and similarly large and heavy items that wouldn't fit in a bicycle or hand-pulled cargo cart will typically make home deliveries.
posted by eviemath at 6:14 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


And you will never get rid of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and delivery vehicles.

Get rid of most cars and fire trucks, ambulance and police cars could lay off their goddam sirens which would be a huge quality of life win in a city.
posted by srboisvert at 6:15 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


the motorcar has been the engine of racism and segregation in the 20th century, attempting to undo the mixed race and income city that bred socialism and labor movements. Levittown had an racial covenant.
posted by The Whelk at 6:27 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]



Cars also need to change. A small car that won't let you drive faster than 10 mph in a 10 mph zone would do a lot to tame the goon behind the wheel.


It exists. It's called a Canta. It's a 2 seater car with a deliberately shrunk 4 stroke engine displacement. Low power. Low top speed. Which is why it's legal to use on the Dutch bike paths. Not a fun car to drive, so only disabled people use it, but it's not legally limited to disabled people. It's SAFE for pedestrians around you, so nobody's going to give a damn why you choose to drive one.
posted by ocschwar at 7:58 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I agree with what Kadin2048 says about how the automobile industry adapts back & forth to military hardware. I also think that 21st century warfare will soon leave heavy metal behind in favour of lightweight mini drone tech. And other things.
posted by ovvl at 8:23 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Every time I see endless lines of cars inching along the DVP or the Gardiner, honking at each other and belching smog into the air I wonder how anyone can stand doing that every working day, but then I remember that the alternative to spending a fortune on driving your car back and forth to work and living like that is spending a smaller fortune to cram yourself onto filthy, overcrowded buses, streetcars and subways which are subject to constant service delays

as someone who's lived in toronto for – wow almost eight years now! (though with some time off, admittedly) – i'm always a bit befuddled by people's attitudes towards transit. i mean, "filthy, overcrowded buses, streetcars and subways"? this literally could not come off as more classist than it already does. for its immense ridership, it is far less "filthy" than one may expect. crowding is of course an issue – as with every major city. i am an avid walker, but i have been taking the TTC regularly since i moved here, and also worked as an uber driver full time for eight months. i'd much rather have to deal with – gasp, the horror – the (over)proximity to others, stinky as they might be, where i can read, think, even talk to strangers, than be in proximity to the misanthropy of car-people: the stench of their bourgeois morality, their obsession with cleanliness even as it entails greater pollution, their bubbles of suburb(in)anity, and the fucking horns that express nothing related to driving and its rules written and not but their own dissatisfaction with their miserable lives. the feedback loop isn't just "people switch to cars because transit sucks which makes transit suck more because there are more drivers who dislike transit," it's, as you've demonstrated, i hate being around people and i hate poor people and dirtiness (even though like, shit, you think the TTC's dirty? hahaha), i have a wife and family and like, ew, public transportation. to be fair, i'm being a dick; given the situation you described, driving sounds reasonable. just your description of the "why" driving is better than public transport rubbed me so much the wrong way i got a bit of a friction burn
posted by LeviQayin at 11:36 PM on April 15 [11 favorites]


-Cars Are Weird!
-Forget Tesla, It's China's E-Buses That Are Denting Oil Demand

also btw :P
Helium Dreams: "The world gave up too early on airship innovation. We can have huge warehouses floating gently in the sky, able to convoy to places without paved roads."
posted by kliuless at 12:34 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


It exists. It's called a Canta. It's a 2 seater car with a deliberately shrunk 4 stroke engine displacement. Low power. Low top speed.

That's OK, but I was thinking more about a 0-stroke electric car (no local gases and noise filling up the canyons between buildings) and a way for the car to check and obey the local speed limit automatically, even if the car is physically able to go 200 mph. A speed bump could be electronic rather than an actual bump in the road.
posted by pracowity at 3:58 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


> just your description of the "why" driving is better than public transport rubbed me so much the wrong way i got a bit of a friction burn

That's fair enough (although in no way did I mean to imply that driving in Toronto is "better"...it's just awful in different ways), and my depiction of the TTC was probably harsher than it should have been due to a particularly trying experience I had on it yesterday morning. But I've lived here for almost 20 years and (through no fault of its own, the system is horribly underfunded) the experience of riding the TTC has gone way downhill over that span of time. My frustration also stems from the knowledge that the crowding and service delays are only going to get worse in my lifetime because thousands of people are moving and/or being born into this city every year with no proportionate increase in transportation resources (and many other resources, but that's a separate issue), and of course who the hell knows what the TTC will look like by the time Doug Ford gets through with it. Toronto is still a wonderful place to live, but it in terms of transportation issues it's choking on its own growth, and I don't think that's just me getting older and crankier.

I take transit six months a year (I ride my bike when the weather's nice enough). I really want to love it. I hate driving, and I hate everything about owning a car. But the gap between what public transit could be, what it is in other cities I've visited, and what we're expected to just accept because, hey, that's life in the big city, is immense.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:05 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


I have carefully arranged my life to have to do as little driving as possible. Actually, I basically never drive, thanks to my husband. At some point, this will likely have to change. For now though, despite Boston's decrepit public transport system, the temptation to abandon our two-bed condo 8 minutes from the T for "more space" somewhere in the suburbs, I remember to cherish my public transit commute each morning when I hear grumpy coworkers talking about the terrible traffic on the Pike. Granted, I sometimes have subway horror stories to match, but about 95% of the time I get on the subway early enough in the day to have an uninterrupted commute, time to zone out or read a book as the case may be, and plenty of people watching. I honestly wouldn't trade it for anything.
posted by peacheater at 8:12 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Gorz was one of the left's most significant and rather underappreciated thinkers of the 20th century IMHO. Also prophetic:
“Blame speculation, tax havens, lack of supervision and control over the financial industry if it pleases. However, the impending depression or total collapse of the global economy is not due to lack of controls but to capitalism’s inability to reproduce itself. Capitalism can only perpetuate itself and function on ever more precarious and fictitious bases. Taxing the fictitious value-added from speculative bubbles, for the sake of redistribution, would only precipitate what the financial crisis seeks to avoid: devaluating masses of financial assets and bankrupting the banking system” (Journal EcoRev, Autumn 2007).

Delivered in his last piece of work, more than a year before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, these words become even more striking when taken against the backdrop of Gorz’s position during an interview in the early 1980’s: “With regard to the global economic crisis, we are at the beginning of long processes that will last decades. The worst is still ahead of us. In other words, the financial collapse of large banks and most likely of states is still to come. Collapse, or the means used to avoid it, will only deepen our dominant moral and social crisis”.
posted by talos at 9:37 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]


It's a nice set of data, but it misses that, because of the transportation industry in the US, most people don't have the option of "walk to work instead of driving." And walking takes substantially more personal energy - most people could walk to a shopping center two miles away, but walking back with purchases isn't just a matter of how much time is involved.

Years ago i put substantial effort into arranging my life so that this would be possible. I had a decent paying job i liked in a neighborhood i wanted to live in. I spent months and months apartment hunting, looking at overpriced, godawful apartments that were either falling apart, shoddily remodeled, or the size of closets. By chance, i found a really really old landlord renting a nice unit for below what the area had shot up to

Between the apartment and my work was a decent, albeit slightly overpriced, full sized grocery store. Once it all came together, i could walk to anything i needed with few exceptions within 5~ blocks.

When i got laid off, i found another job about 8 blocks away that paid a bit more but wasn't as good. Then i got ~mysteriously~ run out of the apartment which now rents for double what i paid.

I couldn't find another job or apartment close together, no matter how hard i tried. Either the jobs were far away and i would have had to move to the burbs, or the neighborhoods were way, way too bougie and gentrified(or it was just the core of downtown).

My new house is in a food desert, although i like my job. There's no straight shot transit without a decently long walk on both ends. I could walk to work in perfect conditions, but it would take a half hour or more. It's a dangerous route to bike i decided after one shot(and years of experience cycle commuting)

The perfect walking scenario was just that, a perfect storm. I know very few people outside of the service industry who have managed to do it, and their living situations are always precarious.
posted by emptythought at 10:30 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]


And you will never get rid of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and delivery vehicles.

No, not entirely; but they might look very different outside of an automobile-centric urban environment.

Ambulances in the US are generally built on medium-duty truck chassis, while in Europe they're built on full-size vans. In neither case are they really built around the actual minimum-viable requirements for an ambulance—and they're certainly not optimized for volume. A medevac helicopter can contain most of the same equipment as an ambulance and is obviously much smaller (they don't generally have the same size oxygen bottles, or the number of spares of each item, or carry fire extinguishers and light rescue gear and all the other things that get tossed on ambulances as "nice to haves"). In places where you can't get a full-size ambulance there are lots of smaller vehicles that can handle the majority of cases. One of the local FDs near me has a thing for use on bike paths that basically looks like a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a golf cart had a love child.

Fire trucks are a bit more purpose-built, although it's worth noting that a large percentage of what fire trucks respond to in the US are automobile-related. There are ~1.7 million injury- or fatality-producing auto incidents in the US per year, and only 364k residential and 97k non-residential fires (and I think the non-residential number includes vehicle fires). I wouldn't want to live in a city without a fire department, but a city with a fire department and without a bunch of cars could probably reallocate significant resources towards fire prevention, and get equipment more specialized for their particular type of structures. The heavy rescue and spill-response units (each creeping towards the $1M/unit pricetag) that essentially only exist because of cars, and which even rural departments are increasingly obliged to have, are an implicit, hidden subsidy, and come at the expense of other types of emergency-response apparatus.

Also, even US firetrucks and ambulances are rarely wider than 8.5 ft, and a good driver can fit them through a 9 ft gap given a straight shot (the mirrors might not fare too well, but they're designed to flip in for a reason...). So you don't need exceptionally wide avenues—turn radii are actually the bigger deal.

As for police... police officers really only took to sitting in cars when cars became common. And there's a whole slew of studies on why having the dominant policing model be car-based is a bad idea and tends to alienate the police officers from the community. Dismounted patrols (or patrols on bikes or Segways or whatever) offer a lot of benefits. Certainly enough to offset the inconvenience of having to occasionally wait for a dedicated transport vehicle distinct from patrol/response vehicles.

Goods transport is, IMO, actually the biggest and most challenging problem in pedestrianized areas. The popular solution that I've seen in urban areas where cars have been banned is to either allow a small number of delivery vehicles during the day, with pedestrians and others having the right-of-way and a very low speed limit, and/or open the streets up to delivery vehicles at night. Or maybe freight tunnels will come back into vogue. The Swiss seem interested; Heathrow airport has one (though for different reasons).

I don't see these things as barriers, as much as they are opportunities for cities to find solutions that fit their needs better than the current ones, which tend to be one-size-fits-all because they're built around cars rather than cities' needs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:36 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]


Or maybe freight tunnels will come back into vogue. The Swiss seem interested; Heathrow airport has one (though for different reasons).

I was staying in Paris on a street that had a Metro line beneath. At night, after the Metro's last run, I kept feeling vibrations from trains running beneath. In the morning I asked the concierge what that was about. Why were trains running after the Metro was closed?

According to him, trains run at night in the tubes to remove the garbage. That seemed wonderfully logical to me. You can easily imagine such mixed use for freight delivery as well and, frankly, I'm not sure if that isn't the case (how do the markets/stores get stocked?). Perhaps someone here has further information on that?

Well-designed infrastructure can serve multiple purposes. We need more of this kind of thinking.

(Side-eye to those who conceive underground tunnels as a way to move a few hundred Teslas per hour from enclave to enclave. That's so silly it's amazing anyone gives it a second thought.)
posted by sjswitzer at 11:54 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]


Could Barcelona's plan to push out cars and build superblocks work in the US? - "A few US cities, like Portland, Oregon, might have the infrastructure and civic will to follow in Barcelona's footsteps."

The World's Biggest Electric Vehicle Company Looks Nothing Like Tesla - "BYD, which built the battery in your '90s cellphone, now produces more EVs than anyone—and it wants to sell them to you, soon."
posted by kliuless at 1:49 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Goods transport is, IMO, actually the biggest and most challenging problem in pedestrianized areas. The popular solution that I've seen in urban areas where cars have been banned is to either allow a small number of delivery vehicles during the day, with pedestrians and others having the right-of-way and a very low speed limit, and/or open the streets up to delivery vehicles at night.

In Seattle, UPS just launched the first American pilot of a system it uses in many European cities, in which deliveries reach their final destination via cargo e-bikes with removable cargo containers. The containers are 95 cubic feet and can hold 400 pounds of cargo. This container model allows for the use of intermediate delivery hubs without having to completely unload one truck and reload another. And since the cargo containers can be left behind for unloading, the cyclists can make more frequent deliveries than a truck could do.

This is just one example - I don't know much more about this specific model than what's in the link - but the general concept of using smaller delivery vehicles connected to a network of cargo hubs is a good one.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:48 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


And you will never get rid of fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and delivery vehicles.

This reminded me of two posts from StrongTowns:
The Right Gear For The Job
How Fire Chiefs and Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:58 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


The perfect walking scenario was just that, a perfect storm. I know very few people outside of the service industry who have managed to do it, and their living situations are always precarious.

I am in the perfect walking scenario now, having very carefully constructed my life over the last decade to create it, and forces are now conspiring to make it untenable again.

I honestly don't know what I'll do -- I can't afford to buy a car anyhow, and I haven't driven any kind of vehicle in over a decade (and was an appallingly terrible driver back when I did drive). Become largely housebound, I suppose, like my grandmother was in the 50s.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:22 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Gorz was one of the left's most significant and rather underappreciated thinkers of the 20th century IMHO

The rhetoric in this is what got me to post it, like not totally new ideas but man get someone who loves you as much as Gorz hates cars
posted by The Whelk at 1:02 AM on April 17 [6 favorites]


I live in one of the best cities in the world for public transportation (and probably one of the most expensive places to have a car) and when my second kid was born, yes, I bought a car. The cost per mile is absurd and, no, I’m not getting rid of it.

What pushed me over the edge was realising how pedestrian unfriendly the city had become. With public transport getting more and more crowded and caught up in traffic, the balance tipped. Better to be stuck in traffic in my own car (a/c blasting and chosen music/podcast playing) than sniffing exhaust at a crosswalk or crammed into a bus with someone coughing on me).

Cities allocate way too much space to cars (which are effectively private spaces on pubic roads) at the expense of public space for pedestrians or other forms of public transportation. This distorts incentives and leads to bad outcomes.
posted by clark at 7:18 AM on April 17


The World's Biggest Electric Vehicle Company Looks Nothing Like Tesla - "BYD, which built the battery in your '90s cellphone, now produces more EVs than anyone—and it wants to sell them to you, soon."

God, $9000~ for a compact car with 180~ miles of range? I would literally buy one in June if you could get that here.

That beats essentially everything around or under 30k even
posted by emptythought at 10:39 AM on April 17


Cars Are Weird (Current Affairs)
posted by The Whelk at 10:18 AM on April 18


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