Finding safe paths through suburbia

Also published on Resilience

The post-WWII suburban settlement pattern assumes and reinforces car travel as the default transport choice for its residents. Do such settlements have a future when the temporary energy bonanza of the past 100 years falters? And can residents of suburbia begin to create that future today?

This series on the transition from car-dependency to walkability has examined the integral, sometimes convoluted relationship between land use planning and transportation planning. We’ve looked at major, top-down initiatives as well as small-scale efforts to intensify suburban land uses. This post will look primarily at small scale, from-the-ground-up efforts to make suburban travel safer for people who want to make more trips on foot or on bike.

The problems of suburbia arise not only at a local level, but are also due to national laws and subsidies that favour car ownership, state and provincial funding and specifications for expressways and major arterial roads, a housing development industry whose bread and butter is clearing land on the urban fringe for cookie-cutter subdivisions, and an entrenched culture within municipal governments that prioritizes throughput of vehicles in transportation plans.

Changes are needed at all of those levels – and some of those changes will take a lot of time, money, and political will. At a local level, though, political will can implement some important changes in very little time and with modest expenditures.

The Strong Towns organization promotes an approach that de-emphasizes large, comprehensive, expensive projects that will take years to produce results. By contrast, they advocate a simple, bottom-up approach to making small changes, starting right away:

“1. Humbly observe where people in the community struggle.

2. Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?

3. Do that thing. Do it right now.

4. Repeat.”1

Some of the barriers to walkability are small and can be quickly fixed – but in some cases they are left unfixed for years because “we are doing a transportation masterplan” which will, hopefully, propose a solution to be implemented years from now. A good example would be installing curb cuts that could make crossings accessible to someone pushing a stroller or traveling in a wheelchair. Simple improvements like this, when repeated at dozens of locations, can make life easier for many citizens and build hope and confidence that a municipality is moving in the right direction – even if larger and more elaborate changes are also needed.

A related approach, known as “tactical urbanism”, has been popularized by Mike Lydon and put into practice in many cities. (For an excellent introduction to Lydon’s approach see the video Tactical Urbanism: Transform your City Today! hosted by Gil Penalosa of 8/80 Cities.) Tactical Urbanism also looks for projects that can be implemented quickly and cheaply, though they might fit into a grand vision for much larger change to follow. By implementing changes quickly, on a pilot-project basis, this approach also allows much more effective public consultation.

As Lydon explains, typical public consultation processes fail to reach many of the people most affected by projects. The advantage of rapidly implemented pilot projects is that they allow public consultation to happen outdoors, onsite, where the people most affected by a change can see how the change is affecting their daily lives.

An example would be a “road diet”, in which a section of a four-lane collector road is reduced to three lanes – one travel lane in each direction, plus a shared center lane for left turns – thus freeing enough space for a protected bike lane on each side. Another example would be installing a “bump-out” at an intersection to reduce the unprotected distance a pedestrian needs to cross. These pilot projects can typically be done with nothing more expensive than paint and flexible, temporary plastic bollards. Following onsite consultations during the pilot project, the plan can be scrapped, modified, or implemented on a more durable permanent basis – all in less time than a comprehensive masterplan process would need to get to a draft stage.

Regular but temporary “open streets” programs – that is, closing streets to cars so they are open to people – have helped millions of people envision and understand how they could experience their cities in safer, more enjoyable, more pro-social ways. The most famous of these experiments began decades ago in Bogotá, Colombia. Today Bogotá’s program includes more than 100 km of city streets which are opened every Sunday, to a vast range of activities including exercise classes, street theatre, children’s games. The Open Streets program has spread to scores of cities, including many in North America, and has often led to permanent establishment of pedestrian blocks.2

“We’ll work with anyone – but we won’t wait for anyone”

Tactical urbanism programs often get their impetus from small groups of residents proposing changes to city staff. In some cases, though, tactical urbanist improvements are made directly by citizens who have tired of waiting for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to turn. This was the subject of a fascinating webinar entitled “Direct Action Gets the Goods: The Rise of Illicit Tactical Urbanism.”3 Led by Jessie Singer, author of There Are No Accidents, the webinar heard from anonymous direct action activists in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chattanooga. Their activities have included painting city-standard crosswalks at locations suggested by community members through a website form; installing benches at bus stops that lacked any nod to user comforts; and installing temporary bollards to convert a dangerous right-turn lane into a traffic-calming bump-out.

As the panelists explained, sometimes the citizen-installed crosswalks or benches were quickly removed by city staff. Just as often, however, city staff received so many messages of support for the new improvements that they were left in place, or quickly upgraded to a higher standard. In either case, the publicity the groups receive on social media ensures that important issues get a boost in visibility. Although advocacy work is sometimes seen as a win-or-lose game, a Crosswalks Collective Los Angeles member explained, “with guerrilla urbanism, there is no such thing as losing.”

“Where the sidewalk ends”, North St. Louis, photo by Paul Sableman, May 9, 2012, licensed via CC BY 2.0 DEED, accessed on Flickr.

Follow the footsteps

When city staff take a close look at what citizens are accomplishing or attempting to accomplish on their own, they may discover ways their suburban environments can be improved. In an article entitled “Walking to the Strip Mall,” Nico Larco notes that informal pedestrian routes are common around suburban strip malls, indicating that even without good infrastructure, significant numbers of people walk to these malls. He notes that:

“Pedestrian networks in suburbia are much more than just sidewalks along streets. They include sidewalks within private property, cut-throughs, the streets themselves, paved and unpaved bike paths, informal goat paths, makeshift gates in fences, and kickdowns.”4

While these routes make it easier for some residents to get to and from these malls, they are far from ideal. The routes may be muddy, rough, impassable for people pushing strollers, strewn with garbage, routed through ditches, vacant lots, woods, and may be unlit at night. They often also lead to the rear loading-dock area of a strip mall, rather than the parking lot side where store entrances are located.

However, city staff should be looking at each case to see whether it is feasible to formalize some of these informal routes to make them useful and safe for a greater number of nearby residents. For example, it may be possible to secure an easement on a strip of private land, so that an informal pedestrian route can be formalized, paved or otherwise maintained, and lighted. Perhaps a public access doorway can be installed at the rear of a building, providing straight-through access for pedestrians who would benefit from a formalized pathway from their homes to the commercial entrances of the mall.

Clearly, each case will be different and not all of the informal pedestrian paths are likely to be good candidates for upgrading. But if they don’t take seriously the “votes” of citizens who are already marking out paths with their steps, municipal officials will miss an important chance to learn and to improve their suburban environments.

Walkable, bikeable, or both?

Jeff Speck has written,

“Walkable cities are also bikeable cities, because bicycles thrive in environments that support pedestrians and also because bikeability makes driving less necessary.”5

Once supportive and safe infrastructure is provided, rates of walking and biking go up dramatically. But biking is likely to be even more significant in suburban contexts, simply because distances tend to be greater. For the foreseeable future, many suburban trips are likely to be too long for walking to be a practical option – but the range of bicycles is growing due to electrification.

With the widespread availability of electric-assist bikes, a big share of suburban trips are now fully within the range of adults of average fitness. E-bikes can be a convenient, healthy, and economical transportation choice for individuals. Several US states and cities are now providing subsidies to residents for purchases of e-bikes.6

A study of e-bike potential noted that in England, an average person could comfortably use a bike for a trip of 11 km (6.8 miles), while the same average person could go 20 km (12.4 miles) on an electric-assist bike.7 One conclusion is that e-bikes could reduce car use even more in rural and suburban areas, where transit services are poor and distances are longer, than in urban cores where there are many options for the mostly short trips.

According to the United States Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, in 2021 just over 50% of all trips were three miles or less.8

Source: Estimated for the Bureau of Transportation Statistics by the Maryland Transportation Institute and Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory at the University of Maryland. The travel statistics are produced from an anonymized national panel of mobile device data from multiple sources.

If the average resident of the US or Canada is as physically capable as the average resident of England, then even the trips in the third and fourth categories on the chart above would be feasible for many people on e-assist bikes. That would make bikes and e-bikes practical options for about 80% of trips – as long as there is safe infrastructure on which to ride those e-bikes.

The benefits of a switch by a significant segment of the population to e-bikes for many of their daily journeys would include not only a substantial reduction in traffic, but also a reduction in CO2 emissions, better health for the people making that lifestyle change, and significant cost reductions both for individuals and for cities.

Citing AAA figures, Michael Thomas wrote this month that

“After fuel, maintenance, insurance, taxes, and the like, owning and driving a new car in America costs $10,728 a year. My e-bike, by comparison, cost $2,000 off the rack and has near-negligible recurring charges.”

If a typical two-car family can trade one of their cars for an e-bike, that can make suburban housing suddenly much more affordable. But even the cost savings aren’t “the real reason you should get an e-bike,” Thomas wrote, because

“Study after study shows that people with longer car commutes are more likely to experience poor health outcomes and lower personal well-being—and that cyclists are the happiest commuters.”9

Should your municipality consider offering subsidies to encourage e-bike use? Consider that a $400 (US) subsidy could cover from 20% to 40% of the cost of a good e-bike, while that amount would be too small to be relevant to the potential buyer of an electric car. Consider also that e-bike charging stations could be installed at libraries, schools, shopping malls, and other destinations at a small fraction of the cost of electric car chargers, with little or no need to install electric grid upgrades.

* * *

There are a host of complications in transforming car-dependent suburbs. When I started this series on car-dependent suburbs, I planned to finish with one post on making the transformation to walkable, bikeable communities. That concluding post has now stretched to three long posts and I’ve just scratched the surface.

Clearly the best option would be to stop digging ourselves into these holes: stop building car-dependent suburbs now. But if you’re already in a car-dependent suburb, the time to start the transition to a walkable community is also now.


Notes

1 In “The Strong Towns Approach to Public Investment,” by Charles Marohn, Strong Towns, Sept 23, 2019.

2 See The Open Streets Project for information on these programs.

3 Part of the Vision Zero Cities 2023 conference sponsored by Transportation Alternatives, Oct 18, 2023.

4 “Walking to the Strip Mall: Retrofitting Informal Pedestrian Paths,” by Nico Larco, in Retrofitting Sprawl: Addressing Seventy Years of Failed Urban Form, edited by Emily Talen, University of Georgia Press, 2015.

Walkable City, 10th Anniversary Edition, by Jeff Speck, Picador, 2022, page 72.

Free electric bikes? How many US cities and states are handling e-bike subsidies,” electric.co, 19 Feb 2023.

E-bikes and their capability to reduce car CO2 emissions,” by Ian Philips, Jillian Anable and Tim Chatterton, Transport Policy, February 2022.

More than Half of all Daily Trips Were Less than Three Miles in 2021,” US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, March 21, 2022.

The real reason you should get an e-bike,” by Michael Thomas, The Atlantic, 20 Oct 2023.


Photo at top of page: “A man walks south on Cobb Parkway just south of Southern Polytechnic State University and Life University, a stretch of US 41 lacking sidewalks almost entirely. He’s got a long walk ahead to find the next crosswalk, which is 0.9 miles from the last one at Highway 120 — a stretch that is also almost completely devoid of sidewalks on both sides of the street.” Photo by Transportation For America, Metro Atlanta Pedestrians series, on Flickr, taken March 30, 2012, licensed via CC 2 BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

Turning a new leaf in suburbia

Also published on Resilience

Social critic James Howard Kunstler referred to suburban sprawl as “the greatest misallocation of resources in history.”1 In his view, “The suburbs have three destinies – as slums, salvage yards, and ruins.”2

While agreeing that suburbs in their current form are “hopelessly maladapted to the coming world of energy descent,” permaculture pioneer David Holmgren nevertheless believes that “Low-density detached housing with gardens is the ideal place for beginning a bottom-up revolution to recreate the household and community non-monetary economies that our recent forebears took for granted as the basis for an adequate, even comfortable, life.”3

Suburbs have not come to an end – I’m my region, in fact, they are still adding suburban sprawl like there’s no tomorrow. Signs of positive transformations of suburban developments exist across North America, but you might need to look carefully to notice.

This post will look at some of those signs of transformation and how they might be accelerated. In contrast to the last post, Can car-dependent suburbs become walkable communities?, this post and the next will focus mostly on small-scale initiatives.

The major theme of this series of posts has been the contrast between car-dependency and walkable communities. Walkability is a transportation issue, of course, but it is more than that.

It is often said that transportation planning and land use planning are two sides of the same coin.4 It’s important to look at both issues, not only as they are addressed in government policies, but also as they are addressed by individuals or small groups of neighbours.

For the purposes of this discussion, three key features of suburbia are:

  1. zoning rules that mandate the separation of residential districts from commercial districts and industrial districts;
  2. the default assumption that people will drive cars from their homes to workplaces, stores, cultural events, and recreational facilities; and
  3. the organization of the resulting car traffic into maze-like local residential streets, larger collector streets, six-to-eight lane major arterials, and expressways.

These basic parameters have many implications as discussed in previous posts. The practice of driving everywhere means there also needs to be parking at every location, so that a typical suburban district has several parking spaces for every car. (See How parking ate North American cities.)

The funneling of traffic to bigger but more widely spaced roads leads to traffic jams during every rush hour, and dangerous speeding when traffic volumes are low. The dangerous collector and arterial roads put vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, at risk of death or serious injury in getting from their own immediate neighbourhoods to other neighbourhoods. (See Building car-dependent neighbourhoods).

And the low residential and employment density of sprawl makes it difficult and expensive to build public transit systems that run frequently and within a short walk of most residents. The result is that suburban sprawl seldom has good transit, which in turn strongly reinforces car-dependency. (See Recipes for car dependency.)

Change will not be optional

Notwithstanding the difficulties of transforming the suburban pattern, I believe it will happen for this simple reason:

That which is not sustainable will not be sustained.

First, suburban sprawl is not financially sustainable, particularly in the governance arrangements we have in North America. As Strong Towns has demonstrated through numerous articles, podcasts and videos, North American suburban expansion has been a Ponzi scheme. While expansion infrastructure is usually paid for through a combination of federal government and developer funding, local municipalities are left with the liabilities for infrastructure maintenance and eventual replacement. That wouldn’t be a problem if the new districts could raise sufficient property tax revenue to cover these liabilities. But they don’t.

Low-density housing tracts, interspersed with one-story shopping centers and strip malls, all surrounded by expansive parking, don’t bring in nearly as much property tax/acre as denser, multi-story developments in older downtown districts do. The low tax revenue, coupled with very high maintenance-replacement liabilities for extensive roadways, parking lots, and utilities, eventually catch up with municipalities. And then? Some can keep the game going, simply by getting more funding grants for even further sprawl – thus the “Ponzi scheme” moniker – but eventually they run out of room to expand.

As Charles Marohn has written, “Decades into this experiment, American cities have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates deferred maintenance at multiple trillions of dollars, but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the local streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that directly serve our homes.”5

Worth noting is that as climate instability forces infrastructure reconstructions to happen more frequently and to higher standards, the pressure on municipal governments will be even more intense. And as energy costs spike higher, fewer residents will be able to afford the long commutes in private cars that they now take for granted.

When suburban municipalities face bankruptcy, what will the choices be? Certainly one choice is to abandon some areas to become, in Kunster’s words “slums, salvage yards, and ruins.” For reasons explained below, I think it’s more likely that municipalities will allow more varied and denser developments than are currently permitted by zoning codes, so that a larger property tax base can help cover infrastructure liabilities.

Suburban sprawl is also likely to prove unsustainable at the level of individual homes. Debt has grown rapidly in recent decades, and a great deal of that debt is in the form of mortgages by homeowners – many of whom live in the far reaches of suburbia.

Jeff Speck wrote “The typical American working family now lives in suburbia, where the practice of drive-’til-you-qualify reigns supreme.”6 Due to a dearth of affordable homes inside American cities (and in Canadian cities as well), new home buyers have only been able to qualify for mortgages far from urban cores. The price for somewhat cheaper housing, however, is that each working member of the family is likely to need a car to get to and from work. In Speck’s words,

“The average American family now spends about $14,000 per year driving multiple cars. … Remarkably, the typical ‘working’ family, with an income of $20,000 to $50,000, pays more for transportation than for housing.”7

When families are paying for the biggest mortgage they qualify for plus the cost of keeping two or more cars on the road, the shock of higher interest rates, a rise in unemployment, and/or higher gas costs can be too much to sustain. Referring to the 2007-2009 oil price spike and economic downturn, Speck explains that “as gasoline broke $4.00 per gallon and the housing bubble burst, the epicenter of foreclosures occurred at the urban periphery.”8

In coming economic crises, on a collective scale or an individual scale, I wouldn’t expect the suburbs to be abandoned or to be torn down en masse and rebuilt. Frankly, I don’t expect society to be wealthy enough to simple start over in other places or following other patterns. Instead, I would expect both municipal governments and individuals to muddle through by making a wide range of adjustments. And some of those are starting already.

The household as a place of production, just consumption

As Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson have written, “Built environment change is slow and contested. In a developed city, turnover (additions and alterations) in the built stock is typically much less than five per cent per annum.”9 But while buildings, lots and streets may change slowly, the activities that go on there may change more rapidly.

One significant change has been happening already, in spite of zoning rules that typically disallow the change.

In a post titled “Your Home Office Might Be Illegal,” Edward Erfurt wrote,

“The frontline zoning battle for the right to work out of your home hit center stage during COVID. Under most zoning codes, we are all breaking the law.”10

He adds that “Working from home and working out of a home has become normalized. … Others have even taken the next incremental step of leaving a corporate job to open a new business in our homes.”

Simply turning a blind eye to zoning violations is one thing, but Erfurt urges municipalities to take a proactive approach:

“Home Occupations should be permitted by right in every zoning category in your community. Whether you are working remotely for a large corporation or running your own business, you should have the right to do this within your home. Cities should encourage home occupations as a tenet of their economic development strategy, and a single line could be added to any code to focus the planners.”

Robert Rice describes how the dynamic is now playing out in Houston:

“This is how the Suburban Experiment really ends: not with explosive legislation, but with regular people making the best of what they have. In Houston, what we have is houses. I propose that these new house-businesses, home offices, and de-facto multifamily residences are the first increment of intensity for a suburban neighborhood.”11

Some of these changes are taking place in accord with current law and some in defiance of current law. However, many jurisdictions across North America are now changing rules to allow modestly greater density in residential areas, including in suburbs. Travis Beck recently wrote:

“Minneapolis, for example, ended single-family zoning effective January 2020, allowing the construction of duplexes and triplexes on all residential lots. Oregon passed legislation in 2019 requiring cities with populations above 25,000 to allow construction of duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes on all residential lots. And California’s 2021 Senate Bill 9 allows the construction of duplexes on residential lots and the splitting of sufficiently large lots into two parcels, effectively allowing four housing units to be built in place of one.”12

Even the province of Ontario, infamous for bungled attempts to enrich land speculators by fast-tracking sprawl on previously protected lands, recent legislation specifies that “up to three residential units are permitted ‘as of right’ on most land zoned for one home in residential areas without needing a municipal by-law amendment.”13

Intermittent additions of one or two residences per lot may seem insignificant compared with the scope of the housing crisis; such zoning changes are certainly not sufficient to make suburbia sustainable. Yet such changes provide for greater flexibility in housing options and promote actions by individual property owners and small contractors, in contrast to the large developers who are often spoken of as the only actors who can solve the housing crisis. Paradoxically, the pace of densification on a lot-by-lot basis could pick up in an economic downturn, if significant numbers of homeowners decide it make sense to downsize their overly-large residences by creating one or two rental units.

It’s not only the number of residential units and the number of residences that matter, but also the kinds of activities that happen in residential neighbourhoods. As discussed above, a large number of suburban homes are now de facto workplaces. The work done in and around homes, whether or not that work is counted in official economic statistics, could become a greater factor in the suburban economy.

The Victory Garden movements of the last century encouraged people to raise food in their own yards, whether they lived in cities, the nascent suburbs, small towns or rural areas. In the US, during WW I about one-third of US vegetables came from Victory Gardens. By 1943 during WW II, there were 12 million Victory Gardens in cities. A Wikipedia article notes that “While Victory Gardens were portrayed as a patriotic duty, 54% of Americans polled said they grew gardens for economic reasons while only 20% mentioned patriotism.” (Image on left is a WWI-era poster from Canada; at right is WWII image from use. Images and data from Wikipedia article Victory garden.)

One of the key features of most suburbs, visible from the street or from the air, is the small- or medium-size plot of lawn adjacent to each single-family dwelling. But the biological desert of the standard lawn can easily be replaced with something much more life-giving. Alexander and Gleeson write:

“Digging up backyards and front yards and planting fruit and vegetables, keeping chickens, and composting, are important practices, reconnecting people with the seasons, the soil, and the food on their plates. In the words of permaculture activist and educator, Adam Grubb, we should ‘eat the suburbs’.”14

A frequent objection to this idea is that few people could raise all their own food on a typical suburban lot. Quite true, and quite beside the point. More relevant is that many and perhaps most suburban residents could raise a significant portion of their fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs, and other foods if they choose. In the process, they and their communities would become more resilient while promoting greater local biodiversity.

Suburban landscapes often include many other strips of green, kept semi-alive through regular mowing and sometimes watering: strips between areas of parking lots, in front of strip malls, on medians within major arterials, within the “cloverleafs” of expressway interchanges. Alexander and Gleeson invite us to imagine the transformation of these areas:

“Over time, we can imagine food production crossing beyond household boundaries, too, re-commoning public space. This is already under way, as people reclaim nature strips for food production, plant fruit trees in the neighborhood, establish community gardens, and cultivate unused land through “guerrilla gardening.’”15

Alexander and Gleeson write in an Australian context. In North America, a great example of similar change is the work of permaculture proponent Jan Spencer in Eugene, Oregon. Over the past twenty-three years he has transformed his quarter-acre suburban lot into an oasis. Starting with an 1,100 square foot home fronted by a driveway big enough to park six cars, Spencer gradually turned the driveway and surrounding spaces into three-dimensional gardens, added enough water tanks to collect thousands of gallons of rainwater to keep his gardens happy through the typically dry local summer, and built a 400 square foot living space for himself so he could rent out three rooms in the house.16

As Spencer explains, a key permaculture principle is to design each change so that it meets multiple purposes. With his changes he has, among other things, increased the residential density of his property, provided an income for himself, taken major steps toward food security, added carbon storage, buffered the effects of extreme heat, drought, and rainfall, and reduced the draw on city utilities such as the water system.

Such activities hold the potential of turning the suburban household “into a place of production, not merely consumption.”17

Trip generation

What do home offices and front-yard gardens have to do with transportation? Recall the incantation of traffic engineers: “trip generation.”

A home with, for example, two adult residents “generates” fewer trips when one of those adults can work at home most days instead of commuting. The home will generate fewer trips to buy groceries if the household grows a lot of their own vegetables in the summer, and perhaps puts up some of those vegetables for the winter too.

A family with two or three cars for each working member may find they can trade one of those cars for a bike, taking the bike on grocery runs much of the time. Each family which reduces the number of cars they own not only reduces traffic, but also reduces the number of parking spaces needed both in their immediate neighbourhood and at the stores, schools or workplaces they can reach without driving. Which, in turn, makes it more feasible to gradually increase the number of residences in a neighbourhood or the number of stores in a shopping plaza, as the need to devote precious space to parking is reduced.

Obviously, not every suburban resident can make these type of lifestyle changes at present. Just as obviously, we don’t need all, or even most, suburban residents to become car-free before we see a major impact on traffic patterns and usage of public transit. Finally and obviously, only a limited number of people will willingly bike or walk outside of their immediate neighbourhoods until we make the roads safe for them, and few people will willingly switch to public transit if the service is slow, infrequent, or unreliable.

So zoning and land use changes, while necessary, are not sufficient to transform car-dependent suburbia into sustainable, walkable communities. Many changes to transportation policy and infrastructure are also needed. Some of these will require governments to play a major role, but many can be initiated by small groups of neighbours who see immediate problems and advocate or demonstrate simple solutions. Those changes will be the subject of the next post in this series.


Notes

1 TED talk transcript, April 20, 2007.

2 Quoted by Leigh Gallagher in The End of the Suburbs, Penguin Books, 2013; page 206. As an aside, it was in Gallagher’s book that I first learned of the Strong Towns movement; I have been learning from their blog posts, books, podcasts and videos ever since.

3 Foreword to Degrowth in the Suburbs, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; page vii.

E.g., see Land Use Impacts on Transport: How Land Use Factors Affect Travel Behavior, by Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Victoria, BC. Page 3.

“America’s Growth Ponzi Scheme,” Strong Towns, May 18, 2020.

Walkable City, 10th Anniversary Edition, by Jeff Speck, Picador, 2022; page 30.

7 Walkable City, page 30.

8 Walkable City, page 30.

9 Degrowth in the Suburbs, page 12.

10 Edward Erfurt, “Your Home Office Might Be Illegal”, on Strong Towns blog, Oct 13, 2023.

11 Robert Rice, “The End of Suburbia Starts with Disobedience,” on Strong Towns blog, Oct 13, 2023. Rice explains both the differences and similarities between the deed restrictions that are common in Houston, and the zoning-based restrictions much more common in most American cities.

12 In “ADUs Can Help Address The Lack Of Housing. But They’re Bad Urban Design.” by Travis Beck, Next City, Oct 5, 2023.

13 From “Backgrounder: More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022”, Ontario Government Newsroom, November 28, 2022.

14 Degrowth in the Suburbs, page 133.

15 From “Suburban Practices of Energy Descent,” by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency, Kreps & Cobb, editors, Post Carbon Institute, 2021; page 189.

16 See Spencer’s description of this project in “Transforming suburbia,” on Resilience.org, October 6, 2023, and a video tour of Spencer’s property conducted by Laura Sweeny of Raintree Nursery.

17 “Suburban Practices of Energy Descent,” page 190.


Image at top of page: Levittown, PA, circa 1959, adapted from public domain image at Wikimedia Commons.

Can car-dependent suburbs become walkable communities?

Also published on Resilience

“The majority of urban areas in most cities today are car-dependent,” writes urban planner Tristan Cleveland, “leaving little room for walkable growth unless cities can convert large areas of existing suburbs into pedestrian-oriented neighbourhoods.”

Yet the processes of change are even more difficult in suburbs than in urban cores: “The barriers to walkable design are greatest in such suburban contexts, where the momentum for car-oriented design is most entrenched.”

Cleveland is an urban planning consultant who works with Happy Cities, a consultancy based in Halifax and Vancouver. His 2023 PhD thesis, Urban Intercurrence, is a thorough, enlightening, readable, jargon-lite study of how and why some suburban districts embark on the transition from car-dependent sprawl to walkable neighbourhoods. (A tip of the hat to Strong Towns, where I first learned of Tristan Cleveland’s work through this podcast interview.)

The work’s subtitle – “The Struggle To Build Walkable Downtowns In Car-Dependent Suburbia” – indicates an important limitation in scope. This is not a study of attempts to convert a car-dependent suburb as a whole, but more simply to develop a high-density, walkable district within a larger suburb. Even so, Cleveland demonstrates, the pitfalls are many and successes to date are partial at best.

Cleveland’s insights make for a good follow-up to recent posts here on car-dependent development. A first post, Recipes for Car-Dependency, looked at car-dependent development on a regional scale, in which a superfluity of highways and major arterial roads is matched with scarce, infrequent public transit. The second post, Building Car-Dependent Neighbourhoods, focused on car-dependent development at a neighbourhood scale.

But once car-dependent regions and neighbourhoods are established, is it possible to retrofit them, in whole or in part, to escape this car-dependency?

In my opinion it is not only possible, but is probably inevitable – though it may take a long time and it may involve difficult disruptions. Probably inevitable, because the suburban lifestyle is built on and presupposes cheap energy to power swarms of private cars which each carry one or two occupants many kilometers to work, school, and shopping on a daily basis. When this energy is no longer available and affordable to most residents, car-dependent lifestyles will change by necessity.

In the meantime, some residents and municipalities are already promoting car-lite or car-free lifestyles for other important reasons: to improve public health by simultaneously reducing air pollution and the diseases of sedentary lifestyles; to build social cohesion by encouraging more people to walk through their neighbourhoods to local shops; to cover rising infrastructure maintenance costs by achieving compact urban and suburban developments with a higher tax base; to make frequent and timely public transit possible in districts with sufficient population density.

As Cleveland notes, walkable neighbourhoods are in high demand but scarce supply, leading to sky-high rents and real estate prices in such districts. And since most North Americans now live in suburbs, providing the walkable neighbourhoods many people would prefer to live in will necessarily involve a significant degree of suburban retrofitting.

Urban Intercurrence provides detailed looks at four concerted attempts to build walkable downtown districts in suburbs. One is in a suburb of Vancouver, another in a suburb of Toronto, a third in a classic “edge city” in the orbit of Washington, DC, and one about ten miles from downtown Miami, Florida.

Before diving into the specifics of each project, Cleveland provides a valuable primer on a hundred years of car-prioritized developments. This history is essential to understanding why the retrofit examples have all had slow and limited success.

The history review and the examples are relevant and useful to transportation activists, environmental justice activists, municipal planners and officials.

Intercurrence and inverse feedback

For a PhD thesis Urban Intercurrence is remarkably light on specialist jargon, and Cleveland also defines clearly what he means by words or phrases that may be unfamiliar to a lay audience. Many of the issues he discusses will be familiar to any activist who has attended public meetings in favour of adding bike paths, reducing width of car lanes, or repurposing some of the vast area now devoted to car parking.

There is, to be sure, an out-of-the-ordinary word in the thesis title. Cleveland adopts the word “intercurrence” from political science, where it refers to “the ways in which multiple, contradictory paradigms of thought and practice can co-exist within institutions, and how their contradictions can shape policy.” (Pg 5. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes in this article are from Urban Intercurrence.)

The contradictory paradigms sometimes come from professionals who are educated with different orientations. In recent decades the urban planning profession has been strongly influenced by the movement to create safe, attractive, walkable districts, Cleveland says. Traffic engineering departments, on the other hand, tend to prioritize the swift and unimpeded movement of vehicles. Both groups are involved in suburban retrofits, and sometimes the result is a project that spends much public money to encourage walkability, and just as much or more money widening car lanes on more roadways, thereby discouraging walkability.

A paradigm like car-dependency tends to be self-reinforcing. If nearly all the residents in a district travel by car, then shopping centers have their doors opening to large parking areas, instead of opening directly to a sidewalk where the rare pedestrian might pass by. If each single-family home needs two or three parking spaces, then residents and their municipal councillors typically fear that even a mid-size apartment building will overwhelm the neighbourhood’s parking supply.

Nevertheless, car-dependency sometimes causes discontent with car-dependency. In many suburban areas today, roadways are so chronically congested that voters are ready to approve new public transit systems. At the same time, housing developers used to building low-density, car-dependent subdivisions may switch to advocating for high-density developments once they’ve used up most of the available land.

Cleveland writes, “I refer to these contradictory feedback processes — which undermine car-dependence, reinforce walkability, or at least enable a shift towards walkability — as ‘inverse feedback.’” (pg 5)

He cites clear examples of competing paradigms and inverse feedback in each of the four suburban retrofit case studies. In each case, inverse feedback provides an opening for walkability advocates to initiate change. Importantly, however, when car-oriented interests offer support to walkability, that support is limited and insufficient to result in a walkable neighbourhood:

“To complete a shift to walkability, it is necessary, at some point, for walkability to begin to reinforce itself on its own terms, at the expense of car-dependence. That is to say: it is necessary for walkable interests to identify as such, to defend their needs, to establish separate standards, and to normalize those standards. It is also essential for walkable development to achieve a sufficient scale that it can begin to attract other, similar growth. Car-dependence may cause backlash that inspires change, but to complete change, it is essential for those who have a direct stake in walkability to complete the transformation.” (pg 6)

The timeline is long, very long

Two important facts jump out when reading the four case studies of retrofits. First, change in these instances is primarily a top-down process, promoted and initiated by local governments, major developers, or both. Second, the move to walkability has taken thirty or forty years, with action stalled for years in some cases, and while significant progress has been made, none of the four projects have yet fully realized their original goals.

In Surrey, BC, a suburb of Vancouver, formal planning for a walkable downtown district began in the 1980s. Zoning changes alone failed to convince developers to build high-density projects geared to walkability. The city finally took major steps in the 21st century, building a new city hall and public library complex in a prime location. Even then developers hesitated, so in 2007 “The city established the Surrey City Development Corporation (SCDC), an arms-length company for which the city remained the sole shareholder, but which could raise capital, build market-oriented development projects, and partner with other development firms to help to encourage them to invest.” (pg 134)

The new developments were located adjacent to a station of the SkyTrain, a commuter train that goes to downtown Vancouver. The existence of the SkyTrain helped convince many car-dependent residents to support a walkable, high-density Surrey City Centre. However, this expensive transit line made it difficult to get funding for other intra-suburb lines that might have been of even more benefit in freeing Surrey residents from car-dependency. As Cleveland explains:

“A SkyTrain can appeal to otherwise car-dependent voters because it can replace the one trip that is most difficult to make by car — commuting through traffic to work — and it can also help to alleviate rush-hour traffic by replacing some of those car trips. And it does not consume road space. However, a SkyTrain to downtown does not meet the needs of people who rely on transit for everyday trips, such as going to daycare, visiting friends, or buying groceries. … A high-speed connection to the downtown makes one kind of trip faster, but does little to enable a complete transit-oriented lifestyle throughout one’s community.” (pg 145-146)

SkyTrain route from Surrey City Centre to downtown Vancouver (image via Apple Maps)

The interplay between transport decisions made by different levels of government has been a complicating factor in all four of the the suburban retrofits Cleveland examines.

Spontaneous generation

As Brian Eno sang on Before and After Science,

“If you study the logistics
and heuristics of the mystics
you will find that their minds rarely move in a line.”1

This aphorism comes to mind when considering the massive roadways that snake through the should-be-walkable suburban retrofits. The plans of the traffic engineers follow a curious logic indeed.

In his book Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar highlighted an assumption deeply embedded in North American traffic engineering. He discusses the Parking Generation Manual published in 1985 by the Institute of Traffic Engineers. Underpinning the nearly infinite specifications for required parking, Grabar says, “the premise is simple: every type of building creates car trips, and projects should be approved, streets designed, and parking constructed according to the science of trip generation.”2

The belief that a building itself somehow generates traffic, and a multi-unit building generates multi-traffic, guides not only parking requirements but also roadway planning. In this thinking, it is not a car-dependent lifestyle or urban layout that generates traffic, it is the mere existence of buildings where people live, work, or shop. As long as this thinking guides traffic engineers, urban planners’ hopes for dense, walkable districts get sidetracked.

In the Uptown Core project in Oakville, Ontario, Cleveland writes,

“Traffic studies … predicted the community would have high traffic demand, requiring wide roads throughout the community. Studies predicted high traffic, ironically, precisely because the community was dense: traffic models assume each unit produces a certain number of traffic trips, regardless of whether the community is designed to be walkable or not.” (pg 203)

Tysons, Virginia is the largest and most famous suburban retrofit project in North America. As a classic “edge city,” Tysons in 1993 had few homes but a forest of high-rise office buildings where 70,000 people worked. The only way to get to these buildings was by car. Two examples of “inverse feedback” helped to prompt a retrofit: prime development land was getting scarce, and roads choked with traffic were undermining the original locational advantage for this mega office park.

Following a wave of investment in high-density housing, the population of Tysons rose to 29,000 by 2021, of which 10,000 lived in transit-oriented developments near the new Silver Line commuter rail service to Washington, DC.

But the planning for a walkable district had to contend with traffic engineers at the county and state level. They insisted that, ideals of walkability notwithstanding, Tysons would need to accommodate ever greater numbers of private vehicles. As a result, “Tysons’ smaller collectors and minor avenues are larger than the widest highways in many cities, at seven to ten lanes.” (pg 166)

Multi-lane highways even run directly past the commuter rail stations, making it unattractive or impossible to build new developments in close proximity to the stations. Ringed and bisected by high-speed, high-volume, high-pollution, very wide roads, Tysons can be summarized as “islands of walkability amidst rivers of car-dependence,” Cleveland writes. (pg 151)

Intercurrence in Tysons is reflected in government expenditures that work at cross-purposes:

“I am aware of few examples where government has spent so heavily to achieve a goal while spending so heavily to undermine it: billions of dollars on subways, sidewalks, and bike lanes, and nearly a billion dollars for widening roads and onramps, and billions more on widening its highways.” (pg 193)

Another lesson to be drawn is that “if it is difficult to shift one path-dependent institution, it is more difficult to shift two simultaneously, Cleveland writes. “Multilevel governance can therefore create additional barriers to change, reducing the likelihood that all relevant institutions will shift to support walkability simultaneously.” (pg 180)

An all-or-nothing proposition?

Because the factors reinforcing suburban car-dependency are many and strong, and most suburban retrofits have had limited success to date, some urbanists have concluded that incremental approaches are doomed to failure.

Cleveland cites various authors who “argue it is better for a single developer to own enough land to build a full-scale walkable community at once, establishing a critical mass of dense housing, pedestrian-friendly streets, and high-quality public spaces, all within walking distance of local shops and services.” (pg 230)

But Cleveland concludes (correctly, I believe), that

“It is important for cities to learn how to implement incremental retrofits, because cities cannot achieve their most urgent goals by retrofitting those few exceptional sites where government owns a former airport, military base, or other large piece of land, and can redevelop it all at once.” (pg 230)

In a coming post we’ll look further at possibilities for incremental change toward walkable suburbs, including changes that are undertaken not by governments but directly by residents.


Photo at top of post: “Express Lanes at Tysons Corner ”, photograph by Trevor Wrayton for Virginia Department of Transportation, licensed by Creative Commons. accessed via flickr.


Notes

1   From the song “Backwater” on the album Before and After Science by Brian Eno, 1977.

2   Henry Grabar, Paved Paradise, Penguin Random House, 2023; pg 153.

Building car-dependent neighbourhoods

Also published on Resilience

Car-dependent neighbourhoods arise in a multi-level framework of planning, subsidies, advertising campaigns and cultural choices. After that, car dependency requires little further encouragement. Residents are mostly “locked-in”, since possible alternatives to car transport are either dangerous, unpleasant, time-consuming, or all three.

At the same time, municipal officials have strong incentives to simply accept car dependency – it takes bold new thinking to retrofit such neighbourhoods. Voters are likely to resist such new directions, since it is hard for them to imagine making their daily rounds using anything except private cars.

This post continues a discussion of what car dependency looks like on the map. The previous installment looked at car dependency on a regional scale, while this one looks at the neighbourhood scale.

Both posts use examples from Durham Region, a large administrative district on the east flank of Toronto. With a current population of about 700,000, Durham Region is rapidly suburbanizing.

I’ve picked one neighbourhood to illustrate some common characteristics of car-dependent sprawl. I have chosen not to name the neighbourhood, since the point is not to single out any specific locale. The key features discussed below can be seen in recent suburban developments throughout Durham Region, elsewhere in Ontario, and around North America.

Let’s begin to zoom in. In the aerial view below you can see new subdivisions creeping out towards a new expressway. Brown swatches represent farmland recently stripped of topsoil as the first step in transforming rich agricultural land into suburban “development”. (In the short time since this aerial imagery was obtained, the brown swatches have become noticeably more extensive.)

The neighbourhood we’ll focus on includes a high school, conveniently identifiable by its distinctive oval running track.

Subdivisions here are built in a megablock layout, with the large-scale grid intended to handle most of the traffic. Within each megablock is a maze of winding roads and lots of dead-ends. The idea is to discourage through traffic on residential streets, but this street pattern has many additional consequences.

First, from the centre of one megablock to the centre of another nearby megablock, there is seldom a direct and convenient route. A trip that might be a quarter of a kilometer as the crow flies might be a kilometer or two as the car drives. In the worst areas, there are no available short cuts for cyclists or pedestrians either.

Second, the arterial roads need to be multilane to cope with all the traffic they collect – and as “development” proceeds around them they are soon overwhelmed. “Recovering engineer” Charles Marohn explains this phenomenon using an analogy from hydrology. At a time of heavy rain, a whole bunch of little streams feed into progressively larger streams, which soon fill to capacity. With a pattern of “collector” roads emptying into secondary arterial roads into primary arterials and then into expressways, suburban road systems manage to engineer traffic “floods” each time there is a “heavy rain” – that is, each morning and afternoon at rush hour.1

As we zoom in to our high school’s neighbourhood, note another pattern repeated throughout this region. Within a residential neighbourhood there may be a row of houses close to and facing an arterial road. Yet these houses are on the equivalent of a “service road” rather than having direct access to the arterial. For motorists living here the first stage of a journey, to the arterial road just 50 meters from their driveway, requires driving ten times that far before their journey can really begin. Though the maze pattern is intended to limit traffic in such neighborhoods, residents create a lot of traffic simply to escape the maze.

The residential service road pattern has the effect of making arterial roads into semi-controlled-access roads. As seen in this example, there are few driveways or other vehicle entry points in long straight stretches of such an arterial. This design encourages drivers to drive well above the posted 60 km/hr speed limit … whenever the road is not clogged with rush-hour traffic, that is.

High traffic speeds make crossing such roads a dangerous undertaking for pedestrians and cyclists. True, there are some widely-spaced authorized crossing points, with long waits for the “walk” light. But when getting to and waiting at a crosswalk is not convenient, some people will predictably take their chances fording the rushing stream at other points. How many parents will encourage or even allow their children to walk to school, a playground, or a friend’s house if the trip involves crossing roads like these?

Just across the road. High school is on the left of the road, residential neighbourhood to the right.

Pedestrian access is at best a secondary consideration in such developments. Consider the aerial view below.

Directly across one arterial road from the high school, and across another arterial from a residential neighbourhood, is a cluster of big box retail stores including a Walmart Supercentre. The Walmart has 200 meters of frontage on the street, but in that stretch there is no entrance, nothing but concrete wall to greet the occasional lonesome pedestrian.

From another direction, many people live “just across the street” from the Walmart and other stores. Except … would-be pedestrian shoppers will need to cross not just a multilane urban highway, but also hectares of parking lot, before reaching the doors of a store. These stores are large in retail floor area, but they are dwarfed by the land given to parking. In accord with minimum parking requirements, the stores have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide “free parking”. But there is no requirement to take the convenience of pedestrians into account. The doors open to the parking lots, not to the streets, because the vast majority of shoppers will arrive in large private vehicles that will need to be stored somewhere while the owner goes shopping.

Nevertheless there will be a small minority in such neighbourhoods who get to the store on foot or on bike. A few might be brave, stubborn environmentalists or exercise freaks. But mostly they will be people who can’t afford a car, or who can’t drive because of some type or degree of disability. Disproportionately, they will be elderly and/or in poor health. Particularly when carrying heavy bags of groceries, they will not want to go far out of their way to get to a crosswalk, preferring instead to make the shortest straightest trip home. It is not an accident that high-volume arterial roads in suburbs account for a large proportion of pedestrian deaths in North American cities. It is not an accident, either, that a disproportionate number of these deaths are inflicted on elderly, disabled, poor, or racially disadvantaged pedestrians.2

Lamp posts

Out beyond the beyond

It is now widely recognized that car-dependent suburbia hurts public health via an increase in diseases of sedentary lifestyle and due to the stress of spending many hours a week in alternately frenetic and creeping traffic.3 The environmental costs of sprawl include high carbon emissions, impermeable ground covering that rapidly flushes polluted run-off into diminishing areas of creeks and wetlands, and urban heat-island effects from so much concrete and asphalt. Particularly in Ontario, new tracts of car-dependent sprawl can only be built with the sacrifice of increasingly scarce class one farmland.4 Finally, groups such as Strong Towns have documented the long-term fiscal disaster of suburban development.5 Even though higher levels of government typically pay much of the initial cost of major infrastructure, municipalities will be on the hook for maintenance and eventual rebuilding – and property taxes in low-density suburbs seldom bring in enough revenue to cover these steadily accruing liabilities.

Yet in Ontario the large property developer lobby remains as strong a political force as ever. The Premier of Ontario makes no real attempt to hide his allegiance to the largest property developers.6 In Durham Region, after a long public consultation process recommended intensification of existing urban areas to accommodate growing populations, politicians suddenly voted instead for a sprawl-expanding proposal put forward by the development industry lobby.7

So in 2023, corn fields and pastures beyond the current edge of suburbia are being bulldozed, new maze-like streets laid out, thousands of big, cheaply-made, dearly-purchased, cookie-cutter houses stuffed into small lots. For a brief period new residents can look through the construction dust and see nearby farmland or woodland – until the edge of suburbia takes the next step outward.

Suppose you believe, as I do, that this ruinous pattern of development should not and cannot last – that this pattern will not survive past the era of cheap energy, and will not survive when its long-term fiscal non-sustainability results in collapsing services and municipal bankruptcies. When car culture sputters, falters and runs off the road, can these thousands of neighbourhoods, home to millions of people, be transformed so they are no longer car dependent? That’s a big question, but the next post will offer a few ideas.

For today, the edge


Image at top of page: Bulldozertown (click here for full-screen image). All photos used here are taken in the same area shown in satellite views.


Notes

Charles Marohn, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer, Wiley, 2021; pages 85–87.

For analyses of trends in pedestrian deaths, see Angie Schmitt’s 2020 book Right of Way (reviewed here), and Jessie Singer’s 2022 book There Are No Accidents (reviewed here).

See “Suburbs increasingly view their auto-centric sprawl as a health hazard,” by Katherine Shaver, Washington Post, December 28, 2016.

“Ontario losing 319 acres of farmland every day,” Ontario Farmland Trust, July 4, 2022.

See “The Growth Ponzi Scheme: A Crash Course,” by John Pattison, strongtowns.org.

See The Narwhal, “Six developers bought Greenbelt land after Ford came to power. Now, they stand to profit,” November 17, 2022; BlogTO, “All the crazy details about Doug Ford’s controversial stag and doe party with developers,” February 9, 2023.

See The Narwhal, “Ontario’s Durham Region approves developer-endorsed plan to open 9,000 acres of farmland,” May 26, 2022.

How parking ate North American cities

Also published on Resilience

Forty-odd years ago when I moved from a small village to a big city, I got a lesson in urbanism from a cat who loved to roam. Navigating the streets late at night, he moved mostly under parked cars or in their shadows, intently watching and listening before quickly crossing an open lane of pavement. Parked cars helped him avoid many frightening hazards, including the horrible danger of cars that weren’t parked.

The lesson I learned was simple but naïve: the only good car is a parked car.

Yet as Henry Grabar’s new book makes abundantly clear, parking is far from a benign side-effect of car culture.

The consequences of car parking include the atrophy of many inner-city communities; a crisis of affordable housing; environmental damages including but not limited to greenhouse gas emissions; and the continued incentivization of suburban sprawl.

Paved Paradise is published by Penguin Random House, May 9, 2023

Grabar’s book is titled Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. The subtitle is slightly hyperbolic, but Grabar writes that “I have been reporting on cities for more than a decade, and I have never seen another subject that is simultaneously so integral to the way things work and so overlooked.”

He illustrates his theme with stories from across the US, from New York to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Charlotte to Corvallis.

Paved Paradise is as entertaining as it is enlightening, and it should help ensure that parking starts to get the attention it deserves.

Consider these data points:

  • “By square footage, there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person.” (page 71; all quotes in this article are from Paved Paradise)
  • “The parking scholar Todd Litman estimates it costs $4,400 to supply parking for each vehicle for a year, with drivers directly contributing just 20 percent of that – mostly in the form of mortgage payments on a home garage.” (p 81)
  • “Many American downtowns, such as Little Rock, Newport News, Buffalo, and Topeka, have more land devoted to parking than to buildings.” (p 75)
  • Parking scholar Donald Shoup estimated that in 1998, “there existed $12,000 in parking for every one of the country’s 208 million cars. Because of depreciation, the average value of each of those vehicles was just $5,500 …. Therefore, Shoup concluded, the parking stock cost twice as much as the actual vehicles themselves. (p 150)

How did American cities come to devote vast amounts of valuable real estate to car storage? Grabar goes back to basics: “Every trip must begin and end with a parking space ….” A driver needs a parking space at home, and another one at work, another one at the grocery store, and another one at the movie theatre. There are six times as many parking spaces in the US as there are cars, and the multiple is much higher in some cities.

This isn’t a crippling problem in sparsely populated areas – but most Americans live or work or shop in relatively crowded areas. As cars became the dominant mode of transportation the “parking problem” became an obsession. It took another 60 or 70 years for many urban planners to reluctantly conclude that the parking problem can not be solved by building more parking spaces.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century parking had eaten American cities. (And though Grabar limits his story to the US, parking has eaten Canadian cities too.)

Grabar found that “Just one in five cities zoned for parking in 1950. By 1970, 95 percent of U.S. cities with over twenty-five thousand people had made the parking spot as legally indispensable as the front door.” (p 69)

The Institute of Transportation Engineers theorized that every building “generated traffic”, and therefore every type of building should be required to provide at least a specified number of parking spaces. So-called “parking minimums” became a standard feature of the urban planning rulebook, with wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

Previously common building types could no longer be built in most areas of most American cities:

“Parking requirements helped trigger an extinction-level event for bite-size, infill apartment buildings …; the production of buildings with two to four units fell more than 90 percent between 1971 and 2021.” (p 180)

On a small lot, even if a duplex or quadplex was theoretically permitted, the required parking would eat up too much space or require the construction of unaffordable underground parking.

Commercial construction, too, was inexorably bent to the will of the parking god:

“Fast-food architecture – low-slung, compact structures on huge lots – is really the architecture of parking requirements. Buildings that repel each other like magnets of the same pole.” (p 181)

While suburban development was subsidized through vast expenditures on highways and multi-lane arterial roads, parking minimums were hollowing out urban cores. New retail developments and office complexes moved to urban edges where big tracts of land could be affordably devoted to “free” parking.

Coupled with separated land use rules – keeping workplaces away from residential or retail areas – parking minimums resulted in sprawling development. Fewer Americans lived within safe walking or cycling distance from work, school or stores. Since few people had a good alternative to driving, there needed to be lots of parking. Since new developments needed lots of extra land for that parking, they had to be built further apart – making people even more car-dependent.

As Grabar explains, the almost universal application of parking minimums does not indicate that there is no market for real estate with little or no parking. To the contrary, the combination of high demand and minimal supply means that neighbourhoods offering escape from car-dependency are priced out of reach of most Americans:

“The most expensive places to live in the country were, by and large, densely populated and walkable neighborhoods. If the market was sending a signal for more of anything, it was that.” (p 281)

Is the solution the elimination of minimum parking requirements? In some cases that has succeeded – but reversing a 70- or 80-year-old development pattern has proven more difficult in other areas. 

Resident parking on Wellington Street, South End, Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Billy Wilson, September 2022, licensed through Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0, accessed at Flickr.

The high cost of free parking

Paved Paradise acknowledges an enormous debt to the work of UCLA professor Donald Shoup. Published in 2005, Shoup’s 773-page book The High Cost of Free Parking continues to make waves.

As Grabar explains, Shoup “rode his bicycle to work each day through the streets of Los Angeles,” and he “had the cutting perspective of an anthropologist in a foreign land.” (p 149)

While Americans get exercised about the high price they occasionally pay for parking, in fact most people park most of the time for “free.” Their parking space is paid for by tax dollars, or by store owners, or by landlords. Most of the cost of parking is shared between those who drive all the time and those who seldom or never use a car.

By Shoup’s calculations, “the annual American subsidy to parking was in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” Whether or not you had a car,

“You paid [for the parking subsidy] in the rent, in the check at the restaurant, in the collection box at church. It was hidden on your receipt from Foot Locker and buried in your local tax bill. You paid for parking with every breath of dirty air, in the flood damage from the rain that ran off the fields of asphalt, in the higher electricity bills from running an air conditioner through the urban heat-island effect, in the vanishing natural land on the outskirts of the city. But you almost never paid for it when you parked your car ….” (p 150)

Shoup’s book hit a nerve. Soon passionate “Shoupistas” were addressing city councils across the country. Some cities moved toward charging market prices for the valuable public real estate devoted to private car storage. Many cities also started to remove parking minimums from zoning codes, and some cities established parking maximums – upper limits on the number of parking spaces a developer was allowed to build.

In some cases the removal of parking minimums has had immediate positive effects. Los Angeles became a pioneer in doing away with parking minimums. A 2010 survey looked at downtown LA projects constructed following the removal of parking requirements. Without exception, Grabar writes, these projects “had constructed fewer parking spaces than would have been required by [the old] law. Developers built what buyers and renters wanted ….” (p 193) Projects which simply wouldn’t have been built under old parking rules came to market, offering buyers and tenants a range of more affordable options.

In other cities, though, the long habit of car-dependency was more tenacious. Grabar writes:

“Starting around 2015, parking minimums began to fall in city after city. But for every downtown LA, where parking-free architecture burst forth, there was another place where changing the law hadn’t changed much at all.” (p 213)

In neighbourhoods with few stores or employment prospects within a walking or cycling radius, and in cities with poor public transit, there remains a weak market for buildings with little or no parking. After generations of heavily subsidized, zoning-incentivized car-dependency,

“There were only so many American neighborhoods that even had the bones to support a car-free life …. Parking minimums were not the only thing standing between the status quo and the revival of vibrant, walkable cities.” (p 214)

There are many strands to car culture: streets that are unsafe for people outside a heavy armoured box; an acute shortage of affordable housing except at the far edges of cities; public transit that is non-existent or so infrequent that it can’t compete with driving; residential neighbourhoods that fail to provide work, shopping, or education opportunities close by. All of these factors, along with the historical provision of heavily subsidized parking, must be changed in tandem if we want safe, affordable, environmentally sustainable cities.

Though it is an exaggeration to say “parking explains the world”, Grabar makes it clear that you can’t explain the world of American cities without looking at parking.

In the meantime, sometimes it works to use parked cars to promote car-free ways of getting around. Grabar writes,

“One of [Janette] Sadik-Khan’s first steps as transportation commissioner was taking a trip to Copenhagen, where she borrowed an idea for New York: use the parked cars to protect the bike riders. By putting the bike lanes between the sidewalk and the parking lane, you had an instant wall between cyclists and speeding traffic. Cycling boomed; injuries fell ….” (p 256)

A street-wise cat I knew forty years ago would have understood.


Photo at top of page: Surface parking lot adjacent to Minneapolis Armory, adapted from photo by Zach Korb, August 2006. Licensed via Creative Commons BY-NC-2.0, accessed via Flickr. Part of his 116-photo series “Downtown Minneapolis Parking.”

Lost in traffic: does your time count?

Also published on Resilience

Traffic congestion studies make for quick and easy news articles, but they don’t even begin to calculate the true time lost to car culture.

The news story practically wrote itself: Toronto was ranked 7th worst among world cities for traffic congestion in 2022.

A web search showed similar stories popping up all over: “________________ [nearby city] ranks __th worst in world for traffic congestion.”

What did these traffic congestion ratings really measure? That wasn’t usually spelled out in click-bait articles. But a closer look reveals that the ratings measure and value the time spent by one particular class of urban residents – drivers – while omitting the urban mobility costs born by other citizens.

The basis for the recent round of stories was an annual report by INRIX called 2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. The company describes their work this way:

“INRIX Research uses INRIX proprietary big data, analytics and industry expertise to understand the movement of people and goods around the world. We achieve this by leveraging billions of anonymous data points every day from a diverse set of sources on all roads in countries of coverage. Our data provides a rich and fertile picture of mobility that enables INRIX Research to produce valuable and actionable insights for policy makers, transport professionals, automakers, and drivers.” (2022 INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, page 27)

The Traffic Scorecard makes brief mentions of transportation methods such as walking, biking and public transit. But these ways of getting around cities don’t count in the Global Traffic Scorecard – even for cities in which they are the dominant types of mobility.

Instead, the Scorecard tallies and values the time supposedly lost by a particular subset of travelers, which happens to include most policymakers, politicians, the upper ranks of media, and mid- and upper-level businesspeople – that is, those who get around cities routinely by car.

For this class of people, an unobtainable ideal is a key factor in calculating the cost of lost time: the standard of “free-flow conditions.” This is the idea that when a large number of drivers are stalled in slow traffic, each one should imagine how fast they could move if most or all of the other drivers were not on the road; then there would be “free-flow conditions.”

It is nonsensical to imagine that in rush hour in a big city, when most people are commuting all at once, you could ever achieve “free-flow conditions”. Nevertheless this ideal is used as the measuring stick for calculating “time lost in traffic”. As INRIX explains their calculations,

“Total time lost is the difference in travel times experienced during the peak periods compared to free-flow conditions on a per driver basis. In other words it is the difference between driving during commute hours versus driving at night with little traffic.” (p. 10)

Using this standard, INRIX calculates that “The typical US driver lost 51 hours due to congestion in 2022.” In the UK, the typical driver lost 80 hours, and in Germany it was 40 hours.

What is this time “worth”? Using figures from the US Federal Highway Administration, INRIX calculates each hour of time lost in traffic as valued at $16.89 in the US, £8.83 in the U.K., and 10.08€ in Germany. Given the numbers of hours lost by each driver, and the large number of drivers, you can come up with large monetary sums for the cost of congestion. INRIX states that traffic congestion cost the US, for example, $81 billion in 2022. These sums will be bandied about whenever lobbyists advocate for more billions to be spent on road widening projects.

Consider the above excerpt from the INRIX report. The seven “most congested” cities all have substantial, sometimes world-famous public transit systems, and all have a substantial portion of population who don’t own or commute in cars.

How does “traffic congestion” affect all the people who don’t drive but still need to get around? Are they less affected by congestion than those poor, benighted drivers? Or are they even more affected? INRIX doesn’t tell us.

Yet in the number one city for congestion, London, only a minority own a car and a much smaller minority use a car for commuting:

“New census data has revealed that just 20 per cent of Londoners commute by car and 41 per cent of London households have no car at all. Yet despite this relatively low level of car ownership, the city is disproportionately designed to incentivise driving. At nearly 20,000 hectares, 12.4 per cent of land in the capital is taken up by roads – significantly more than the just 8.8 per cent of London currently used for housing.” (Dezeen, “Cities should not just build green transport but actively dismantle car infrastructure”, by Phineas Harper, 11 January 2020)

Statistics are similar for New York City: about 45 percent of households own a car, though fewer use cars to commute. (Source: NYCEDC) Even in Toronto, now dominated by its sprawling suburbs, about 28% of households do not own a car, and in some parts of the city non-car-owners are the majority. (Source: Toronto Star)

Do the non-car-users lose as much time to traffic congestion? For people who live close enough to workplaces or schools to walk or to bike, they might well lose much less time in traffic than the average car commuter (though they may still pay a high price in breathing polluted air, while risking being crushed by cars and trucks on unsafe roads).

But one thing is clear: the time lost by non-car-users is neither counted nor valued in congestion surveys like INRIX’s. And when policymakers make important transportation systems decisions based on surveys like INRIX’s you can expect the results to be seriously flawed.

The Gardiner Expressway walls off Toronto from its waterfront on Lake Ontario, and has required ever more costly repairs. In 2021 the Toronto Star reported “The Gardiner will eat up $2 billion of the 2021-2030 capital plan — 38 per cent of total transportation-related infrastructure spending — meaning the city will spend as much rehabilitating the Gardiner as they will on upkeep on every other roadway.”  But a study commissioned by the Gardiner Coalition found that removing the eastern portion of the expressway could add 5 to 10 minutes to the commute times of rush-hour drivers –  so the elevated expressway is still eating big chunks of the city’s budget. Photo by George Socka, from Wikimedia Commons.

Arriving at a good estimate of the time non-drivers lose to traffic congestion is difficult, but that doesn’t make the losses any less real. Take, for example, all the time pedestrians spend waiting at traffic lights while autos either speed or crawl through intersections. Think of the extra time pedestrians must spend walking out of their way to get to a relatively safe place to cross a busy road, and then doubling back to their destination. Think of the time public transit users must wait while their packed buses or trams are stalled behind private cars which each carry one person.

The Jane M. Byrne Interchange of expressways I90, I94 and I294, takes a big chunk of downtown Chicago, eating up a lot of time for non-car-drivers who need to get from one side of the tangle to another. Photo by Sea Cow, April 2022, from Wikimedia Commons.

Other lost-time costs of car culture are even harder to calculate. In many cities where car culture has hegemony, large swathes of urban landscape have been cleared and turned into car lanes plus necessary storage space, i.e. parking. That pushes actual destinations – homes, stores, schools, workplaces – farther apart. The resulting greater travel distances cost everyone more travel time. But above all the people who don’t drive, but still need to get around, lose a lot of their time in getting past expressways, multi-lane arterial roads, and parking lots on the way to their destinations. Traffic congestion studies don’t even begin to quantify the time lost to all this “induced distance”.

Studies like INRIX’s scorecard make for quotable listicles and reverse-bragging rights among the driving class. But beware when this skewed data is put forth as a basis for public policy decisions on transportation infrastructure.


Photo at top of page: Waiting for the lights, Sydney, Australia, photo by Dave Young, license under Creative Commons 2.0, at flickr.com.

Segregation, block by block

Also published on Resilience

Is the purpose of zoning to ensure that towns and cities develop according to a rational plan? Does zoning protect the natural environment? Does zoning help promote affordable housing? Does zoning protect residents from the air pollution, noise pollution  and dangers from industrial complexes or busy highways?

To begin to answer these questions, consider this example from M. Nolan Gray’s new book Arbitrary Lines:

“It remains zoning ‘best practice’ that single-family residential districts should be ‘buffered’ from bothersome industrial and commercial districts by multifamily residential districts. This reflects zoning’s modus operandi of protecting single-family houses at all costs, but it makes no sense from a land-use compatibility perspective. While a handful of generally more affluent homeowners may be better off, it comes at the cost of many hundreds more less affluent residents suffering a lower quality of life.” (M. Nolan Gray, page 138)

Arbitrary Lines by M. Nolan Gray is published by Island Press, June 2022.

The intensification of inequality, Gray argues, is not an inadvertent side-effect of zoning, but its central purpose.

If you are interested in affordable housing, housing equity,  environmental justice, reduction of carbon emissions, adequate public transit, or streets that are safe for walking and cycling, Arbitrary Lines is an excellent resource in understanding how American cities got the way they are and how they might be changed for the better. (The book doesn’t discuss Canada, but much of Gray’s argument seems readily applicable to Canadian cities and suburbs.)

In part one and part two of this series, we looked at the complex matrix of causes that explain why “accidents”, far from being randomly distributed, happen disproportionately to disadvantaged people. In There Are No Accidents Jessie Singer writes, “Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic. Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy.” (Singer, page 13)

Gray does not deal directly with traffic accidents, or mortality due in whole or part to contaminants from pollution sources close to poor neighbourhoods. His lucid explanation of zoning, however, helps us understand one key mechanism by which disadvantaged people are confined to unhealthy, dangerous, unpleasant places to live.

‘Technocratic apartheid’

Zoning codes in the US today make no mention of race, but Gray traces the history of zoning back to explicitly racist goals. In the early 20th century, he says, zoning laws were adopted most commonly in southern cities for the express purposes of enforcing racial segregation. As courts became less tolerant of open racism, they nonetheless put a stamp of approval on economic segregation. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, economic segregation usually resulted in or preserved de facto racial segregation as well.

The central feature and overriding purpose of zoning was to restrict the best housing districts to affluent people. Zoning accomplishes this in two ways. First, in large areas of cities and especially of suburbs the only housing allowed is single-family housing, one house per lot. Second, minimum lot sizes and minimum floor space sizes ensure that homes are larger and more expensive than they would be if left to the “free market”.

The result, across vast swaths of urban America, is that low-density residential areas have been mandated to remain low-density. People who can’t afford to buy a house, but have the means to rent an apartment, are unsubtly told to look in other parts of town.

Gray terms this segregation “a kind of technocratic apartheid,” and notes that “Combined with other planning initiatives, zoning largely succeeded in preserving segregation where it existed and instituting segregation where it didn’t.” (Gray, page 81) He cites one study that found “over 80 percent of all large metropolitan areas in the US were more racially segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. Today, racial segregation is most acute not in the South but in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions.” (Gray, page 169)

Public transit? The numbers don’t add up.

From an environmental and transportation equity point of view, a major effect of zoning is that it makes good public transit unfeasible in most urban areas. Gray explains:

“There is a reasonable consensus among transportation planners that a city needs densities of at least seven dwelling units per acre to support the absolute baseline of transit: a bus that stops every thirty minutes. To get more reliable service, like bus rapid transit or light-rail service, a city needs … approximately fifteen units per acre. The standard detached single-family residential district—which forms the basis of zoning and remains mapped in the vast majority of most cities—supports a maximum density of approximately five dwelling units per acre. That is to say, zoning makes efficient transit effectively illegal in large swaths of our cities, to say nothing of our suburbs.” (Gray, page 101)

Coupled with the nearly ubiquitous adoption of rules mandating more parking space than would otherwise be built, the single-family housing and minimum lot size provisions of zoning are a disaster both for affordable housing and for environmentally-friendly housing. Typical American zoning, Gray says, “assumes universal car ownership and prohibits efficient apartment living. But it also just plain wastes space: if you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that your local zoning ordinance was carefully calibrated to use up as much land as possible.” (Gray, page 96)

Zoning regimes came into wide use in the mid-twentieth century and became notably stricter in the 1970s. In Gray’s view the current housing affordability crisis is the result of cities spending “the past fifty years using zoning to prevent new housing supply from meeting demand.” This succeeded in boosting values of properties owned by the already affluent, but eventually housing affordability became a problem not only for those at the bottom of the housing market but for most Americans. That is one impetus, Gray explains, for a recent movement to curb the worst features of zoning. While this movement is a welcome development, Gray argues zoning should be abolished, not merely reformed. Near the end of Arbitrary Lines, he explains many other planning and regulatory frameworks that can do much more good and much less harm than zoning.

There is one part of his argument that I found shaky. He believes that the abolition of zoning will restore economic growth by promoting movement to the “most productive” cities, and that “there is no reason to believe that there is an upper bound to the potential innovation that could come from growing cities.” (Gray, page 72) At root the argument is based on his acceptance that income is “a useful proxy for productivity” – a dubious proposition in my view. That issue aside, Arbitrary Lines is well researched, well illustrated, well reasoned and well written.

The book is detailed and wide-ranging, but unlike a typical big-city zoning document it is never boring or obscure. For environmentalists and urban justice activists Arbitrary Lines is highly recommended.


Image at top of page: detail from Winnipeg zoning map, 1947, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Healthy, peaceful and more equitable – life in the low-car city

Also published on Resilience

“For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up,” write Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett, in the opening pages of their new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives. 

Curbing Traffic is published by Island Press, June 2021.

Unfortunately city streets in the twentieth century became unsafe spaces for humans, especially young humans, when so much prime urban real estate was ceded over to cars. The Bruntletts discuss the negative effects of car culture for children, for care-givers, for social cohesion, for social justice, for mental health, for the ability of the elderly to age in place – plus the positive effects in these realms when urban planners carefully and sensibly curb traffic.

In a previous book, Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (reviewed here), the Bruntletts described the policies and practices that have transformed cities throughout the Netherlands and have turned the nation into a world leader for active transportation. Their new book deepens the analysis from a distinctive personal perspective: two years ago the couple and their two children moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Dutch city of Delft.

Visitors to the Netherlands are rightly amazed at the extensive network of dedicated bike lanes which go to every section of every city, as well as through the countryside. But just as importantly, the Bruntletts explain, is how the Dutch deal with myriad residential streets that do not have dedicated bike lanes: these streets must be safe for human interaction, whether that means kids playing games or biking to school, neighbours standing and chatting, elders strolling along while admiring gardens.

“The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” isn’t really about bicycles. It’s about refusing to sacrifice vast amounts of the public realm to the private automobile; instead reserving space for commerce, community, and social connection. The ubiquitous bicycles are simply a by-product of that larger process; a tool to achieve the end goal of what policy makers call an autoluw (low-car or nearly car-free) city.” (Curbing Traffic, page 4)

Where Building the Cycling City focused on the freedom to bike safely, Curbing Traffic pays more attention to the benefits of a low-car city for those who are not, at any given time, on bikes.

The Child-Friendly City

It starts with children.

Historians of the cycling revolution in the Netherlands cite the key role of the “stop de kindermoord” – stop the child-murders – protest movement nearly fifty years ago. Alarmed and outraged by the ongoing tragedy of children being struck down by motorists, Dutch citizens began what would become a far-ranging reclamation of street space.

Fittingly, the first chapter of Curbing Traffic is entitled “The Child-Friendly City”. Prior to the automobile era, the Bruntletts write, urban children could take care of themselves for hours every day, playing on the street close to home within sight of a parent or trusted neighbours.

The dominance of cars turned that safe space into a violent space. In the words of University of Amsterdam geographer Dr. Lia Karsten, in most cities “cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.”

Making residential streets safe again for children has involved a complex of modified street  design, driver-responsibility laws, and strong social norms that tell drivers they are guests on these streets. Dutch streets have become, once again, places for socializing for people of all ages. And because the safe space starts right outside most urbanites’ front doors, children can take off on their own to bike to school, to sports fields, libraries and stores.

The success of the famous Dutch cycling lane network, then, depends on people of all ages being able to safely navigate their neighbourhood streets before reaching the cycle lanes along major roads.

Care is essential

Child care is one important type of care work, and the freedom to let children play outside on safe streets is itself liberating for child-caregivers, who tend to be women. That is one advantage a low-car city has in becoming a feminist city, but there is more.

Curbing Traffic notes that historically the traffic planning profession has considered “work” to mean paid work, which in turn has emphasized commuting to full-time jobs away from home. Planners have focused on facilitating these longer-distance commuting trips, which happen once at the beginning of the work day and once at the end.

Care-givers, on the other hand, typically engage in many shorter trips – to a day-care centre, grocery store, or children’s after-school activities. These trips, which often add up to more kilometres per day than a bread-winner’s commuting, are ignored in many traffic planning studies. (“The Canadian census, for example, only asks about journey to work data, as do countless other countries,” the Bruntletts write.) When these trips are made by a care-giver who also works a paid job, they often involve detours on the trip to or from a paid workplace – “trip-chaining.”

Even in cities which are now putting significant resources into cycling infrastructure, the focus is often on the type of major-thoroughfare bike lanes used by bike commuters to get far beyond their own neighbourhood. (As an example, the Bruntletts discuss new cycling infrastructure in their former home city, Vancouver. See also my discussion of the “cycle super-highways” in London, UK, here.)

In most Dutch cities, by contrast, many short trips that go along with care work happen on streets that are just as quiet, relaxed and safe as the dedicated cycle lanes are. That is one important reason that in the Netherlands, in strong contrast to most industrialized nations, the urban cycling population is more than half women.

Car noise makes us sick

The air pollution caused by motor traffic is frequently discussed, for good reason. Less understood, the Bruntletts write, is the pervasive effective of noise pollution caused by motor traffic:

“While air and water pollution tend to receive the most attention from environmentalists, noise is, in fact, the pollutant that disturbs the greatest number of people in their daily lives. It is a universal stressor, one that stimulates the fight-or-flight response in virtually all animals. An astonishing 65 percent, or 450 million Europeans reside in dwellings exposed to levels above 55 decibels, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems unacceptable.” (Curbing Traffic, page 92-93)

The noise falls into two primary categories, propulsion noise and rolling noise. The arrival of electric vehicles, with their silent engines, should significantly reduce propulsion noise. Rolling noise – caused by the friction of tires on surfaces – goes up dramatically with vehicle speed, and is not ameliorated by electric motors. Unfortunately, Curbing Traffic notes, rolling noise is trending worse, “as the automobile industry continues to push out larger and heavier vehicles, which also require wider tires.”

Constant motor traffic noise, which reminds our senses that streets are dangerous places, stimulates a flow of “fight-or-flight” hormones and contributes to stress. This happens whether or not we are “used to the noise.” In the words of Dr. Edda Bild, a soundscape researcher at McGill University, “People who live in big cities are used to the churning sounds of passing cars. But just because we don’t perceive it, doesn’t mean our body isn’t having a physiological response to what’s happening.” As with air pollution, noise pollution tends to be worst in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The ill health effects associated with the pervasive presence of noisy, dangerous vehicles go beyond the physical to the mental. Canadian neuroscientist Robin Mazumder summarizes what urban planners can do to help address the global mental health crisis: “Primarily, we need to eliminate the threat that cars pose. Whether that’s through traffic calming or car-free streets, that’s the first thing I would target.”

Through reflections on their personal experiences and through discussions of the work of diverse urban life researchers, the Bruntletts cover far more  issues than this review can touch on. Curbing Traffic is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking. Let’s give them the last word.

Living in Delft, they write, has shown them “what is possible when we reduce the supremacy of motor vehicles from our lives and prioritize the human experience.” They add,

“With the right leadership, traffic evaporation policies, as well as those aimed at improving social connection, reducing noise, addressing mental health and equity, and ensuring resiliency regardless of what environmental and health challenges are yet to come, cities of all sizes can provide the quality of life our family now cherishes. We understand why it is so important to have fewer cars in our lives. The critical next step starts today. Now is the time to make it happen.” (Curbing Traffic, page 218)


Photos in this post taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in September, 2018.

The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *

At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.

Epilogue

If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.


Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


Footnotes

The Hundred Years’ War for Safe Streets

Also published on Resilience.org

Should safety standards for new vehicles take into account the safety only of the inside passengers, or also the safety of others on the streets?

Right of Way, by Angie Schmitt, published by Island Press

When economic circumstances force large numbers of people who can’t afford cars to move into suburbs, should traffic policy on suburban streets still prioritize the unimpeded movement of the car owners? 

In urban areas where the population is predominantly from racialized communities, should mostly white, male engineering associations still set traffic rules?

These are some of the life-and-death questions explored in Angie Schmitt’s essential new book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America (Island Press, August 2020). Although the focus is on the US, Schmitt also explains how and why other industrial countries have achieved far better safety records on urban streets.‡

Schmitt begins by outlining a sudden and rapid increase in traffic violence. Since 2009, Schmitt notes, there has been a 10% increase in total driving miles by Americans – but a 50% increase in pedestrian deaths. (Right of Way, page 7)

The reasons for the rise in fatalities are complex but there are obvious clues:

“There are patterns in who is killed: older people, men, and people of color are disproportionately at risk. We know what kinds of vehicles are most likely to kill: large trucks and SUVs.” (Right of Way, page 3)

Unravelling what she calls an epidemic, Schmitt visits cities around the country and explores issues of mobility justice, racial justice, economic justice and environmental justice. While most of the book deals with events of the past 30 years, she does look at key developments from a hundred years ago.

Victim-blaming and the invention of jaywalking

“In the United Kingdom,” Schmitt writes, “there is no equivalent violation to jaywalking, but the pedestrian safety record there puts the US data to shame.” (Right of Way, page 67)

Defining and prosecuting an offense called “jaywalking”, as it turns out, is not a way to protect the safety of pedestrians, but rather a way to turn street space into the privileged domain of dangerous vehicles and their drivers.

For nearly all of history, people simply crossed the road when they wanted to get to the other side. Now, however, they are expected to walk down the road, wait for permission from a traffic light, scurry across, and then walk back to their destination; they face the risk of summary execution by car if they simply cross the road when and where they’d prefer.

How did this come about? Schmitt draws on the work of historian Peter Norton (see Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City). During the 1920s – an era when car ownership was still relatively rare – about 200,000 Americans lost their lives to cars, and the victims were disproportionately children.

“In contrast to modern media accounts,” Schmitt writes, “the news at the time was unflinching about where to lay the blame: on drivers.” (Right of Way, page 69) Cities across the nation began to discuss serious restrictions or even bans on the passage of cars through city streets. The dominance of car culture was in doubt, and the response was a combination of political muscle by the largest industries, plus a concerted public relations campaign. The path to progress, the car companies and their spin doctors insisted, was not to restrict the movement of cars but to restrict the rights of walkers to safely cross the streets.

“One of motordom’s most critical victories was the introduction and eventual acceptance of the concept of jaywalking,” Schmitt writes. (Right of Way, page 70) She goes on to illustrate how, 100 years later, “the ideology of flow” continues to kill people, especially in economically disadvantaged and radicalized communities.

Take, for example, the important issue of installing signalized crosswalks that might give pedestrians a margin of safety at the cost of some inconvenience to drivers. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Schmitt writes, 

“instructs engineers that a crosswalk with a traffic signal is only “warranted” if ninety-three pedestrians per hour are crossing at the location in question. Failing that, the MUTCD states that a crosswalk with a traffic signal can be warranted if five pedestrians are struck by cars at the location in a single year.” (Right of Way, page 101)

A recent intensifying factor is the “suburbanization of poverty.” In the post-WWII era a road-building boom promoted “white flight” from US urban centers to suburbs where nearly everyone relied on cars. But in the last generation the trend has reversed. Many urban areas have gentrified and poorer residents – disproportionately black, latino and indigenous – have had to find cheaper housing in the suburbs. For example, Schmitt writes that in 1980 just 47 percent of Atlanta’s black population lived in the suburbs, but in 2010 the figure was 87 percent.

High-speed suburban arterial roads are especially deadly for people who must walk to work, walk to the grocery store, or walk to catch a bus. They are deadly for elderly people who have difficulty crossing several wide traffic lanes in the time allowed by signals programmed to minimize interruption to drivers. And these roads are especially deadly today, with a majority of new passenger vehicles that are far more dangerous to pedestrians than the cars of just 20 years ago.

Mean machines

Most environmentalists would agree that fossil fuel executives rank high on the corporate villainy scale, due to their role in sowing climate change confusion while their own scientists were secretly documenting the devastating effects of carbon emissions. But auto company executives deserve their own special place in hell. Not only did they respond to the climate crisis with a decades-long push to sell ever bigger, heavier, and therefore less fuel-efficient passenger vehicles, but they did so even as the evidence mounted that their products are far more dangerous to pedestrians.

Whereas an old-style sedan with a low front end would hit an average-height pedestrian in the legs, an SUV or recent model pick-up truck, with a much higher front end, will hit the same pedestrian in the abdomen, chest, head – or all three at once. It shouldn’t take an emergency room doctor to understand that being hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to cause much more serious internal injuries. Add to that the fact that whereas a pedestrian hit by a sedan will typically fall onto the hood of the sedan, a pedestrian hit by a much taller vehicle is likely to be literally run over, suffering more severe injuries or death even if the initial impact is survivable.

Ah, but think of the profit margin! Schmitt cites a Kelley Blue Book analysis: while even a small crossover SUV in 2017 sold for almost $9,000 more than an average midsized sedan, the production costs are almost the same. You can guess which kind of vehicle the auto industry is eager to sell.

In recent years the US auto industry has been the biggest buyer of advertising – more than $30 billion annually – and Schmitt reports that nine of the top ten advertised vehicles were SUVs or pick-ups.

The ad campaigns worked. While 83 percent of vehicles sold in the US in 2012 were sedans, Schmitt writes, by 2018 crossover SUVs had become the top-selling vehicle type.

As the sales of SUVs climbed, so did the pedestrian deaths. In the period 2010 to 2015, the odds of a pedestrian dying when hit by a vehicle jumped 29 percent.

Was this deadly trend just an unfortunate co-incidence? Not according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); they estimated that “pedestrians struck by an SUV are two to three times more likely to be killed than those struck by a car.” (Right of Way, page 84)

The trend was also seen as causation, not mere correlation, by European lawmakers.

Schmitt writes that since 2004, the United Nations has recommended the imposition of “standards on automakers specifically to protect people outside the vehicles: pedestrians or cyclists.” In response, “the European Union imposed rules to protect pedestrians beginning in 2010.” (Right of Way, page 90)

These rules are already improving pedestrian safety in more advanced countries. In contrast to the high walls of steel at the front end of American SUVs and pickups, new European cars earning the best safety ratings have “active hood systems” which cushion the blow in a collision with a pedestrian. The result, Schmitt reports, is that pedestrians are 35 percent more likely to survive a collision.

Back to basics

Auto design, though, is just one aspect of traffic safety, and not necessarily the most important. Limiting speed is critical, since the force imparted in a collision increases non-linearly – doubling the speed quadruples the kinetic energy. Lowering vehicle speeds where pedestrians are present is thus an obvious response, if we are to believe that pedestrian lives matter.

Many cities are now lowering speed limits, especially in residential areas, and introducing other traffic calming measures. And while many tech boosters believe that autonomous vehicles will someday deliver us from traffic violence, there is already technology that can ensure that posted speed limits are effective:

“In 2019, the European Parliament ruled that by 2022, all new cars will come equipped with speed governors that physically limit the cars from exceeding the posted speed limit.” (Right of Way, page 137)

A transportation revolution must clearly be a big component of a Green New Deal. For anyone interested in exploring the many aspects of mobility justice, Right of Way is a must-read.


‡Schmitt writes that “On a population-adjusted basis, Canada, for example, loses less than half as many people on the roads every year as the United States” – which may be explained by the fact that the transit ridership share in Canada is about twice that of the US. But many issues in the book – the suburbanization of poverty, the recent predominance of high-front-end SUVs and pick-ups, the traffic policies reflected in high-speed suburban arterial roads – apply equally in Canada.

Illustration at top: The “Fearless Girl” statue stands her ground on a New York street against a Cadillac Escalade, one of the tallest of the current SUVs. This illustration was also inspired by a photo in Right of Way of a Tanzanian child who protested by sitting down in the middle of a busy street in Dar es Salaam, after a classmate was struck trying to cross that road.