The freedom that is lost when we design cities for "freedom"
The car has somehow become inseparably linked to the concept of freedom, yet it has taken away so much freedom from society.
I remember hearing that argument made, using other words that I no longer recall, by a community leader in Ithaca, NY. I was doing a college internship up there (which I guess is now "down there" from where I'm based) that was centered around sustainable development, community, and ecovillages. So, I was already deep into that space — I had also already switched over to an almost completely car-free lifestyle. Yet, the argument (and how it was made) was one of those very mind-opening ones that has come back to me in many situations over the years.
Jason Segedy, the head of Akron's metropolitan planning agency, just made essentially the same argument, very eloquently, over on his tumblr blog, so it brought this thought to the top of my head again and I figured I'd try my best to add on to that in my own way.
First of all, the explicit issue of cars aside, I highly recommend checking out the book The Tao of Pooh. It's one of the most hilarious books I've ever read, and also one of the most useful. It spends quite a bit of time illuminating how technology that was meant to provide us with more convenience has in the end made us busier, more stressed, and like rabbits always rushing around without any time.
I bring this book up because the car is a central culprit of such a lifestyle. It "increases convenience" because it can take us further than most other modes faster and is also a personal vehicle that is large enough to hold several of our family members or friends as well as a good bit of gear. None of that is untrue, of course, but this vehicle also comes with very large downsides that take away our freedom.
Precisely because these vehicles are so large, they require a great deal of space for their movement and parking. The more there are, the more quickly that space multiplies. If we build our neighborhoods and cities around the car, before too long, it is just about the only mode of transport we can use to conveniently get from one place to another. Grow those places around the car even more, and the car itself isn't even a convenient mode of transport any longer. (Many people somehow find it is acceptable to spend hours in traffic on their way to work, but there's way that can be considered convenient.)
Once upon a time, most of us could quickly walk to a nearby shop for food, clothing, socializing, etc. How many of us can do so now? I can actually do this, but that's because I'm living in the city center of an old European city, one that is not yet so fully designed around the car that such options have been killed (though, it's the direction in which many European cities are headed). There are plenty of other neighborhoods in North America where this is possible, but as we all know, there are also countless neighborhoods so detached from any shops or destinations that they require a trip in the car for even the simplest of needs.
Rather than having a choice between the use of your own two feet, a bicycle, a streetcar, or a car, many of us our locked into only one transportation option, the car. Our personal freedom is then lost, as is much of our time and money.
Cars are a wonderful convenience for many of us, but they are primarily considered such a great convenience, because we have collectively built a society where we have to travel long distances, and therefore need cars.
The very rationale for their convenience is a bit of a circular argument, and it’s worth considering that it hasn’t always been that way.
This is all quite obvious, especially if you have spent much time thinking about cities and urban design. However, it's also very ironic that one of the modern symbols of freedom takes away so much freedom.
Add on the fact that cars are anything but cheap, and that many of us have to work more or sacrifice other aspects of life in order to pay for them, and the "freedom" that comes with cars is increasingly tainted. The struggle this causes for those with less money, fewer housing options, and fewer job options is especially harsh.
But we can hardly even hold a conversation about car-free living (even here on TreeHugger) that doesn't swerve into the realm of "but cars are a basic necessity."
"Our transportation system today is so dominated by the automobile, that we have largely lost the ability to have a detached perspective on the ways in which it has shaped our society," as Jason puts it.
We are not doomed to running on a hamster wheel
That's not to say that once a place is developed around the car it can't change course.
Transit-oriented development can provide local citizens with more options. Building attractive and protected bike lanes or bike paths can as well.
Removing minimum parking requirements can save a ton of space and make it useful for more productive purposes.
Implementing road diets can have a similar effect.
Enabling very complementary, mixing-use development can put a small grocery store down the street or even below your home; your workplace adjacent to you home; and your favorite socialization or recreation spot across the street from your home.
Focusing on human-scaled places when planning our cities and development projects can also go a long way.
Simply deciding to take one car off the roads and choose to bike or ride transit — if the trend towards this personal decision continues, we might regain our freedom.
But that's not to say that this is a black and white story with only one way forward — drop the car completely and redirect all automobile funding to other options. Option #1 is simply not realistic for many people and option #2 is not going to happen politically anyway. We gradually led ourselves into the traffic nightmares that exist in cities around the world, and we will have to gradually remove ourselves from them.
And it's not to say that we cannot have cars as well as human-scaled places. The Dutch have a similar automobile ownership rate as the US, yet they drive their cars far less and have extremely livable cities where half the population gets to work or school by bike, and most of the rest by public transit or walking.
I would quote Jason's excellent piece again to wrap up:
"The point of this post is not to demonize people that drive. It is to challenge each one of us to think about our federal, state, and local transportation policy framework; our default cultural orientation; and the law of unintended consequences."