Shocker: mainstream media discuss cities without cars

Venice
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ venice manages without cars

On TreeHugger we have been arguing this point for years, that cars don't belong in cities. I have quoted Alex Steffen: "The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go." and Taras Grescoe: "The automobile was never an appropriate technology for [cities]. As a form of mass transit for the world, it is a disaster." and Stephen Fleming: " cars waste space in the city, don’t have the capacity to deliver large numbers of people, are stressful to use, leave our bodies inactive, and ritually sacrifice more lives than Mayan Priests."

But hey, we're all fringe, far away from the mainstream. You wouldn't find talk like this in, say, the Washington Post. Oh wait, there's J.H. Crawford writing in Wapo just yesterday: The car century was a mistake. It’s time to move on.

Cars were never necessary in cities, and in many respects they worked against the fundamental purpose of cities: to bring many people together in a space where social, cultural and economic synergies could develop. Because cars require so much space for movement and parking, they work against this objective — they cause cities to expand in order to provide the land cars need. Removing cars from cities would help to improve the quality of urban life.

He imagines how nice cities might be without them.

Removing vehicles from our streets would make urban life cheaper, safer, quieter and more pleasant. Repurposed parking spaces and, in some cases, travel lanes would provide ample land for walking and cycling, plus any essential street-running public services, such as light rail, trash collection and emergency services. The surplus land can be devoted to public purposes — imagine Manhattan with sidewalks 15 feet wider and room for sidewalk cafes.

Of course the comments are uniformly dismissive and the very first one at the time I read the post was the usual complaint:

If this guy wants to share his seat with the fragrant and murderous underclass so omnipresent here then he's welcome to do so. I'll pass.

Which is of course the attitude that prevails everywhere that the car is king: that transit is an expensive subsidy to the poor and not really transportation. The Mayor of Toronto is stuck in the American mindset, describing transit: “It provides a means of getting around for people who can’t afford a car.” But as Mayor Enrique Penalosa of Bogota has noted, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.” That's the difference in attitude that says everything.

Lost in the debate about EVs and self-driving cars is the fact that they are still bloody cars.

Romelloyd Alter/ much of Rome is pedestrian friendly/CC BY 2.0

Now J. H. Crawford was a guest columnist and his day job is writing books about the subject and running a website about it. But north of the border, Eric Reguly is a regular columnist in the business section of what's called Canada's National Newspaper, the Globe and Mail. He piles on about how electric and self-driving cars won't save our cities, in The problem with electric and self-driving cars? They’re still cars

He starts strongly:

We’re getting duped. We’ve been told that the electric car and its tech-laden offspring, the self-driving car, will clear away smog, cure road congestion and help usher in a low-carbon economy that will spare the Earth from BBQ status. These rolling eco-gadgets will transform mobility as radically as steam trains did in the 1800s and gasoline-powered cars did more than a century ago, minus the lung-choking and planet-warming emissions.

He then stumbles a bit, dwelling on the fact that in many places electric cars are coal-fired because of the source of their power, noting that "EVs will only be clean when renewable energy dominates the electricity grid. But that transition could take decades, and it is dependent on a big breakthrough in electricity storage." He misses the point that electric cars are storage, and can be charged at at night of base load, which is a lot cleaner than peak load, and that change is happening a lot faster than he claims.

Reguly then tackles the self-driving car, which some say will take 90 percent of cars off the road, but others say will encourage sprawl and even more congestion as people just tell their cars to drive around the block. One could debate that all year (we do) but it is Reguly's closing paragraph that nails it:

Lost in the debate about EVs and self-driving cars is the fact that they are still bloody cars. They still pollute. They still need parking spaces, and roads still need to be built for them. They still contribute to urban sprawl. Imagine if all the engineering talent and investor fortunes funnelled into these iPhones-on-wheels were put into public transportation instead.

Indeed, imagine.

Tags: Cities | Electric Cars | Self-driving car | Urban Life | Urban Planning

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