- Historic Sites
The Motorcar vs. America
Had it been specifically designed for the purpose, says the author, the motorcar could not be doing a better job of destroying our cities and countryside
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Creating new cities from scratch in the open spaces may be called for; our urban conglomerations are certainly growing far too large. But unless the forces that wrecked the historic cities are restrained, the fiat cities will be wrecked just as surely. So will the urban-renewed cities. Apart from this, the prospect is that the cities will deteriorate faster than money will be appropriated for renewing them unless the middle classes, with their disposable and taxable incomes and their habit of responsibility, can be brought back. This is the key. But the way to do it—and I am persuaded the only way—is to rein in the agency that spoiled the city’s attractiveness and facilitated their flight. The first step to this end would be ceasing to abet it: no more building of freeways and of their tributary arteries that propagate swarms of commutermotorists; no more thoroughfares carrying traffic through settled areas at sixty miles an hour.
So much for phase one. Phase two would be to ease the great majority of private cars and all internal-combustion engines off the city streets. That would be to make the city healthful and enjoyable once more, to restore the charm of open, car-free vistas, to clear the avenues for expeditious public transportation, to rebuild self-contained, vital neighborhoods, to bring life and people and warmth and color back to the streets, and children on roller skates and bicycles; to re-create a human city. The automobile industry talks glowingly of producing a pollution-free gasoline engine by 1980, but that is not soon enough. In the meantime a graduated increase in taxation of cars registered in the city and in tolls on those entering would do the trick. If it left a scattering of private cars on the city streets along with electric taxicabs, good enough.
Phase three, to be concurrent, calls for swift, capacious agencies of mass transit: steam-driven buses and electric trains below, at, or above ground level. Maybe even streetcars! The city’s nowclotted blood vessels would flow once more. A bus will carry up to eighty passengers in the space occupied by two conventional cars with 1.7 occupants each (the average number per commuter car in the nation’s capital). And on unencumbered streets it will move them fast. It is estimated that trains of eight cars can comfortably carry thirty to forty thousand persons per hour past a given point; the New York subways have achieved sixty thousand. By contrast a lane of a freeway with maximum carrying capacity of two thousand cars per hour moves only 3.4 thousand persons per hour. In other words one rail line will do the work that ten lanes of freeway do. And if it is adequately equipped, it will deliver its passengers at their destinations unexhausted, unfrayed of nerves, and with newspapers read.
Mass transit does more than move people expeditiously and, on their part, effortlessly. The more the role of the private motorcar is circumscribed and the greater the public dependence on mass transit, the closer to mass-transit routes the public will domicile itself and employers locate themselves. That is how density of population is achieved. And density is the objective. It is only through bringing people close together, as opposed to dispersing them, that the city and the country can be saved.
But would the measures proposed result in the return of the middle classes?
Few persons who value their time will without good reason spend the equivalent of one full working day a week commuting. But beyond that, if the choice were between a car-free city with miles of diverse and lively streets to explore, with parkland compact or vast accessible by foot or fast public transportation, with an endless variety of cultural and commercial offerings—between that and the monotonous, car-ridden suburbs, then yes. For such a city—which is entirely possible—would be the place for the good life and for rearing children. The middle classes would come swarming back.
What would go for urban freeways under the plan would go for cross-country freeways as well. We would stop building them. With the 42,500-mile Interstate System we would quit. When it became clogged we could let the diehard motorists and shippers stay with it and fight the traffic battle. Others would have an alternative at hand: railroads. Travellers who needed a car where they were going (and most would not) could rent one at the other end or take one with them (a practice that just might cure us of our addiction to cars the size of gunboats). When it comes to moving people —or freight—the railroads, like urban trains, are line for lane far more efficient than the highways. And could anyone with the interests of a livable America at heart fail to rejoice if the railroads won back much of the business they have lost to cars and trucks?