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||| Car culture and the landscape of subtraction |||
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A critique of suburban culture
It was the promise of open space which initially lead many people to the suburban frontier. Paradoxically, suburbs have been allowed to sprawl unchecked for so long that very little of this open space or nature exists anymore. People are now either moving back into the city, or moving further and further into exurbia. The pace of this exodus has been exascerbated by advances in computers and the burgeoning "information superhighway". Advances in high technology have rendered the proximity to the city as insignificant for some, and has allowed them to create home offices on the fringes of the wilderness. These "pioneers" are increasing the extirpation of forests and farmland by building structures and roads into areas where none belong.
Where half a century ago, most people lived in a city or a rural location, the post-war blossoming of our car culture has allowed the typical American to now live in a suburban housing development. Ostensibly designed to preserve open space, these communities lack public open space and, due to dysfunctional zoning regulations, are spread so thinly that public transportation becomes ellusive. Therefore, a car trip is the required method of transportation for every task; it is no wonder that the average American motorist drives 10,000 miles a year. 14
The need to drive everywhere increases social fragmentation and is most detrimental to those who cannot drive: the elderly, the sick, children, and the poor, all of whom become completely dependant on the car driver for mobility. Ironically, many families initially relocate to suburbs for the "good" of their children, yet their children are stuck in virtual isolation and dependence, for their communities are designed not for them, but instead for cars. Thus, they spend a great deal of their time in front of the television for this becomes the prime atraction in many suburbs whose landscape is defined by housing developments, parking lots, fast food joints, and expressway off-ramps. The suburban landscape that most politicians would proudly call "growth", has greatly contributed to the deterioration of community and culture, for community has been substituted with shopping malls, and culture has been replaced by television.
Much of the reason why suburbs look the way they do is because of zoning laws. Drafted by planning boards often representing development and business interests, many of the codes are provided for the convenience of automobiles as if they were the dominant life form on the planet. The main premise behind our current zoning codes is the complete and distanced seperation of homes and jobs, as if we still inhabited cities of smokestacked factories and revolting slaughterhouses. With segregation rather than mixed-use, the ability to perform daily errands or go to work becomes impossible by walking or biking, and with poor mass transit, a motor vehicle becomes a necessity. Additionally, it creates the dysfunctional hierarchy of the commercial strip, the destination for so many who simply need a soda or a newspaper. Corner stores are not allowed in most suburban residential neighborhoods, nor are apartments allowed above shops and restaurants, denying mixed use buildings, and keeping density at a minimum.
Zoning laws regarding street design contribute to the lack of community in most suburbs. These laws deny enclosure, so necessary in making quality street spaces. The comforting feeling of enclosure is what makes 19th century brownstone-lined streets so charming. Compare a street in old-world Brooklyn or Boston to one that has a wide paved surface, no sidewalk, facades comprised of garages, and houses setback from the street and spaced at large intervals. Requirements for wide streets make speeds in excess of 35 m.p.h. possible, and, street trees and sharp curves are heartily discouraged for fear of prompting traffic accidents. Towering alien-like street lamps block out the stars and exist so that late night motorist can negociate the street at higher speeds. All told, suburban zoning laws mandate an environment designed for automobile driving, and with zero regard for the public realm. 15
On the commercial boulevards, zoning requires that buildings be set back certain distances and provide vast parking lots. The amalgamation of these structures resembles a gridded archipelago within a vast sea of pavement. Architecturally, these areas are as cheaply constructed as they are unsightly, and many design elements are at a scale not commiserate to pedestrians. The attempt to lure motorists comes to its utter perversion as gas stations and restaurants float their signs hundreds of feet in the air, begging for the attention of the speeding motorist. The suburban strip has also created its own building and spacial typologies: the drive-in restaurant, enormous billboards, car washes, gas stations, drive-in movie theaters, and of course, the ubiqutous used car lot.
Car culture's invasion of the metropolis
The automobile's infusion into our cities has had a major impact on urban architecture likewise. Car culture has created the "architecture of subtraction", as pieces and parts of towns and cities have been eviscerated to make room for automobiles. This has excised portions of urban fabric, taking away street definition, so important in civic space making. Buildings and entire blocks have been removed to make parking lots. Gas stations become instant eyesores, and usurp large areas of space potentially used for public plazas, parks, or buildings. Both take away from the pedestrian experience of movement through a city, and abate the visual and cultural stimulation. Instead of strolling along a well defined street with interesting shop display windows and greenery, a bleak landscape of cars is considered.
Never before has an invention that so many people consider a necessity taken up so much space. In older cities such as Boston or New York, close to 1/2 of the ground space is reserved for the sole purpose of moving and storing cars, and in newer cities such as Los Angeles or Pheonix, it is closer to 2/3. 16 These inequities become quite obvious by simply walking the streets of Manhattan, for example. The distrubution of pedestrian space compared to automobile space is heavily weighed towards the motorist, even in midtown Manhattan, where millions work, or Greenwich Village where thousands socialize. Hundreds of people can be jammed onto narrow sidewalks, while cars stream by on four and five lane avenues. In the battle for urban turf, the clear winner is the automobile.
Few civic interventions compare to the destruction wrought by urban expressways, which functionally, have done nothing that commuter rail lines couldn't do. From the beginning, expressways were ostensibly built to bring commuters into the city more easily, but, what they have really done is to drain the city of its middle class by providing a very compelling reason to leave. As highways plowed through cities in the 1950's and 1960's, dense urban neighborhoods of different ethnicities were removed and highrise housing projects took their place. The government, sensing the surge in black migration north, built these projects to house them and simultaneously provided urban highways to allow the white middle class to escape, encouraging segregation. Highways were not so much built to ameliorate traffic congestion, instead they created traffic congestion by decentralizing urban areas.
Urban expressways fracture neighborhoods and are accompanied by a host of subsequent urban predicaments. Besides the introduction of air and noise pollution, the highways are like stakes driven through the hearts of intact neighborhoods. Geographically, they are often constructed along natural boundaries and edges resulting in the seperation of the urban realm from rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans. Not only does this deny the heritage of a city, whos economy may have been based on a local body of water, but it also prohibits public access to natural open spaces. Highways built above grade are like massive fortress walls of noise and smog, and built below grade they resemble moats, often with infrequent overpasses to further divide the community. From an economic point of view, they are quite detrimental, for the dense urban fabric cleared for the widened road subtracts formerly taxable land. The maligning effects of the highway reverberate from block to block, and quickly property values plummet, and a once middle class neighborhood turns to squalor as residents flee to the suburbs on the very highway that destroyed their neighborhoods. The void is soon filled with the economically disadvantaged immigrants, and the municipality, loathing the loss of property taxes, allows the area to crumble. This scenario has played a major role in the disintegration of many of America's cities from Los Angeles, to Detroit, to the South Bronx.
Culturally, the ubiquity of cars has had the largest impact on our street culture, the common bond of communities. The "public space" of the urban and suburban street has, for the most part, been compromised for the singular purpose of moving and storing automobiles. This relinquishes public space to the favored car owners of our society. Street space incubates social interactions, and these become much more difficult when streets are filled with noisy, polluting, and speeding motor vehicles. According to the late architectural historian Spiro Kostoff, "the street stands as the burial place of a chance to learn from one another, the burial place of unrehearsed excitement, of the cumulative knowledge of human ways. We lose this because we would rather keep to ourselves, avoid social tension by escaping it, schedule encounters with friends, and happily travel alone in climate controlled and music injected glossy metal boxes." 17
In some large cities, streets have become so chaotic and polluted that separate planes of pedestrian movement have developed. Rather than confronting the real epidemic, cities and private sources have built extensive systems of bridges and underground concourses, keeping the public off of the ground plane, where social intercourse traditionally occurred. These ersatz public spaces fail to bring together urban society in all of its diversity. The quasi-public nature of the bridges and concourses are undemocratic, in that they allow the often private controlling body to eliminate certain undesirable elements, such as the homeless or demonstrations.
Sadly, many have forgotten or may never know the true vitality of an authentic street culture. Disneyland's Main Street or the local mall will never be appropriate substitutes. Instead, much of the built landscape is a pathetic malaise of squalor and dysfunctional planning, yet most of us feel that it was an organic process that could not be ameliorated.
Car cultures affect on crime in this country cannot be ignored. Auto usage results directly in many violent crimes such as car jackings and drive-by shootings, and is often an integral part of much gang activity and violence. Interestingly, it is in large cities that rely most heavily on automobile transportation where major gang problems are most prevalent. Compare gang activity in Los Angeles to New York's, for example. Many criminals rely on a getaway car, for the multitude of roads and expressways provide a convenient means of escape. The ubiquity of roads make it easy to buy drugs, pick up a prostitute, rob a store, or blow up an office building. These criminal acts become more difficult in a society whose transportation needs are met with mass transit and bicycles.
The issue of access to terrorism has finally met the attention of our federal government. After months of deliberation President Clinton ordered the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, just weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing. Although the three block stretch of road has been reclaimed as public space, filled with hundreds of tourists and roller skaters, the need to "apologize" was still pervasive. Quoted in The New York Times, the President said that the street closing was "seen as a responsible security step necessary to preserve our freedom, not part of a long term restriction of our freedom." To equate automobile access of a section of street with freedom is absolutely ludicrious, but, in a car dominant society, many motorists feel that they have the "right" to drive anywhere, whether that be deep into a National Park, or directly in front of the White House. Maybe the President's attitude comes as no surprise to those who remember his valiant appeals to the American psyche by declaring, after the 1993 Los Angeles earthquake, that, "freeway reconstruction will be the most urgent need."
Some cities are finally coming to terms with the cars-and-crime reality, and have begun programs to limit automobiles in neighborhoods vulnerable to lawbreaking. In Dayton, Ohio, the mixed income racially diverse neighborhood of 5 Oaks recently gated its through streets, allowing access only to residents' automobiles, and foot and bicycle traffic. According to The New York Times, overall crime went down by 25% after the change and violent crime was reduced by 50%. Additionally, neighborhoods in Coconut Grove, Florida, Austin, Texas, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Los Angeles, have all had success with physical prohibition of thru-traffic. These neighborhoods have experience rebirth as drug dealing and prostitution have been severely limited, although critics say that the deviant behavior has simply moved elsewhere. Nonetheless, these examples show the potential of retaking public space away from the influx of automobiles and returning it to the community.
Based upon car culture's incorrigible impact on North America, one shudders to think of this becoming an international precedent. Sadly, it is already happening. Since the collapse of the Soviet monolith and the opening of the Far-Eastern markets, multi-national auto makers and oil companies have been drooling over their prospects. According to The New York Times, Hungary and Poland already have 50% more cars than before the end of the cold-war, and government support for mass transit has waned. The Chinese government, while vigorously pushing to modernize their country, have begun enormous road building projects, hoping to encourage tens of millions to buy cars. Like post-war America, China seems to be blinded by the fallacious aura surrounding the automobile, and have failed to consider the consequences. Recently,The Beijing Review stated in the purest of Orwellian doublespeak, that, "vigorous development of private cars will effectively help ease the strain on urban traffic…as the replacement of bicycles with cars will enable Chineese cities to realize traffic modernization." Perhaps Chinese officials should try driving an L.A. freeway at rushhour, or biking up 6th Avenue in Manhattan before they make such hasty decisions for their country.
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14. International Road Federation, U.N. Economic Committee for Europe
15. The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, 1993, p.113-118.
16. "Automobile Index", Conservation Law Index of New England
17. The City Assembled, Spiro Kostov, 1992, p.243
At time of writing, Philip Goff was a graduate student in urban design at the Univ. of Oregon.
This essay is one of CarBusters free resources. Check their site for other free resources, info about car-free days and other transport activist groups worldwide.