Sunday, August 23rd, 2009
It’s very common for people to live carless in major cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Indeed, owning a car in parts of these cities can be a major hassle. That’s not the case in smaller cities like Columbus or Cincinnati, yet many promote a carfree lifestyle there too. I personally know multiple people living without a car in downtown Indianapolis and Cincinnati – by choice.
I can understand some of this. Urban advocates want to walk the talk when it comes to urban living. On the other hand, living without a car in places like that is a hardship in many respects. It requires a lot of dedication and commitment. Some might admire this, and indeed I do in many respects, but there is a downside.
In a metro area that is nearly all auto oriented, much of the setting of civic life in that city is outside of the core downtown area and districts where it is easy to get to without a car. To live without a car is a deliberate cutting off of oneself from those activities and regions – especially suburban – and from that part of society.
I think that it that last part that is important. Living carless is a deliberate rejection of the majority of the metro area, evidenced by actually enduring hardship by voluntarily depriving oneself of the means to travel there. I’m sure this message is not lost on the people who live those places.
Sure, I get it that there are legitimate concerns about sprawl and other things. But I also hear these same urban advocates complain that suburbanites don’t care about the city, are afraid to visit downtown, won’t support urban core redevelopment, etc. If you are living carless in one of those cities, frankly, you have no leg to stand on in complaining about that. (I’ll make an exception for college students).
Imagine how this looks to someone living in the suburbs. What do they see? They are asked to visit downtown and support downtown, but have to listen to urban advocates claim that the highest and best form of living is to be downtown without a car – a car that is necessary to visit the suburbs and by extension them.
I think this sort of thing, done prematurely, only widens the urban core-suburban gulf when we need to be bridging it. Things are different in bigger cities, which have commuter rail networks that act as a sort of civic glue, binding city and suburb together. Suburbanites are used to taking the train downtown. City dwellers may not regularly use commuter rail to visit people in the suburbs, but they can, and from time to time do. I know I have. In smaller cities, this dynamic does not exist, or is atrophied.
There’s an old saying in sales and negotiation that unless you meet someone where they are, you have no right to lead them somewhere else. Until other people get that you identify with them and their goals, aspirations, and plans, it is hard to make headway in convincing them to a different point of view.
I think creating regional civic cohesion is an absolute imperative for success in the modern world. Ask Cleveland or Detroit if you don’t believe me. Unfortunately, regionalism has become a sort of code word for suburbs subsidizing the city. I believe we need a relationship that goes beyond that. A great city needs great suburbs. A rising tide lifts all boats. We need to make sure all parts of a region are healthy and prosperous. I don’t want to tear the suburbs down, I want to build the city up.
As urban advocates, I hope we don’t end up too much in an insular world of others who are just like us and think like us. We need to think about how we build that civic glue – and how our actions and words are likely to be perceived by those who don’t live in an urban core. Remember, for the foreseeable, they are the majority in the region.
Update: I’d like to add that I think people in cities the size of Kansas City, Columbus, etc. can still live a very walk/bike/transit urban lifestyle in many districts while still owning a cheap car. Owning a car doesn’t mean you have to drive it everywhere. You can leave it parked out back and only use it on occasion if you need to visit people or attend an event that can’t easily be reached in those cities without a car. A family with two or more cars could downsize to only one by living in the urban core. I think these are all good things. But to get rid of a car entirely is something I don’t think is necessary and does come with downsides beyond the purely personal. Again, in NYC or SF, the calculus may be different.