Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The Downside of Living Carless in a Small City

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.

Topics: Regionalism, Transportation, Urban Culture

58 Responses to “The Downside of Living Carless in a Small City”

  1. John M says:

    Olivia, "transit time waste" isn't a cop out at all, at least not in a city like Indianapolis, which has cheap parking, manageable traffic on city streets, and a crappy transit system. And I say that as one of the relatively few people who rides IndyGo by choice. If I drive, my door-to-door commute, including parking and walking 1.5 blocks to my building, takes 20 minutes. If I take the bus, it's 30-35 minutes. In other words, typically it costs me no more than 20-30 minutes of time, and it saves me money both in terms of parking fees and gas/wear and tear on our vehicles. And I do enjoy reading, listening to podcasts, sometimes doing some work, and the like. Still, I'm fortunate to have a bus stop a block from my house and a transfer-free commute that drops me off a couple of blocks from my office. I spend 10 hours a day at the office, usually. I have two young kids who go to bed at 8 pm. If a bus commute added 90 minutes to my day, like Thundermutt's would, there is no chance in hell that I would do it. Yes, it's possible to do productive things on the bus, but it's pretty presumptuous to presume that you know better than TM what his time is worth.

  2. beyonddc says:

    >I think the malice this post is generating is coming more from grassroots level progressives who promote a car-less society.

    Garbage. Own a car or don't own a car, but don't tell me I'm obligated to own one even though I don't need or want it.

    >The critical point of this blog to me was not that the author was advocating car ownership, but that urban advocates need to get off their pedestals and acknowledge that not everyone will want to live their lifestyle.

    That would be odd, because 1) I don't know any urban advocates who think everyone should be car-free, and 2) Urbanophile doesn't do a very good job of acknowledging that not everyone wants to live the car-light lifestyle he thinks car-free people should adopt.

    >I own a car in Indianapolis to do a commute that I could "easily" do by bus. But for me, part of the calculation is time waste.

    Fine. Car-free living isn't for you. Nothing wrong with that at all. But it *is* for some people. Are you going to tell them they should buy cars?

  3. Stephen Gross says:

    I suppose I could take the bus, but it would be at least 1 hour each way, compared to about 15 mins by car. Plus I would have to get up way earlier, which I don't want to do. Plus, I really like driving–I own a fun, fast vehicle and take great pleasure in it.

    On the upside, by commute is really short (<5 miles one way), so I'm only putting down maybe 8k miles per year.

    I wonder if we could make more progrses promoting decreased use of cars, rather than car-lessness entirely. That might be a more effectively strategy…


  4. JG says:

    The angst is still missing the broader picture of urban v. suburban relations.

    ALON: I am aware that conservatism has embodied racism toward minorities too often (most recently toward gay and lesbian couples in California.) There are quite a few conservatives though from the midwestern cities who tend to not be bigotted, ignore the fact of evolution, or get overly angry toward government. Additionally they are not politically active conservatives, but could be won over by liberals and progressives on good urban and mass transit policies with better communication.

    BEYONDDC: "…by promoting a carless society…" It was a generalized phrase for those who rightfully advocate mass transit over cars in citys. Relax a little.

    ANON 11:32 – Come back when you have thoughtful comments.

  5. JG says:

    ANON 11:46 – One brief note on your comment which I appreciated. Mass transit does carry all the economic benefits you mentioned and it is a shame, cities such as mine have not done more to increase access to it. Thanks for including those in the discussion. Furthermore, my comments are not a swipe at liberals and progressives – I tend to vote Democrat and many often lable me as liberal (some say I am conservative, beats me…) Still I am not too humble as to say I have among the most open mind and look at issues with much objectivity and skepticism.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Come back when you have thoughtful comments.

    You made a false, straw-man-based claim, and I called you out on it. I'll admit that seeing your fallacy did not require a great deal of thought. Come back when you've got something other than useless generalizations.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Ok, as this is starting to become a name calling match, I'm calling this thread closed. I think everyone had the opportunity to make their points.

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Adding this additional comment that came in by email from Adam Krom:

    The solution to cars for city residents in any size city is simply carshare. In Philadelphia (which I know is a very big city), each car share vehicle replaces dozens of private autos. There is no need for incentives. The opportunity simply walk up to a newer car of any type and drive away for a few hours attracts thousands of people.

    Thus, a city resident can still "visit" suburban locations with ease, and for less cost and hassle than owning a beater, while being able to drive any type of car they please. Any large apartment building has enough population to support a carshare vehicle.

    Phillycarshare has over 30,000 members. Zipcar doesn't publish their stats, but they have a lot as well.

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