For millennia cities were the centers of human activity. Consumer, political and social activities grew up on the world’s first cities in Asia, and this way of organizing human structure spread around the world. Most importantly, they were built primarily on a human scale for obvious convenience. However by the mid-20th century, city planners focused on designing urban areas to accommodate the private automobile as the main source of transportation, with them offering 5-way boulevards and freeways crossing the heart of the city. Though the car quickly became a symbol of American lifestyle, many people ironically equate car ownership to “freedom,” though there is nothing liberating about the external costs of both a city design centralized on the use of a car, and the operation of using one. First as there may be confusion, this is not a critique on the use of cars nor a case for banning them. The purpose of this is to view how cities are designed and how good urban planning can reduce car dependency in cities only.
The early history of city designing goes far back to the first permanent human settlements. Once humans found ways to grow crops and raise animals, and no longer had to wonder endlessly in search for food, they focused on protecting their farms from other tribes, which lead people to build homes and shops with easy access to resources such as rivers and trade routes. A couple homes turned into villages, grew into towns, and matured into cities.1 City designs varies in from city to city. Cities that grew naturally and weren’t sponsored by government planners, such as downtown Boston and Tokyo, were more carefully planned, as they were built one building at a time. 35 out of the top 50 cities in Europe, and 22 out of the top 30 cities in Asia were built this way. Other patterns include lose grid, such as Barcelona, and the radical grid, with streets being radiated from important buildings and monuments, like in Paris, which was designed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, between 1853 and 1870. In the 1880s, Karl Benz invented the automobile, and by 1920, 1/10 Americans owned one.
Though the early automobile made commuting easier, the majority of Americans kept living in cities. After World War II, federal subsidized loans and the ability to deduct mortgage interests and property taxes made it possible for middle class Americans to own a home in the suburbs, which consequently discouraged renovation of existing houses and construction of new multi-family homes. With increasing population shifts to fringes of the city, suburbanites began relying on cars as their primary mode of transportation to work and travel. Further sprawl was stimulated by The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, with a series of heavily subsidized infrastructure projects that followed. Urban renewal attempted to clear slums and redesign routes to make the downtown “car-friendly”, with extensive renovations being made to cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Hartford in the 1970s. These attributes of the “modern” city seemed revolutionary for city officials at the time, however, few saw the hidden costs behind an urban utopia surrounded by an ocean of pavement. According to the U.S.
Census in 2016, the average median household income was $59,039.7 The average cost of maintaining one car is around $9000 a year, assuming one car is owned by an American household, who routinely have two or more.7 Maintaining the highway system, plumbing, electricity and layout of the suburbs is exorbitant in cost, which reduces economic output.91011 The fact that one needs a car to make trips in cities built for cars and not people, basically one does not have a choice in the matter. Wide streets makes it dangerous for people to walking or cycle, and a bad public transportation system makes it inconvenient to take trips.12 Americans cannot work nor live without a car in most American cities, so that’s not freedom! It is a mix of bad urban planning and government interference. Higher car dependency creates a surge in obesity rates, and studies confirm that inactivity (sitting in one’s vehicle 50 minutes a day)13 is the leading cause of unhealthy weight gains.1415 In 2015, the city with the highest quality of life on the planet was Tokyo.
The 25th was Portland, Oregon.16 Compared to other American cities, Portland has been redesigning its street layout to serve both cars and people (rather than just for the automobile), and has heavily invested in public transportation.1718 As a result, the average resident in Portland drives less than they did in the 1990s, and have the highest disposable income in the nation.1920 In other words, Portland is booming thanks to good urban planning.
Discussing car dependency isn’t an attack on those who enjoy a car-lifestyle. The suburbs will always be there, in fact there are too many of them. If one prefers living in a low density neighborhood, owning an acre of land 60 miles away from work, driving 4 cars, and burning a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk, that is their decision, but their lifestyle should not be subsidized at the expense of others. People could choose to in the suburbs, city or in small towns. But in the United States, it’s very difficult to live in cities built on a human scale.