The car is destroying the city

Putting on my dusty urban planner hat, let me organized my thoughts on the subject of cities and cars in the 21 century. As I have been away from urban planning for some time, please excuse for my dated data. Urbanization and motorization have created increasing conflicts between living space and mobility since the end of WWII. The result has been congestion, air and noise pollution, and frustrating stagnation and unaffordable cost and unbearable frustration. Urban commuter traffic is the perfect illustration of supply side theory - demand follows supply. As soon as new freeways are opened for use, traffic congestion follows. In the automobile age, cities have become settings for machines rather than people. In the process of serving the city, the car is destroying the city.

Yet the car and its highways have also extended the horizon of city dwellers, expanded his radius of activity, and afforded them new modes of life style and new outlets for leisure and recreation.

The city and its transportation system need to be brought into harmony because there is no denying urbanization and mobility both contribute fundamentally to the advancement of human civilization. Tradeoffs between living and moving are false alternatives and can be avoided with intelligent planning. Socio-economic progress should be able to proceed without posing unnecessary choices. As Aldo Van Ecke, the humanist Dutch architect, said insightfully: Man still breathes in and out to live, when are cities going the do the same and avoid false alternatives? Without movement, there is no life, so to restrict movement in order to preserve life is a choice between false alternatives.

Separately, the city and the car both enable man to achieve greater freedom and widen ranges of choice. They are different venues for achieving the same human purposes. It is the indiscriminate use of either that creates the conflict.

The home and the car are the two must cherished extensions of a person's life in modern society and not having either is generally considered as a disadvantage. Since the introduction of the car, public transit, which many modern city dweller forget predated the automobile, has lost readership steadily to the new mode of mass transportation. The advantages of the car are undeniable, the most obvious of which is its multi use, for commuting, for shopping, for recreation, etc., even for romance and premarital sex. The marginal cost of additional uses of the car is very low. And the frequent short trips to varied destinations routine in metropolitan living makes the car superior to alternative forms of transportation, including buses. In term of comfort, the door to door protection of a car from the elements and noise is unsurpassable, not to mention privacy and freedom of schedule.

Public policy in the US subsidized the automobile revolution through extensive investment in hard and soft infrastructure, with willing public support. In 1970, public sector expenditure for all transportation amounted to $125per capita, of which $105 went to roads and streets. In the same year, suburbs contained 74 million people, 19 million more than in 1960; while central cities contained 62 million people and non metropolitan areas contained 67 million. With the arrival of the automobile, the great migration pattern from farms to the cities has been reversed in America and much of the rest of the world. Since the end of WWII, the poor is left in the center while the rich has gone metropolitan. The two cities that differ from this trend are New York and San Francisco where the super rich and the poor remain in the center in separated worlds.

Globally, the trends is similar. The car is the second item of every family's dream, after the house, regardless of ideology. Public transit will not replace the car totally. It attraction come from the hope that it can perform some of the transportation need of modern life that the characteristics of the car and the configuration of urban land use cannot meet regardless of cost. This need is narrow and intense. It is simply the commuting need created by the modern corporation's huge demand for office workers located within the same building. For three decades, cities of the world struggled with little success to solve this problem of peak demand through repeated waves of public transit promotion in reaction to the automobile inability to handle peak hour commuter traffic.

Buckminster Fuller used to tell a story about a dangerous bend in a highway that caused many fatal accidents. The authorities put up warning signs to tell drivers to slow down for dangerous curve, but human nature was such that accidents continued and more and more drivers were either getting killed or being put in jail for disobeying the law, until one day, someone, a designer, came and suggested that it would be simpler to just straighten the bend. There after, life was happy.

In the 70s, some avant garde planners were suggesting that the advent of communication would alter the traditional density pattern of urban land use, thus fundamentally affecting the battle for access and its corresponding attendant distortion of urban land value. In the next century, with internet business, video conference, e-mail and intranetworking, people can work together intimately over long distances, and the logic of the 100% cornered will be challenged and the basis for concentration of high-rise office buildings within a 10-block area called CBD (Central Business District) will be economically unviable and obsolete. At that time, can rail commuting systems support themselves as entertainment rides?

Henry C.K. Liu