The War On the Carless

By David Roberts January 28, 2011

In anticipation of tonight's PubliCola confab at Liberty Bar on Capitol Hill (Topic: The War on Cars), David Roberts, a longtime staff writer for the national environmental blog Grist, wrote this guest editorial. For the opposite point of view, see Washington Policy Center transportation analyst Michael Ennis' own op/ed here.)

If the Tea Party has taught us anything, it's that hell hath no fury like an entitled constituency scorned. People who grow up accustomed to having public policy and social norms tilted in their favor have a special kind of self-righteous indignation when their privileges are challenged. Thus we get middle-class white Southerners demanding "their country" back. And, just as absurdly, we get Seattle drivers decrying a "war on cars."

If there was ever a "war" involving cars, it ended long ago, and cars won. Their dominance has been so total for so long that we've come to think of public spaces designed to accommodate two-ton vehicles as the default state of affairs. The public, including the poor and working-class who are most likely to rely on public transit, massively subsidizes roads and parking. Even the most marginal efforts to charge drivers for the services they enjoy (with, say, parking fees) is greeted as an act of hostility.

It is for cars that Seattle put an interstate through our urban core that forever separates downtown from Capitol Hill, and a highway that separates downtown from the waterfront. It is for cars that we have inflexible minimum parking requirements, which reduce walkability and density. It is for cars that we're getting ready to jam a six-lane highway into Montlake. It is for cars that we're contemplating burying a gigantic tunnel under downtown, despite recommendations from an expert panel and the expressed preferences of Seattle voters. Every one of those roads and parking spaces is a gash in the city's social fabric, a dead space designed for machines rather than people. Every one invites congestion, pollution, accidents, and isolation.

It is one of the most longstanding and best-understood findings in urban design that building more roads does not ease congestion. To the contrary, it quickly leads to more cars and more congestion. Yet no matter how bad Seattle's congestion gets---no matter how long its citizens spend in their isolated boxes, stressed out, wasting time, taking years off their lives---the answer from politicians and vested interests is always the same: more lanes, more roads, another highway.

Meanwhile we have, to the north in Vancouver and to the south in Portland, two justly famous examples of the quality-of-life benefits that come with land-use and transportation policies designed to serve people and mobility rather than cars and commute times. World-class cities from Seoul to San Francisco have ripped out highways, closed areas to vehicle traffic, expanded bus rapid transit and light rail, launched bike- and car-sharing services, and built up the dense, walkable neighborhoods that are in ever-rising demand. You'd have trouble finding a city that looks back on such decisions with regret. People like living in places where they don't need cars, but supply of such places still falls well short of demand---that's why they cost so much!

Yet this region's power brokers can't seem to learn that lesson. They still think they can conquer congestion by adding pavement. And while they're doing so, they're simultaneously promising carbon neutrality by 2030. But Seattle is blessed with copious low-carbon hydropower electricity. If we're going to make substantial reductions to our carbon pollution, there's only way to do it: Reduce the amount we drive (AKA vehicle miles traveled). Every new piece of auto infrastructure is a 30-50 year commitment that puts sustainability that much farther out of reach.

I live up in the Bitter Lake neighborhood of North Seattle, which, like so many older neighborhoods, was brought to life by public transit: The area first flourished in 1906 when it became a stop on the Seattle-Everett Interurban trolley. With the addition of Playland, the iconic amusement park, in 1930, Bitter Lake became a bustling community. The one thing it lacked was sidewalks, so in 1954, it agreed to be annexed by Seattle, in part on the promise of those sidewalks.

More than 50 years later, Bitter Lake still doesn't have sidewalks. My kids still can't walk around our neighborhood safely. They can't bike, either, since between every bike lane or trail there's a dozen blocks of streets with narrow shoulders and no traffic calming. Needless to say, the trolley's gone too, and that monorail Seattle voters asked for three times never showed up. We're stuck in our car, like it or not.

If there's a war in Seattle, it's a war on the the carless, and it's been waged for more than a half-century. If the carless are finally fighting back, well, it's long overdue.
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