Walkable vs. Drivable Communities

It’s said car companies in the United States alone spend $15 BILLION on advertising (and that’s a conservative estimate. Jane Holtz Kay, in her book Asphalt Nation, pegs it at $40 billion). If they stopped, would people stop buying cars? Of course not, right? Cars are a “necessary” evil. People need cars. So why not donate that untold billions to ensuring quality educational opportunities for all Americans? Why not use the money to establish a health care system to make Canadians envy you [instead of the other way around –ed.]?

What are the car companies afraid of? What are people going to do without their cars? Walk? Ride a bike? Don’t be ridiculous.

What is it about walking, anyway? (ALLDERBLOB readers want to know).

From the time our earliest ectoplasmic ancestors struggled onto two legs and took to land, people have been pretty excited about walking.

Opinion may vary, but the evidence suggests the earliest humans covered the trackless terrain of their world at a gait of some five miles per hour.

From that time to this, the notion of mobility has made quantum leaps. The terrain is no longer trackless. Today, our cities or towns, separated by colossal highways, fall into two broad categories: the gridded and the not-so-gridded. We no longer inhabit caves or treetops, but houses and apartments. We’ve got locks on our doors and alarm systems to protect our tvs, our computers, our toys and our cars [Are we any the happier for it? You be the judge.

Andy Singer drawing: Are you happy yet? –ed.]

While lipservice is sometimes paid to building “walkable communities,” most new development takes place on so-called “greenfields,” such as farmland or forests, far from the eminently walkable core at the heart of most Canadian towns and cities. There, at the edge, we get tract houses on culs-de-sac, enclaves linked by arterial roads and collectors. Without a car in this environment, most of us are stranded. Even when distance “as the crow flies” between house and shopping, house and school, or house and business is not so great, the street patterns of the suburb make understandable the claim (attributed to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) that

a man who beyond the age of 26 finds himself without a car, can count himself as a failure.

So, why bother to talk about “walkable” communities at all? Why not instead work to ensure that every adult of every household have a car, every child a driver; that every road be paved and widened, that every shop and workplace have sufficient parking for a month of Christmases? Why not just buy the Canadian Automobile Association line, hook and sinker?

Answers spring to mind, but it is perhaps the late Ivan Illich who best sums up the pro-walk position. That he does so in terms to which any economist would respond is not to be held against him:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.

In other words, the quantum leaps our world has experienced has brought us exactly full circle: our mobility level, measured in miles per hour, is no greater than that of our cave-dwelling ancestors. If anything, they had a leg up on us because they had no roads, traffic, fences, or other barriers to dictate their path of travel. They had no disconnected culs-de-sac and no meandering collector road to negotiate between them and dinner. For them, it was “as the crow flies” all the way [and actually, the crow was dinner –ed.].

The fact is, people know this. They get it. Most people hate cars, and would be happy to live in a world without them: instead, they move to culs-de-sac (Councillor Case Ootes, are you listening?), gated communities, lonely country roads, where they tell themselves the car can’t get them. They erect speed humps, speed bumps, sleeping policemen, and chicanes. They strive for reduced speed limits, woonerfen, “home streets,” traffic calming and traffic mazes.

And who is it that’s most active in the fight against the motorcar? Why, car owners themselves, naturally.

Aside to car companies: $15 billion is a lot of dough. You spend it on advertising! Of what, exactly, do you think we need convincing?

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