Vroom, zoom, doom

Thursday, September 24, 2020 - 12:59pm

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Design courtesy of Caitlin Martens

If I asked you what are cars for, there are a few answers I might expect you to give me. Cars expand our horizons by letting us travel farther. They save time by letting us travel faster. Or, maybe you would simply say that we need cars: We need them to get to our places of work, to get to the store and buy food, to visit our families — in short, to live our lives.

If cars really are such a fundamental component of our daily lives, perhaps it is better to ask why we need them so badly in the first place. Because, despite their ubiquity in American society, cars inflict too much misery, death and destruction on us and our world to justify any of those benefits. 

The easiest way to examine the toll the automobile has taken on humanity is by looking at the staggering number of people killed by vehicles. Over the last few decades, the number of accidents per year in the United States has held remarkably steady, and although the actual number of deaths has declined slightly, it remains concerningly high. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported 36,650 total fatalities in 33,654 fatal vehicle accidents. In the 24 years from 1994 to 2018, a total of 973,698 Americans died in car crashes.

These statistics are indisputably horrifying, but what might not seem as obvious is that cars themselves aren’t actually at fault. After all, cars are operated by people and people are prone to error. Car accident deaths can be mitigated by improving safety features and traffic laws — and in fact, much of the decline in deaths shown in the Department of Transportation statistics can likely be attributed to these improvements. No matter how much seatbelt or airbag technology improves, these features can only attempt to offset the inherent danger of letting millions of people zip around in two-ton missiles as a matter of daily routine. A future in which vehicle safety features prevent even close to 100% of deaths is a long way off.

Even if the threat of accidents were somehow entirely eliminated — maybe through self-driving technology — cars present other dangers to humanity and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates transportation accounted for 28% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, and 82% of those emissions were made by cars and trucks. Though it’s much harder to precisely assess the damage these emissions have caused, both to people’s respiratory health and the environment, this damage is indisputable.

In a world where fatal pile ups on the highway are reported on the nightly news with the same accepting nonchalance as the day’s weather, car crashes are old news. Besides, isn’t it a simple enough thing to let advances in safety technology and renewable energy take their course and solve these problems in their own time? Maybe so. But if it were possible to drastically reduce or even eliminate our reliance on cars, these problems would never have to be solved, because they wouldn’t exist. And it is possible to do just that. 

It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but dispensing the need for mass ownership and use of automobiles via radical urban redesign would recondition all of the problems I have already mentioned, as well as several that cannot be solved simply by making cars better. For example, in an interview with WSP, Kit Chiu, an Advanced Mobility Systems Planner, stated, “If we want to turn the current increase in active transport usage into sustained change, planners, and all those who bring about change within cities, will need to consider how to continue to make active transport and micromobility options workable under these conditions, not just for the most experienced users but for all who want to use them. This requires thinking about the design of the actual infrastructure, the design of the surrounding environment, the planning of amenities—including rest stops, lighting, and bike-fixing stations—and the way we operate and maintain our infrastructure, such as winter snow removal.” The infrastructural necessities essential for overhauling dependency on personal vehicles are not quick fixes but rather demand decades of progress in hopes of addressing the problems caused by this dependency. 

To phase out cars, all travel destinations that cannot be reached through some combination of public transportation (trains, buses, airplanes, etc.) or foot travel should also be redesigned or reconfigured. Places that are remote, single-use developments or destinations that wouldn’t exist in the first place without cars to provide access to them could not exist in a carless society. Even more, getting rid of them would be beneficial in multiple facets, as strip malls tend to be displeasing to the eye and suburbs are at best ecologically burdensome and spatially inefficient. 

Of course, these places, though sub-optimally located, do serve important purposes and will have to be replaced in some fashion. Taking advantage of the extra space in cities resulting from the reduction in roadways and parking spaces would allow us to build more urban residential and commercial districts. Due to the way many American cities are currently designed, however, urban sprawl makes public transportation an inefficient way of getting from place to place, and increases reliance on personal automobiles. To truly rid ourselves of our dependence on automobiles, we will have to build up instead of out. The phrase “building up” may conjure images of sterile office skyscrapers and blocky, monolithic apartment high rises, but there are other ways to utilize the vertical spaces of our cities.

With car travel, transportation is mostly restricted to the ground level. But with more residential and commercial spaces occupying the upper stories of high rises, elevated pedestrian walkways can create multiple levels to a city, complete with green spaces, storefronts and other amenities previously relegated to the ground level. Multi-level cities would also turn elevated rails such as the Detroit People Mover from economically untenable novelties into useful infrastructure.

Designing for a carless future can accomplish far more than the elimination of problems caused directly by automobiles, like accident fatalities and air pollution. Prioritizing walkability in cities via vertical, multi-level construction that takes advantage of space freed by eliminating car-focused infrastructure will create urban environments that are healthier, more efficient and more appealing. This can also pave the way for other developments, like vertical farming, that can improve the health of human society and the environment. 

We tend to think of cars as useful machines, which we use to get to places we need to go and couldn’t get to otherwise. But by examining the hypothetical carless city, we can see that much of the U.S. has developed around mass automobile ownership, resulting in the development of inefficient infrastructure and zoning practices that promote further use of automobiles. If we leave behind cars, we leave behind the bleak concrete vistas of suburban strip malls, parking lots and roadways. We leave behind needless deaths in accidents. And we move forward, into a safer, healthier future, where the cities we call home will not be built for our mechanical masters, the cars. Instead, they will be built for us. 

Evan Dempsey can be reached at evangd@umich.edu.


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