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When a car culture is detrimental to community

Image from the Dallas Morning News

This morning, a 16 year old was run over and killed by a driver making a U-turn in front of a school minutes after dropping the student off. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time an incident like this has occurred, and worst, it won’t be the last. The reality we’re faced with in the US is that we’ve prioritized the convenience of moving cars quickly over the creation of meaningful places for people. There’s far too many examples of this in our city code books and transit planning initiatives, but the most damaging is the persistent idea that “Level of Service” for moving vehicles must be ranked at the highest possible level. This runs completely counter to creating destinations within neighborhoods and the loss of life due to this ill-conceived prioritization results in cold, hostile places that sadly reflect our values in regards to community.

So what can be done to begin the process of change? First of all, we have to acknowledge the problem we’ve created by changing the form of our cities over the last 50 years. This is a very new type of development that embraces a single mode of transit which requires a massive amount of infrastructure to maintain. Not just the roads, the paint, and the maintenance, but also the requirement for all retail and residential establishments to be retrofitted to accommodate large swaths of land for temporary storage. The idea of taking a valuable piece of land for a commercial venture, and carving up half of it simply to store peoples cars, giving up valuable retail shelf space, only makes sense when you’ve created an environment that pushes our basic needs far from our homes. This is not a diatribe against vehicle ownership because I completely understand the necessity for basic human needs predicated on cars.

A major question we have to ask ourselves is what do we want from our communities? It’s almost as simple as, “Why are we here?” My good friend, Mike Lydon, who has been instrumental in organizing and documenting the Tactical Urbanism movement, has been focused on understanding this “root cause” issue that we’re faced with and regularly employs the “5 Why’s” method to have people realize the true problems that we should be addressing as opposed to the initial, gut response.

In the case of today’s sad “accident”, our initial focus might be to figure out how to stop this type of issue. In this instance, there are several options:

  1. Create infrastructure that restricts cars to predictive movements (channelize cars, and build physical barriers like medians to stop U-Turns)

  2. Slow traffic in and out of the area with bulb-outs, pedestrian islands/shelves

  3. Create multi-modal options that thin the street like Cycle Tracks

To take things to another level, we could even look at making it inconvenient to use a car to get kids to school. Right now, we’ve actually developed wide roadway drop-off systems in front of schools that encourage potential conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles. In this instance, we could:

  1. Remove front driveways

  2. Build schools to the sidewalk edge

  3. Thin the streets in front of the schools

  4. Create wide pedestrian paths, and bicycle infrastructure to promote multi-modal transit options

This would be a good step as well, but it still doesn’t address the root problem. If we ask ourselves things like:

1. Why did the vehicle make a U-Turn?

The initial answer is because the street is wide enough to allow this.

2. Why is the street so wide?

To accommodate a high Level of Service for cars.

3. Why are we accommodating a high Level of Service for cars?

Because people have to drive to get to work

4. Why do people have to drive to get to work?

Because we’ve created zoning that separates work from homes

5. Why have we created separation through zoning?

Because we followed a Euclidian zoning model that was developed 50+ years ago that saw industry hurting residences, and looked at creating distance in order to maintain order as the priority for the time.

6. If “factory development” is no longer occurring, why are we continuing to separate ourselves through this style of zoning?

Great question.

Beyond this, why are we building communities in the first place? I would assume it’s because we need each other for work, play, growth, development, and connections. And why have we accepted the idea that it’s “okay” to have to get into our cars to get something as basic as a gallon of milk?  Shouldn’t we build neighborhoods that allow us to live and work within walking distance in the same place? And wouldn’t this reduce our demand for driving everywhere? And with that, wouldn’t we save more money? and lives?

To make matters worse, what happens when we build a community based on cars instead of people, and we can no longer drive (too old, too young, or infirmed)? Well, we’ve seen that your value drops and with age, you’re removed from community (at a time you need it most).

To me, the definition of a souless community is one where there is no pride in place, no young people, no old people, and no opportunities for growth and connections. We’ve done an amazing job of creating places that destroy communities, and for some reason, we consider the loss of life to automobiles as a “cost of doing business”. For things to change, a simple re-prioritization needs to occur  along with a realization that the answer to our problems exists already within our neighborhoods: Start with the people.


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