Walkable City author Jeff Speck  was on the Parksify podcast recently talking about “cars and our cities.”

(Actually, he was on several months ago, but I just learned about Parksify this week; it’s a site “all about our cities’ public spaces.”)

Of course, a pedestrian and transit advocate like Speck had some handy data to set the record straight: Driving a car is heavily subsidized.

Meanwhile, despite the hefty subsidies, it’s still a major hit on your wallet. This peculiar combination, not true of mass transit, highlights what profligate policy it is to underwrite driving alone.

Heavily subsidized:

You’re not paying the true cost of owning that car. Just like every dollar you spend on transit is subsidized to the tune of maybe a $1.50… one analysis showed that every dollar you spend on driving is subsidized $9.20 in terms of what other people have to pay… [for] the cost of the roads, the cost of the ambulances, the cost of police, and the maintenance…All the things that happen because your forced to drive have a much higher cost on society…So, the more we can get people getting around in non-automotive ways, the better off we’ll all be economically.

Yet still expensive for individuals:

The annual cost of owning a car…is somewhere near $10,000 a year, average across the country…Between 1970 and 2010 in the U.S., we probably doubled the numbers of miles of roads in this country, and what we accomplished with that, was that we went from paying 10 percent of our incomes on transportation to now paying over 20 percent of our incomes on transportation. So, all of this road building which cost us a lot of money in tax dollars has locked us in to this circumstance where the typical American is paying almost as much for transportation as they do for housing.

The typical working American is paying a little bit more transportation than they are for housing. And the typical poor American is paying about 40 percent of their income on transportation. It’s this tremendous burden and cost for those who don’t have that much choice about where they live and are constricted to living in places where the automobile is a lifeline to jobs and services.

But we knew all this already, man.

The more exciting moments of Parksify’s conversation with Speck were about 1) How to get neighborhoods to support getting rid of parking minimums and, 2) In contrast to many Urbanists who believe driver-less cars will be an important component of green cities in the 21st Century, Speck had a list of red flags about the supposed driver-less car future

1. How to get neighborhood support for no more parking minimums:

This discussion starts around the the 7:00 minute mark.

While acknowledging that neighbors have selfishly come to expect something they actually don’t have a constitutional right to—guaranteed private use of a public good (street right of way) to park their cars—Speck, nonetheless suggests that you can assuage neighbors who are antsy about new residential developments that come without parking by setting up “Parking Preservation Plans.”

He recommends a couple of ways to do this. You can set up a “Residential Parking Permit” program where current residents pay for permits while no additional permits would be issued to new residents. He also says the developer can make tenants of the new building sign leases that say they cannot own a car.

And then (at the 8:50 mark), Speck has some anecdotal evidence from two towns, Somerville, Massachusetts and Chicago, that, he says, provide a clear lesson for neighbors. In one instance, when a developer opted not to provide parking, the people who ended up moving in to the new buildings didn’t have cars anyway. The anecdote continues that, conversely, when another developer built a project with parking, it attracted tenants who all owned cars. But the built-in parking spaces didn’t end up working as mitigation for those extra cars. Instead, the new neighbors not only parked at the development, but they  competed for curbside parking throughout the neighborhood. And additionally, they brought more traffic to the local streets.

In other words, new buildings without parking stalls didn’t exacerbate parking and traffic for the neighborhood while new buildings with parking stalls did.

“As a neighbor,” Speck muses, “you need to be very concerned about what you ask for.”

Speck points out that Somerville and Chicago are both dense cities and have lots of public transit, which is why the radical approach of building without parking spots was possible.

Again, Speck’s recommendations fail to challenge the underlying problem, though: Existing residents sense of entitlement that the public right of away exists to house their personal car…right in front of their house!

2. The problems with Autonomous Vehicles:

The Autonomous Cars discussion starts at the 15:45 mark, and Speck gets to his criticisms around the 20:00 minute mark.

Yes, driver-less cars or autonomous vehicles could allow us to build smaller lanes, freeing up space for other public uses….Yes, they could reduce traffic deaths from drinking and bad driving…Yes, they will make parking spaces obsolete as they shuttle between passengers rather than stopping and parking at each destination…Yes, they will make car ownership less sensible or even necessary and make it more expensive.

… But, says Speck, there are some big IFs.

First, he says the driver-less car model will only work if there are no traditional cars sharing the same downtown streets with the robot cars. He notes that no American city has had the nerve to declare any significant portions of their downtowns off-limits to privately owned, single occupant vehicles. That’s a bad sign for doing so in the future, he argues.

Next, he says, the efficient driver-less car model will only work if you have a fleet of driver-less cars, as opposed to everyone owning their own.

His bigger reservation is this: If you make driving easier and more attractive by allowing people to be chauffeured around while they are able to do work, relax, eat, sleep, talk on the phone, or watch videos etc. in the backseat, cars will become even more popular. People also won’t be as aggravated by traffic, which means traffic jams may actually get worse.

And the real problem with cars, per David Owen’s Green Metropolis, is that they encourage sprawled development rather than density. If autonomous cars make cars even more popular, the innovation may simply encourage more sprawl as opposed to more efficient cities.

One thought on “Underlining Like Mad #170: Subsidized Cars, Driverless Cars, and More Cars

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