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Infrastructure matters


I gave up my car yesterday. Today I'll head to the Department of Motor Vehicles to turn in my tags. It's a sad milestone for a native Californian like myself. The years between birth and 16 were pretty much spent waiting until I get my driver's license. As a kid, I'd read Edmund's for fun, and I could rattle off the prices and specs of pretty much any car on the market. And owning a car was, as promised, awesome: It granted autonomy and private space and really loud music and a much-improved dating life.

But that's because I lived in Southern California. The debate over auto ownership is unfortunately moralistic when, in my experience, the realities of auto ownership are almost entirely decided by infrastructure. Left for LeDroit, an excellent blog covering my neighborhood, makes the point well in a recent post: Cities and neighborhoods built before the advent of car culture tend to be pretty easy to navigate without a car, and as you can see in the graph above, a lot of the people who live in them tend to not own cars. Conversely, cities that were built after cars became the norm essentially require their residents to own cars and their residents comply.

In practice, this doesn't feel like a decision imposed by the cold realities of infrastructure. We get attached to our cars. We get attached to our bikes. We name our subway systems. We brag about our short walks to work. People attach stories to their lives. But at the end of the day, they orient their lives around pretty practical judgments about how best to live. If you need a car to get where you're going, you're likely to own one. If you rarely use your car, have to move it a couple of times a week to avoid street cleaning, can barely find parking and have trouble avoiding tickets, you're going to think hard about giving it up. It's not about good or bad or red or blue. It's about infrastructure.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Urban Policy  
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It makes sense. Especially if you give yourself permission to rent cars and take taxis as much as needed. You'll still be ahead financially.

Posted by: Vaughan1 | May 21, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

I have claustrophobia just reading your post! I would die if I couldn't just pop out and go for a drive across town or across the country if I so desired. For some of us a car provides mobility that is as necessary as air, water, and food. I am most alive when moving across the landscape, seeing new things, experiencing the wider world outside of my usual experience. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Posted by: AuthorEditor | May 21, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

You only get one chance to make a good impression on first date. Talking too much on a first date is big turn off, find your special date

Posted by: talbertjo13 | May 21, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

As someone who has driven accross 2 continents and had to give up my car when I moved to shaw, I sympathize with Authoreditor. The comment does, however, reveal how deep our culture's pro-car bias is.

We define landscape and space based on the time it takes to travel by car. We speed over the miles and apreciate the landscape through our windscreen. Though this may be a great way to enjoy rural and suburban landscape, it is entirely inadequate to the urban landscape. The density of people, places, features make driving in a city a chore leaving little time to enjoy the environment. Only by replacing the "ease" of driving for public transport, walking or biking can you apreciate and soak in the rich urban landscape.

I put "ease" in quotation marks because for the most part, driving is the slowest way to get around within DC proper.

Posted by: ELA5 | May 21, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

I certainly agree with this, broadly speaking. I grew up in a sprawling city on the plains. Everything everywhere seemed to be between 20 and 40 minutes from my parents' house by car. I couldn't have lived without it, and I loved going out on weekend drives into rural areas on my own. But when I got rid of my car, I'd lived in Chicago, New York, or DC for eight years. My use of it got rarer and rarer; by the time I was rid of it, it was mostly a relief. So yes, whether to own a car feels to me very much a question of responding to one's environment.

But I don't think the real question is about whether to own a car. It's about how to organize density, roads, and transit. As you suggest, car ownership will respond to how we organize space. And that, actually, does have some moral aspect, no?

Whether to force up housing prices with artificially low density. Whether to subsidize the pollution that comes with large numbers of suburban commuters. Whether to pay for public transit that is practically essential for people of lower means to get around. Whether to spend taxpayer money to make that transit nice enough that people of means also want to use it. Whether to build highways through existing neighborhoods or find more urban-friendly ways to get people from point A to point B. Whether to value giving people land space over other types of home space by expanding outward rather than infilling and expanding upward.

To the best of my recollection, I have never judged anyone for owning a car. I have, however, judged the way people think about organizing urban and suburban space. If you organize space in a more walking-, biking-, and transit-friendly way, you will end up with fewer people owning cars. There are real, tangible, positive side-benefits to that (not the least of which is that people who want more suburban-style land space can have it much closer to the city than they otherwise would). I still won't judge people who keep cars in walkable cities, but I'll be happy that more people have the choice to give them up without seriously damaging their quality of life.

Posted by: OpieCurious | May 21, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

ELA5 gets it right in response to AuthorEditor. Thinking that owning a car is part and parcel with the ability to travel freely is to utterly miss Ezra's point. The infrastructure that is available determines what is necessary freedom of mobility.

I love road trips, and have driven across the country three times... twice with my family on childhood vacations, and once by myself moving from LA back to DC. I completely understand AuthorEditor's desire for freedom, but we can and should provide that freedom to all through a robust system of rail, bus, and airtravel. That is not to suggest abolishing cars - but if we can build out our infrastructure in other areas then maybe more people can live as St. Augustine suggests.

Posted by: tcjutras | May 21, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I love road trips, too. I haven't driven across country yet, and might not until I retire, but I will if I can, and I'd certainly love to do it. Even so, I love long drives. Especially when it's by myself. Would probably keep at least one car, although better infrastructure would hopefully make it unnecessary to own two cars (as we do now).

However, I remember my junior trip to London in college. You could go anywhere, in this huge city, via foot power and a Tube pass. Never even had to take a bus. And I travelled constantly in the two weeks I was there. I also managed (with my girlfriend, now wife) to get up to Salisbury, and see Stonehenge, and get back to London with exactly two taxi rides (plus, of course, the train ride to and from). It really was incredibly impressive. And, in many ways, very empowering. Also, it encourages street shopping.

In summation, I'd be unlikely to give up my car. Frankly, I'd like to add a Winebago to the vehicle list one day. And several nice, gas-guzzling cross country trips for the family. But there's a great argument for mass transit in our urban centers. It's just a very difficult thing to pull off, after the fact. Just ask L.A.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 21, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I used to live in DC, in Mt. Pleasant. My car got booted and towed due to a "build-up" of parking tickets. I never picked it up from the city, and lived carless for 10 years. You don't need a car in DC, and the reality is it's not a great city to have a car in--traffic is really slow, parking is a nightmare, and parking enforcement is really efficient (maybe too efficient).

Posted by: nickthap | May 21, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

True, it's about infrastructure. And some people choose where they live based on infrastructure: experience has taught me that I'm miserable living in a place without sidewalks that you can use to walk somewhere. But a lot of new neighborhoods are built without them, which narrows my housing options a lot.

Posted by: csdiego | May 21, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

LA actually has a great plan in place, and if we can get some type of national infrastructure bank in place, they could become a model for the nation in terms of how to build out a public transit system in a car-based metro area...

On the topic of infrastructure costs... if we could get developers to pay the costs of building out streets, water mains, electric, etc to sprawling new subdivisions then many of those areas would be less "affordable" (the quotes are because, when you into account the subsidies that towns give to developers in the form of infrastructure, and the externalities of sprawl they aren't so affordable), and you'd start seeing greater density and increased walkability.

Posted by: tcjutras | May 21, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Next time you might want to show that there is overlap between the those who live in older houses and those who don't own cars. I agree that there is probably a causal relationship, but the above graph doesn't show it. Maybe the majority of the carless live in brand new housing complexes?

Posted by: jwweitzel | May 21, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

AuthorEditor - That is a fine position to take, but you are unnecessarily limiting yourself to using a car to seek those open spaces. If you want to feel more a part of those landscapes, than a visitor travelling through, try a motorcycle. If you want some exercise too, try a bicycle. If you truly want to immerse yourself, just use your feet.

As far as DC goes, the best day I've spent there was on a bike. My now-wife and I rented a tandem & were able to visit all the memorials on the mall, Arlington cemetary, the TR memorial & do some wandering/exploring besides. That would have been impossible in a car, or on foot.

Posted by: bsimon1 | May 21, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Imagine what a sad and shackled existence St Augustine would have lived if he'd never owned a car.

Posted by: antontuffnell | May 21, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

*I am most alive when moving across the landscape, seeing new things, experiencing the wider world outside of my usual experience. *

I feel the same way about sailing. But since I don't use a sailboat every day to get to work, I find that it is more economical to rent a sailboat when needed rather than pay for the costs of purchase and upkeep.

Even for my car, I find that more for most of the week, using a car is for the purpose of traveling down the same road to the same workplace and then back to the same home that I live in every day. Weekend trips are nice, but when you settle in a job and a house, weekends get taken up by the need to run errands and maintain your home, meaning that the weekend trip to the beach becomes a monthly rather than weekly event.

Cars are really practical utilities that support your ability to go to your job or support your social life. If you are going to think of a car as a recreational/travel accessory then, as with a boat, you should think about just renting one on an as-needed basis.

Posted by: constans | May 21, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

You can love the open road without owning a car. I gave up my car 3 years ago this August. With Zipcar and cheap weekend car rental rates, I can have a car pretty much when I need it and the luxury of driving many different kinds of vehicles. I can't jump in the car on impulse, but living in the city, that sort of thing often is more hassle than its worth.

Besides having a love of driving, I'm also an auto workers kid (actually my dad worked for a heavy duty truck manufacturer, but he belonged to the auto worker's union). I also own a deeded parking space, whose rental pays a chunk of my condo fee. I spent a year working through whether I needed a car in DC and came to the conclusion that I didn't. I had lived in Bangkok for 3 years w/o a car in the 90s and was relived to not have to directly involve myself in the chaos and congestion of Bangkok traffic---there were buses, taxis, motocycle taxis and later a rapid transit system. After that, I lived in Atlanta, where a car was a necessity, even if one lived in a "walking" neighborhood. Much of Atlanta could be adapted for carfree living, but the way people redevelop neighborhoods (restaurnat but not anyplace useful to shop) mitigates against that. I work in the suburbs and not only is a car necessary for a lot of local travel, it's also time consuming and inconvenient at the same time--it can take 20 minutes to go two or three miles during lunch hour or rush hour or during major shopping days on the weekend.

Not owning a car doesn't mean losing much and it provides a nice infusion of cash flow. It's not a lifestyle statement, it's a rational choice. And if you need covered parking near Logan Circle give me a shout.

Posted by: thebuckguy | May 21, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse


I lived in Old Town Alexandria in the late 90's and found that I only drove my car on weekends to the grocery store. I loved being free of my car.

Posted by: punchaxverulam | May 22, 2010 7:27 AM | Report abuse

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