Cars Improve Our Quality of Life?

Q. Studies show that car ownership increases personal wealth and quality of life in ways that depending on public transportation can never accomplish so how can you say we should be getting rid of them?

A. When and where were these studies done? In rural areas or urban? 60 years ago or in the last 10 years?

It is certainly true that quality of life has improved in many ways during the period that cars have been available to more than the upper 10% of the population. Cars have may have contributed to that but they have also contributed to air, noise, and earth pollution. Was it worth it?

But that question aside, is there a context in which to compare the economic advantages of using cars vs public transportation? Public transportation is so poorly developed and maintained in this country that is probably impossible to determine.

Another problem is accounting. While people disagree whether cars are a blessing or a curse, it is hard to calculate their economic advantage because we don’t know what they cost us in terms of depletion of raw materials, air pollution, ground pollution, etc.

I’m not speaking against cars but against dependence on cars. Arranging one’s life so getting to work, to food, to recreation, to schools, etc, can be done without using a car is incredibly freeing on a personal level and environmentally would drastically reduce air, noise, and visual pollution.

Think about how much more open space there would be in cities, where cars are the most concentrated and most often parked on public land, if cars were reduced by 50%. Streets that have parking on two sides could then have 6 ft more walkways and gardens on one side, a decrease in asphalt of 25%. That is a huge number when you imagine looking down a street and seeing a long park or spacious landscaped walkways or bike lanes instead of another row of cars. The walkability index for that neighborhood zooms right up.

A further reduction in air and noise pollution could be produced by planning activities that cannot be done within walking distance to be done on public transportation. Don’t jump in the car automatically. Ask yourself, is there a Whole Foods or a Giant on a Metro line? Can I get new shoes while I’m there? How many more mysteries can I read if I ride instead of driving?

And then, do I really need a car? With six Zipcars for hourly rentals within 2 blocks of my home and three longer term car rentals one Metro stop away, how much money could I save to just rent? And that calculation should include not only the savings from my personal budget, but in tax dollars from everyone doing the same.

The incalculable costs of cars are in medical care, road building and maintenance, traffic control (though there seems to be little of that), dead car and rubber tire disposition, emergency vehicles for accidents, building and maintaining parking, etc. The air pollution is not just from driving but from manufacturing and processing the raw materials.

Maybe a better number cruncher than I am has figured out how much a reduction in the use of cars would reduce taxes.

Walter Reed (Army Hospital) Development

The word on at least one street is that the development will suffer from not being on a Metro line. The neighbors protest that it is on the Red line. The problem is that the entrance to the Takoma Metro Station is on the east, not even visible from anything anyone readily identifies as DC.

I used to teach at a college that had many satellite teaching locations. It was a repeated problem that we located an office on the wrong side of a bridge or river or whatever it was that was a psychological barrier to the local residents. Underpasses are one of those barriers.

Invisible Metro entrances are big barriers. I often am out walking in Takoma and find someone wandering around south of Cedar (you can’t go north) looking for the Metro. I tell them to follow the tracks and they say, “I did that, nothing happened.” From the DC side, you have to know the station is there before you can find it.

Metro entrances pointing the wrong way are a barrier. That the Takoma Metro points toward Takoma Park MD means it is perceived to be at least a mile further east than it really is. It is as good as in MD—the end of the world if you are walking from DC.

Takoma Educational Center, the elementary school, blocks Cedar Street, the direct shot from Walter Reed to the Takoma Station, another a barrier. People walking to and from the station in the winter will be walking in the dark at least one way to or from Walter Reed. A straight, open street feels safer. If one group takes one walk around and another group the other, there are also fewer companions.

A few years ago when WMATA announced a new station entrance to Cedar, I thought they were talking about an entrance on the west side of the station and was positive that ridership would be increased. The new entrance, however, amounted only to a set of steps, still on the east side of the station. The advantage being that they are under the underpass and thus less icy but they only duplicate a set of stair a few feet east.

I think it has probably helped that the stairs are sort of visible from the west side of the underpass, but people do not like to walk down under underpasses. They are dark and almost invariably lit with bare bulbs in wire cages like the ones in prisons. People won’t do it as long as there is any alternative. It certainly isn’t conducive to encouraging people to break old habits and use the Metro.

The need is for an entrance on the west side of the Takoma Metro, one that looks like an entrance — open, light, with a sign. Not just for Walter Reed but for everyone else on the west side. Since this is not likely to happen now that Cedar Crossing, the Gables, and the soon to be built Metro-Village are all big buildings blocking the possible development of a visible entrance, perhaps some other solution could be found.

A trolley is planned to go from Georgia Avenue across Butternut Street up Fourth Street to the Takoma station. Maybe before they get the trolley, they could put a big sign on the overpass. Something attractive and trolley-friendly, like the one that would have been there before the Metro was built and a trolley served the area.

The New Neighborhoods

Neighborhoods like the one you, or your parents, or your grandparents probably grew up in are still alive and well but are in high-rise buildings, the suburbs, urban renewal, and housing complexes.

Our old neighborhoods were, where our grandparents and great grandparents lived, were relatively stable with generations of the same families living on the block, and if not on this block the next one over. It was a place where not only did everyone know your name, they had always known your name. They were all like family. The ones we loved, the ones we hated, and the ones we only saw on holidays.

While the freedom of anonymity and the ability to choose any where in the world to study and work are liberating, it came at a cost. We now have few relationships with our neighbors deeper than a hasty hello over the top of a car as we race away from home for 10-12 hours a day or a cautious “Good Morning” at the elevator, rarely a jovial, “Hey how are you?” Unless we have children who play on the same baseball team or are in the same chess club, or we have a dog that we take the same dog run, we have few ties. When mail is mis-delivered, it’s the address we  recognize, not the name.

A culture has built up, particularly in large buildings and new housing developments, in which we are expected to ignore our neighbors. We tell ourselves that we are respecting their privacy or protecting our own. But are we?

It is possible and even probable that we have idealized those old nieghborhoods. But if we have, what does it mean? I think it means that that kind of neighborhood is where we want to live. Whether it ever existed  or not, is irrelevant. We have the image, the dream, and it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It’s the image of where we want to live.

How do we build, or rebuild the dream and sustain it? How do we deal with the nitty-gritty of common interest ownership and shared facilities management? Redesigning our expanses of suburbs into villages with small town squares surrounded with shops and restaurants. Create shared spaces in huge buildings where children can play and adults can watch the Oscars or World Cup games together. Or work jigsaw puzzles and build a small take-it-or-leave-it library of paperback books. And just get to know each other.

The posts under Cohousing focus on these questions, so please explore and discuss, send suggestions, and share your stories of developing a community where there wasn’t one before.