Monday, May 18, 2009

The limits of the appeal of the car-free community …

    Can American communities exist without cars?  The New York Times published last week a “running commentary” on whether American towns can be successful that ban cars, or at least relegate them to outskirts.  As assessed by expert contributors and hoi polloi commentators, some of the keys are an efficient public transportation system and mixed land use, in order to make tasks and travels easy without a car.  
New urbanism    Here are my two cents:  As shown by many of the citizen commentators, car-free living is not so unusual any more.  Despite Witold Rybczynski’s odd assertion that “there are only six American downtown districts [two areas of NYC, Chi., SF, Boston, and his own Phila.] that are dense enough to support mass transit” (uh, ever been to Washington or Seattle or Portland, for example?), there are many American urban neighborhoods today that look like the Arlington, Va., picture at the NY Times site: dense, mixed-use land use with grocery shopping, apartments, nightlife, and mass transit to nearby offices.  Even Tampa, Florida, near me, famously among America’s least-walkable cities, holds a Hyde Park District in which apartment and townhouse residents can shop for lettuce, sip coffee, hear a band, and walk or catch a bus to work without a car.  Many do.     
   But Rybczynski and others are correct in suggesting that the key question is not whether car-free neighborhood can prosper—they clearly can – but whether a large percentage of Americans truly want to live in such neighborhoods.  Car-free sectors are almost certainly going to be apartment, condo, and townhouse neighborhoods.  It is much tougher to build a car-free community of single-family houses with yards.  Accordingly, while many young urban professionals embrace a life of apartment-above-a-Starbuck’s-with a-Whole-Foods-down-the-block, it’s another for an American family with kids to do so.  Unlike in Germany, a suburb in which the Times focuses, far fewer American families have accepted the car-free lifestyle.  Many factors go into these decisions, including (and this is a point rarely mentioned by optimistic urbanists) dissatisfaction with urban public schools.  Attitudes may be changing, but let’s recognize the limitations of the appeal of the car-free community …    

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