The War on Cars

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 12 1998 3:30 AM

The War on Cars

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       I'm delighted you don't foresee the abolition of cars, but I remain puzzled by the absence of any concrete recommendation to limit car use and by your erroneous description of American life.
       There are, indeed, some revolting highways lined with ugly strip malls and junky stores. There are also many revolting rail destinations lined with junkyards, factories, and depressing high-rise housing. But there is one large difference between ugly highways and ugly rail lines: By car, you can escape ugliness. Most of America is lined with roads which, if you want to avoid ugliness, will take you to beauty and quietude. Railroads, by contrast, take you to high-density locations where ugliness abounds. The reason is simple--even with subsidies, no one can build a railroad or subway stop that does not end in a site that generates high-density construction. Times Square was created by subways and a massive bus stop, not by cars. By contrast, the parking lots of Beverly Hills are quite nice.
       You mistake my point about the carrying capacity of rail. Over a fixed route, it is true that rail carries more people more cheaply than cars. But the passenger must first get from home or office to where the rail line starts and then back from the rail line to the home or office. The only sensible measure of carrying capacity is the total human travel route, not just the difference between rails and highways over some fixed route where a rail line happens to be found. For most start and stop points, cars are faster and cheaper than rail lines (there are exceptions in some big cities). And cars provide vastly more efficient (as well as private and convenient) transportation where rail lines cannot operate owing to low customer demand.
       Finally, cities differ in how well they have adjusted to our human preference for cars. Detroit is a problem, but Phoenix and Kansas City are not. Baltimore is scarcely "dead at its center," unless you have tunnel vision. As for your comment that "suburbia has no future": This remark alone places you so far from the lives and habits of ordinary people that I cannot imagine these folk taking you seriously.

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