The War on Cars

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 17 1998 3:30 AM

The War on Cars

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       Your assertion that "by car you can escape ugliness" reveals the severe limitations of your view. Our use of cars, our willingness to subordinate all other values in civic design to the needs of cars, has in itself generated ugliness of the everyday environment unsurpassed among the supposedly advanced nations.
       You imply that population density is responsible for the ugliness of America's townscape. This is a common fallacy. In fact, a viable scale and quality of urbanism cannot be achieved without higher residential densities than are currently permitted under most American land-use codes. It is the lack of density and our consequent car dependency that makes American cities so lifeless and sterile. Holland has population densities second only to Bangladesh, and anyone who has been to Amsterdam cannot fail to identify it as one of the world's most enchanting cities.
       It is the excessive population of cars, not people, that makes American city life so uniformly dispiriting. You cite Phoenix as a successful example of a city. This is astounding. Do you know that it is commonly referred to (by people who live there) as "L.A. without the charm"? I was there a month ago. It is a wilderness of sodium-vapor lamps and parking lots. It is hard to imagine a less rewarding urban form. It may be surrounded by interesting mountains, but I would remind you that scenery is not the equivalent of civic life or an adequate substitute for it. To cite Kansas City as a successful urban construct is also absurd. In fact, Kansas City exhibits some of the highest rates of auto-dependency in the world in terms of miles driven per day per resident.
       Your view of railroads as the chief generators of contemporary urban squalor is also not borne out by the facts of life in the United States and abroad. Three weeks ago, I took the RER train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the heart of Paris. The trip took less than 30 minutes, and I was then happily walking down the richly rewarding rue des Abbesses in Montmartre, past handsome, well-maintained buildings; shop fronts full of sensual delight; on sidewalks full of well-behaved, healthy-looking people going about their business on foot. I had similar experiences in Rome last November (where the train likewise goes directly from the airport to the heart of the city), and Berlin in July (ditto). (By the way, Berlin, which was bombed to rubble 50 years ago and then suffered the indignity of division, is today in visibly much better shape than a score of comparably sized American cities.)
       A week after I left Paris in January, I had the misfortune of attending a conference at a hotel in San Diego. The hotel was sited in its own "resort pod" miles from the shops, cafes, and other civic equipment of San Diego. The only way to get to any of these things was by a $20 cab ride. For practical purposes, I was marooned there for two days.
       Baltimore is dead at its center. Camden Yards may be a nice ballpark, but city planners have failed utterly, so far, to connect it meaningfully with any other urban fabric. The nearby convention center features immense blank masonry walls that make the adjoining streets absolutely without interest for a casual visitor. The residential neighborhoods are notorious slums and I understand that the city shows some of the highest per-capita drug use in the nation. This is due largely to the fact that the middle class and even the rich have abandoned the city in order to live in a cartoon version of the countryside, i.e., the suburbs.

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