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The Kind of Problem an Automobile Is
Alex Steffen, 21 Jan 05

The other day I was talking with a friend about the ecological problems caused by the car, and the phrase popped out of my mouth, "The solution to the problem of the auto won't be found under its hood."

By which I meant, that while we spend a lot of time keeping track of green car advances, and while these are important, the real answer to the toxic waste, health problems and climate change caused by cars is not about the cars themselves, it's about the kind of cities we build. It's about smart growth.

No sooner did I get home than Jenny sent me the excellent Principles of Smart Growth, which along with providing some good advice like Create Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices, Create Walkable Neighborhoods, Mix Land Uses and Direct Development Towards Existing Communities, also encourages us to Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices:

"[C]ommunities are beginning to implement new approaches to transportation planning, such as better coordinating land use and transportation; increasing the availability of high quality transit service; creating redundancy, resiliency and connectivity within their road networks; and ensuring connectivity between pedestrian, bike, transit, and road facilities. In short, they are coupling a multi-modal approach to transportation with supportive development patterns, to create a variety of transportation options."

Now, these aren't the only options available (for instance, we might add Substitute Connection for Motion), nor do I see much chance of the car disappearing any time soon, so we should make our cars as green as possible (for more on that, come back Sundays). But still, we'd do well to listen to the smart growers: their vision of a bright green future is a lot clearer than the auto industry's.

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Smart growth is a critical concept that deserves more exposure. There are some city planners in the U.S. who are starting to get it. I am fortunate enough to live in Ashland, Oregon, where long-term city planning takes walking and cycling into account as vital to the health of the city. We are seeing more sidewalks and bike lanes, as well as dropping speed limits and other "traffic calming" strategies that make the city more safe and pleasant for those who get around without a car. It is also a relatively compact community and recent zoning priorities have stressed mixed-use developments, which allow people to live closer to where they work, shop and play.

Unfortunately, Oregon's innovative land use policies have been gravely threatened by the passing of a voter initiative that requires government to compensate land-owners for loss of property value caused by zoning restrictions. It's too early to tell whether this will prove to be a small road block or a sprawl-promoting catastrophe, but it's a real concern to those of us who value the relatively anti-sprawl emphasis of the state's land use laws.

Nonetheless, smart growth is a concept that can be promoted by rolling up one's sleeves and getting into the often tedious process of local planning decisions. Traditionally local planning commissions and the like have been the territory of real estate developers, who know where their bread and butter come from, but it doesn't have to be that way. Greater green citizen involvement at the level of grassroots urban planning can have an enormous impact.

Posted by: John Baxter on 22 Jan 05

As much as I love smart growth as a model, I think it's useful to apply the same conceptual metric here that we do for other topics at WorldChanging -- "yes, and...". Smart growth isn't *the* answer to the problems caused by cars, it's part of the spectrum of answers which can be applied in appropriate situations. Smart growth models are terrific for dense, single-core + ring cities; they're important but have less of a real-world impact on multicephalous, decentralized cities (Los Angeles being the paradigmatic example). Focusing on sustainable transit options has more tangible results in that context. In other situations, the best emphasis may be on distributing employment and the use of telecommuting.

I'm not saying that there are situations where smart growth should be ignored, but that there are situations where it's not *the* answer.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 22 Jan 05

Principles of smart growth sounds like _A Pattern Language_, or a pattern language.

There's a NYTimes article on 1/22/05 about a Dutch experiment with removing road signs to improve traffic safety that may have tangential relation. No patterns to the language is a pattern language?

Posted by: gmoke on 22 Jan 05

Traffic death is the single largest killer of people under 30 in the US. Most Americans don't know that. In addition most Americans are so indoctrinated by media "morality" that in the rare event they do hear that statistic they assume that most of the fatalities are caused by drunk drivers - but that is not the case.
The US burns more than 380 million gallons of gasoline a day. Cutting that in half would mean burning 190 million gallons of gasoline daily. Throw in the carnage in Iraq and other oil-driven military aggressions and you have a textbook definition of evil. As opposed to a "mistake" which can be re-engineered into a more benign form.

Posted by: Ajax Bucky on 23 Jan 05

Um if iraq had been just about oil we would have sided with iraq the first time as back then saddam realy realy liked us and was willing to sell us all the oil we wanted fairly cheap too!

But we didnt.

Posted by: wintermane on 23 Jan 05

I didn't say Iraq was just about oil, I said the military aggression there was oil-driven. In the context of oil/auto good/bad it stands alone, but as an analysis of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq it's incomplete - because it leaves out Israel and the neo-con coup in Washington, for one thing.
Still, oil has a large part in what's happening in global politics right now, and most of it's nasty at best, and at its worst, as in Iraq, it's bloody awful.

Posted by: ajax bucky on 23 Jan 05



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