Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Car: Necessary or Avoidable Evil?

When most Americans think of owning their own car, they think of freedom - driving on the open road, windows down, wind blowing through their hair and radio playing. However, when I think of owning my own car, the notion evokes quite opposite feelings. Images of stop-and-go traffic, possible accidents, flat tires, pollution, and annual smog checks crowd my mind, and I wonder which marketing genius convinced America that driving is liberating. The culprit responsible for over 37,000 American deaths in 2008 and—in some car-intensive areas in the United States—up to 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, is a force to be reckoned with, not one to be desired.

Of course, there are many instances where driving is much more convenient than taking public transportation, riding a bike, or walking. However, this inconvenience more often than not arises from the auto-centered planning of residential areas, and not an inherent inconvenience associated with alternative modes of transportation. Most suburbs and cities are designed with cars in mind. A school is located miles away from its students’ neighborhoods, a grocery store’s distance from a typical home is far from walking distance, and all clothing stores are grouped together in a single mall, stationed on the side of a highway. Furthermore, there is frequently little or no public transportation to these locations. With these infrastructures in place, it is not surprising that driving is usually considered the only practical mode of transportation. But our lives do not have to be this way. We do not have to be slaves to our automotive vehicles, and all the harmful accidents and pollution that come with them. With more careful city planning, it could become more convenient to walk, bike ride, or take public transportation than to drive.

A community in Vauban, Germany is a perfect example of a car-free and convenient community. According to the New York Times, in Vauban (population 5,500), 70 percent of families do not own cars. Because the town was originally planned as a Nazi army base, the roads are narrow and unaccommodating toward cars, but perfect for travel by foot or by bicycle. Stores are dispersed within the residential community, at a walking distance from homes.

The Times article also reports that soon, our own nearby city of Oakland may adopt the German town’s ways. The Hayward Area Planning Association is developing a community called Quarry Village on the outskirts of Oakland, “accessible without a car to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the California State University’s campus in Hayward.” The project, however, has run into a couple of obstacles: “mortgage lenders worry about resale value of half-million-dollar homes that have no place for cars, and most zoning laws still require two parking spaces per residential unit.” I firmly believe, however, that Quarry Village is an excellent step toward a safer and more eco-friendly future.  Planning green is just as important as building green.

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