Car Culture and Families

Below the fold is a photograph Matt Yglesias took in Freiberg, Germany:

Car Culture and Families

Yglesias writes:

Meanwhile, as everyone knows dense, walkable areas may work in Europe where nobody has children but it could never fly in the U.S. where people need to tote the kids around. Or maybe it’s that there’s no way to build human-scale walkable communities without blotting out the sun with Manhattan-style skyscrapers.

It’s very much a chicken-and-egg thing though isn’t it?  I would have no difficulty transporting my daughter around via foot and cycle in a world built for walkers and cyclists.  In a world built for cars and minivans it’s much more difficult.  It’s also hard to break habits – and we’ve become accustomed to driving.

I live in a pretty walkable area, but to do the groceries I can either choose between the much more expensive nearby grocery store which I could walk to and from in probably about an hour (or by bike in about half that time) or I could take a much longer trip on foot to one of the grocery stores I like to shop at.  Of course the distance would eat up a ton of my spare time if I were to walk.   Biking is an option, but the route to the next-nearest grocery store is a little heavy on traffic and while I don’t worry about that with just me, I do find it a bit unsettling with my daughter in the bike trailer.  And here’s where you get the family argument.  Kids really do make traversing our streets outside of the steel confines of a vehicle much more difficult.  This isn’t because it would be some terrible struggle to walk to a nearby grocery store – it’s that there are no nearby grocery stores.

So we drive to get groceries.

And we drive when we need to go to Target or Home Depot.  Same problems with these places, as well as the movie theater.  They’re far away and there’s lots of traffic.  To get to my parents’ house we drive, because it’s easily a 45 minute bike-ride – which we’ve done before, but which generally takes up too much time.  It’s a half hour drive to my wife’s parent’s house so biking is out of the question.

We do walk downtown since we live downtown (not in Suburbia), and we go on lots of walks on the urban trails and the downtown streets for fun or to go out.  But other than bars and restaurants there isn’t much to walk to that we actually need.  And like I said, we live in a pretty walkable area.  It’s just that none of the stores where we buy our food or basic supplies at are located downtown, and nobody wants them to either.

The above photo is a great shot and illustrates very clearly the point Yglesias is making.  I do believe if we lived in areas that were more walkable, that provided us with choices for our basic necessities within walking distance, that we would walk whether or not our kids had to walk with us.  Since we don’t typically live in those areas, we generally drive.  The question becomes, what will nudge us away from the car culture and toward something better?

And I have no doubt that a walking culture would be better than a car culture (unless you happen to be a United Auto Workers Union member).  It would create a healthier, more community-0riented culture.  This would be good for our rising health costs and for our decaying family values.  It would be good for kids who spend too much time inside.  But other than very high gas prices and no cheap alternative in natural gas or electric cars, I don’t see much of a shift coming.  We can build these neighborhoods with density in mind, and it’s a good idea which I support – but I bet many of these dense urban areas will be prohibitively expensive for the average American at least for now.

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29 thoughts on “Car Culture and Families

    • To elaborate a bit – I’m well aware that Matt is being sarcastic. I’m only pointing out that while many European nations have dense urban areas sort of built-in, we do not. It’s not simply a matter of walking to the store with your kids when that store is a good distance away with no good non-car options available. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here – I agree with Matt’s larger point that it’s not simply about having to tote around kids. It’s a structural problem.

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      • My grandmother lives in Chelsea, Michigan. This is the kind of place that seems exactly like what you’re talking about. You can walk to the high school, you can walk to the VFW, you can walk to the bowling alley, you can walk to Polly’s (supermarket). Got a bike? Cut travel times in half! All from my Grangran’s house (which isn’t particularly centrally located).

        If I lived in Chelsea as a youngish person, I would do everything (EVERYTHING) in my power to move out of there. Maybe I’d move back when in my 50’s. Nice quiet town, there.

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      • I notice you don’t mention the availability and accessibility (economically speaking” of public transit. In the three cities that I’ve lived, one could fairly effectively mitigate non-walkable distances through the use of fairly well maintained public transit (LRT in particular via-a-vis two of those cities).

        I’m also inclined to suggest that there is a personal choice/lifestyle component to this discussion.

        I live in a relatively large city (speaking to JB’s point) and I walk 90-95% of the places I go. My wife and I made a decision to forego a house with a yard that would have required much more in the way of vehicle use for a fairly large condo just outside of downtown. We adopted a dog after moving into that condo and it meant that we had to allot a greater proportion of our time to walking the dog, rather than just chucking him into a backyard. When we have kid(s), we’ll have to allot further time to taking them to nearby parks and green spaces so that they can play outdoors.

        That’s a choice we’ve made and we stick by it.

        I get the idea that some places are just “too far away” and, for certain, we continue to use our car for the odd errand, but I don’t necessarily see the time spent traveling via other modes with one’s family (be it canine or human) as lost time. Coordinated properly, that time can be far more interactive time than corresponding time spent in a vehicle. This is, I think, also very much at play when one looks at commuting to work (ie. “I live in the suburbs because it’s good for my family, but I spend two hours every day commuting to and from work”.)

        I mean, you’re right, many of the challenges in this regard are structural, but there is a component of person choice around the kinds of lives that we live that I think we do well not to ignore, nor dismiss that kind of power those choices have both in working around and creating social and political impetus for addressing structural challenges.

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        • Okay but –

          We also live in an apartment on the fringes of our downtown area. And this is precisely the problem when it comes to walking to places that actually sell stuff we need. Yes, I can walk to many places – mostly bars, art galleries, and restaurants. We don’t have a yard so we take our daughter to the park that’s a block away, or on walks down the innumerable urban trails that lead to other parks or baseball fields, or the duck pond. I mean, tons and tons of walking and cycling potential.

          But the things we need are at grocery stores or at department stores or electronics stores and all those places are significantly further away and you have to traverse areas of heavy, heavy traffic. Which, again, is fine if it’s just me, but once you have kids getting to these places is more dangerous, more time-consuming, etc. If we had a grocery store a few blocks away we’d walk, but when it’s a couple miles and there’s a lot of cars and busy intersections, you have to bike – and with a 2 year old, that means you have them in a bike trailer and that just adds a ton of safety concerns to the trip. It gets worse when they’re six or seven and biking.

          That’s why I say it’s structural. If the route to the grocery stores and other shopping destinations was safer, without having to share so much space with cars, we could bike. As it stands, we’d have to walk to feel comfortable, and that would eat up in walk-time alone, well over two hours. That’s fine from time to time – but what if you have more than one place to go? What if you have a lot of things to get?

          The reason Europe is successful (or New York) is that there are a bunch of stores within reasonable distances – corner markets, etc. That’s great if you have it, but if you don’t….

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          • My beloved wife and I do the one-car thing. We specifically bought a house downtown so that she could walk to and from work (or that was close enough to allow me to drop her off at work hassle-free if it were raining or winter or whatever) … and when the economy changed and she needed to get a new job, she specifically got one that she could walk to (she thought her old job was her dream job, she has since learned that, no, her *NEW* job is her dream job)… we crunched some numbers and found out that getting a new (or new-to-us) car would cost X dollars, and, on top of that, Y dollars per week for gas and Z dollars per month for insurance (and that’s not even talking about oil changes or flushing the power steering or whathaveyou)… she’d need to get a job that paid an additional 4 bucks per hour to break even for the car ownership thing (and that’s without the whole intangible “I like my job that I walk to… would I necessarily like the job that would pay more that I would have to drive to? issues (along with how much more a meh job would have to pay to balance that)).

            But then I scroll up and re-read that and my “First World Problems” klaxons go off in my head.

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          • And that begs the question ED, why aren’t there bigger (i.e. cheaper) grocery chains nearby? If you’re city is like mine it’s because the retailers haven’t decided the area is worth the investment. Crime, income of potential customers, etc. Those all affect the decision for large chains to locate into dense urban areas.

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  1. It’s a trade-off. It’s important to remember that sprawl has been going on for thousands of years. Poor people move farther out to access cheaper land which = more opportunities. My family could afford a moderately-sized condo or a major fixer-upper in Louisville’s city core verses our spacious ranch, yard, etc in the suburbs. If we wanted similar digs in the city proper we would pay twice what we do in the suburbs. You touch on that in your response Scott. For most people they are willing to trade car time for elbow room in the suburbs or even further out.

    I don’t know that we’re ever going to see a large shift back to cities, however there are a lot of attempts to create small, walkable communities within the suburbs. The problem is linking them to other communities or retail. Typically when suburbs develop big, fast moving roads are put in to accomodate rapid transit over the longer distances. These act as major barriers. When I was a kid we could walk or bike to all of our friends’ houses and even the most busy streets were only 2 lanes and had plenty of sidewalks. Now the major roads through the suburbs are 4-6 lanes and many don’t even have sidewalks because it seems kind of pointless.

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  2. We can’t discount the impact of driving subsidies relative to transit and biking subsidies. There’s little agreement on carbon costs, but a cursory glance at various sites puts the cost of a car’s CO2 emissions at ~$700 per year. If you credited transit users for CO2 saved, transit passes would be free in most cities. If you credited cyclists with that, you could have a usable bike lane network in every city. It’s easy to say driving is more practical when the government makes sure that it is.

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    • Here’s the question I always ask and no one ever answers: Let’s say I bike to work in July. I don’t know about you guys but even if it’s just a few miles, by the time I get there I’m going to be a smelly, sweaty mess. Then what? I have meetings with customers all the time. We have no showers in my office. It’s those little practical matters that also have to be addressed.

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      • Well, there are a couple of people who bike into my office and we do not have showers. They use the washrooms to do a fresh up (rinse face, apply deodorant, towel off, fix hair) and then they change from their biking clothes to their work clothes. I’ll even do the same when I’m walking in to the office and it’s particularly hot (or cold) and I always wear different shoes walking than I do in the office.

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          • I worked for a company based out of Denmark about 10 years ago. They had a shower bacause a lot of the guys liked to run on their lunch hours. Unfortunately most American companies don’t think that way. That’s why I workout at the gym in the morning and shower there.

            Since then it’s become apparent to me that it’s just not practical for most people in my city. We actually had an employee killed biking to work last year (biking not because he was looking for health benefits, but because he had lost his license due to a DUI). There are zero sidewalks around my office and a major 6-lane road. There’s still a
            Plus my commute is 35 miles one-way.

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            • Biking is pretty miserable, I admit. I sweat a lot when I exercise, so I always need a shower when I get to work – even after a 2-mile ride. But it’s faster than taking the shuttle bus from the train station, so I feel a little better.

              Google has shown that employees (at least) abandon their cars when you give them good public transit – air-conditioned buses, convenient routes, frequent service, and wi-fi…

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    • Mark – yes, something like that strikes me as inevitable in one form or another. Likely enough it will simply become more expensive to drive, and then mass transit/biking will become less costly in comparison.

      Mike – My work has showers, so that’s not an issue for me. But I rarely use them anyways when I bike. Typically a freshen-up like Scott described is enough. It’s the winter months – the feet of snow – that make year-round biking impossible for me.

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  3. Many, many interesting points come up here, I want to respond to a few. I find it interesting that several posters here imply that it’s cheaper to live outside of the city than in it. Maybe in the biggest metropolitan areas, but not in medium-sized cities. I moved to Minneapolis many years ago (I don’t live there now), and bought a house close enough to where I worked so that I could commute by bike every day. By so doing, I also ensured I was close to grocery stores. In contrast, most of my colleagues found houses ten, fifteen miles outside the downtown area. These suburban homes cost more, not less, than equivalently-sized homes within city limits. And—another point that seems to come up in these posts—I had a yard, and just as much greenery on the street as my suburban friends. Actually more, because a lot of these suburbs were quite new, and all they had in the way of trees were newly-planted saplings.

    I biked to work every day (even in the winter, with temperatures frequently below zero). It gets very hot and humid in MN in the summer, but I think the sweat problem is overdone. Most people begin work in the early morning, when it’s relatively cool, and if you bike at a moderate pace, you don’t over heat very quickly. Of course if you turn it into a training ride, you’re going to sweat, but if you go easy, you sweat less than you would walking.

    I live in the Bay Area now, and home (and rental) prices are generally more in the city (San Francisco) than outside of it. Yet many outlying areas are small towns or cities in themselves, where it’s quite possible to be close to stores. And there is public transit, particularly BART, the light rail system.

    I also want to point out that the “kids excuse” only goes so far. Given that childhood doesn’t last all that long, most of us spend the great majority of our lives without small children. This is particularly true in our aging population. So a great many people, whatever their living situation, do not have to worry about bringing kids along.

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  4. I think what all the comments point out is that it really just depends on the city. Louisville is extremely car-centered. To live here without a car you would have to confine your living to a relatively small area and pray you could find a job pretty close. Other cities are much more do-able. I guess I still can’t help but wonder if the no-car appeal is supposed to be about the ‘green’ or is it some kind of attempt at slowing down, or both? Frankly I see and enjoy a lot more of my city because I have a car, not in spite of it.

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  5. “It’s just that none of the stores where buy our food or basic supplies at live downtown, and nobody wants them to either.”

    Why wouldn’t you want them to? I don’t get it.

    P.S. Why the gratuitous swipe at auto unions? They are no more responsible for our car culture than are car company shareholders or executives.

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  6. Okay I re-read this post and it is totally apparent that I was under the influence of a high fever when I wrote it. That sentence Nancy Irving quotes – holy cow. Terrible. And I don’t live a half hour from my wife’s house. I life a half hour from my wife’s parent’s house. Both fixed now, but man oh man. Just embarrassing.

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  7. I’ve just relocated to Vancouver full time. It looks like an architects model and functions well for where we are. We take a boat across a small inlet to a public market. We have a beach, a number of manicured urban parks within walking distance, my partner walks to work, and there’s a new downtown Costco within striking distance of the little boats or a short bike ride. Still for all of its usability I miss the distinct neighborhoods of Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco that add a quality of life that is much more than meeting one’s structural needs.

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