TTAC’s forays into areas like law, politics and economics are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they do matter. The dry, dense topics like regulation and financial topics have real implications for car enthusiasts, not to mention society as a whole. One subset of that is urban planning, a discipline which can have an enormous impact on our favorite hobby.
Witness the remarks made at the Energy Tomorrow Conference. Sponsored by the New York Times, the theme of this gather is “Building Sustainable Cities”. The IEEE Spectrum quotes Lerner as stating that in the future, the private automobile will become a socially unacceptable vice
Jaime Lerner, a former mayor of Brazil’s Curtiba, known for the work he did there introducing an integrated mass transportation system that has been copied the world over, expressed the belief that cars some day soon will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today. “The car is going to be the cigarette of the future,” Lerner said.
For Lerner, who is best known for pioneering innovative public transportation programs in Brazil, the private automobile is an issue of social justice itself. It is not just a matter of carbon emissions or energy conservation, but the automobile’s mere existence offends him. His sentiments were echoed by Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who said that
”If we are all equal before the law, a bus carrying 100 people should be entitled to 100 times as much road space as a private car.”
If you think that these are just the senile ravings of aging Latin populist politicians, then you might be a bit surprised to find that these kinds of opinions will wind up on your doorstep sooner rather than later. To these types, the private automobile represents a mobility solution based on top-down hierarchical structures (as my least favorite sociology professor would say) that empowers the individual. They would like to see it replaced with collective forms of mobility, like car sharing, public transportation and cycling. I got my first taste of it a number of years ago when a prominent local politician hit a cyclist, resulting in his death.
It didn’t matter that the cyclist was found to be intoxicated and the aggressor in the situation, while the motorist was later absolved of any wrongdoing. The mere fact that he was a wealthy white male driving a Saab convertible while the other party was an Indigenous Canadian of a lower socioeconomic background with a history of mental illness and substance abuse provided the perfect catalyst for these sorts of theories to be floated among the more radical newspapers in my town.
As a resident of a dense, urban neighborhood, it would be disingenuous of me to dismiss cycling, public transit and even walking as real alternatives to our mobility needs. Practicality is another matter. On a balmy 70 degree day like today, walking or biking to the grocery store to buy a carton of eggs is not a big deal. When the forecast calls for freezing rain, getting a whole load of groceries on foot is unpleasant, to say the least. And not all public transit systems are created equally either, as one of our writers discussed last year.
Congestion is a major issue in urban centers, and something will have to be done about it. Cities are experimenting with congestion charges, road tolls and expanded public transit, but nobody has a definitive solution. I wish I knew what the answer was, and if I did, I would be racking up appearance fees rather than writing at TTAC. But heavy-handed, top down solutions are not the answer. The next generation of urban planners are being educated in universities by liberal arts faculty members hold views that are largely not representative of the opinions and needs of the general public. Combine that with a growing apathy for the automobile among young people and you create a situation where anti-car sentiment is easily bred. Look no further than the move to ban EV charging stations from urban areas as a perfect example of their utter refusal to meet reality on reality’s terms.
Even as gas prices rise higher and higher and the cost of new cars increase, people still opt for their own private transportation in record numbers. For some it is a matter of convenience, while for others who must commute from the suburbs, it is one of necessity. While top-down directives for public transportation may fly in parts of the globe where no previous infrastructure existed and cars remain unaffordable, I can only imagine that it would be poorly received in countries which emphasize individual choice and the free market as pillars of society. But still, don’t be surprised if this line of thought becomes part of the discourse at some point in the near future.