Life Without Cars: 2013 Edition
December 8, 2013
Every year about this time, we pause and take a little time to imagine what life could be like without cars.
December 27, 2012: Life Without Cars: 2012 Edition
December 25, 2011: Life Without Cars: 2011 Edition
December 19, 2010: Life Without Cars: 2010 Edition
December 13, 2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
December 21, 2008: Life Without Cars
For five thousand years of human urban civilization, people didn’t have cars. Their cities reflected this: they were made for walking, mostly, and some wagon traffic. Of course, we don’t need to use oxcarts today. We can move cargo with motorized trucks. But, we can still design our cities to walk around in, rather than to drive around in, as we have in Suburban Hell for roughly a century.
In fact, many hundreds of millions of people are already living like this today. I like to use the example of Japanese cities, notably Tokyo. First, I am familiar with it, having lived there for over five years. But also, it is a modern and contemporary city, not some antique French village supported by tourism. Also, Japan certainly manufactures a lot of cars. They just don’t use them, in most urban environments. Walking is supplemented by trains and subways.
Many Japanese use bicycles, but most do not. These are cities optimized for walking, not bicycling. As it turns out, a city optimized for walking is also pretty good for biking. But, a city optimized for biking might not at all be good for walking. The walking+trains combo is the winner here — and in most other major metropolises worldwide, including New York, Paris, London, Hong Kong et cetera.
Many people who live in places like London, Paris, Barcelona, Mexico City, Shanghai, Frankfurt, and elsewhere do not own automobiles. They often don’t own bicycles, or at least, don’t use them regularly for daily transportation. They walk and ride trains, especially subways.
The basic form we are looking at here is the form of virtually all human cities worldwide, in Europe, Asia and the Americas, until about 1780. Around that time, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, a new pattern of City Design began to emerge, which I call 19th Century Hypertrophism. This was particularly virulent in the United States, because the U.S. was building all of its cities from scratch in those days.
I call this form the Traditional City. It has certain basic attributes, whether you are looking at the ruins of ancient Rome, Venice, or modern Osaka. They are:
Really Narrow Streets. Or, you could call them “pedestrian streets.” These are streets about 8-25 feet wide, from building to building. Typically there are no sidewalks, or only a vestigal sidewalk. The entire street width is shared by walkers and often with motorized vehicles, which must travel quite slowly. Typically, there is an “arterial street” nearby, with a central roadway for wheeled vehicles. However, most of the streets are Really Narrow pedestrian streets.
Buildings side-by-side. Buildings do not have side or front setbacks, although they can often have yards in the back, or courtyards on the sides or center. Building height is typically no more than about six stories, the limit of practical height without steel frame construction and elevators.
The result of this simple combination of ingredients is that the street area becomes a beautiful place for people. This is completely different than the common experience today, in the 19th Century Hypertrophic City (for example, Queens or Chicago), the 20th Century Hypertrophic City (Dubai or the Las Vegas strip), or Suburban Hell (where you are living now). In all of those cases, the area outside the house is bleak, barren, and basically unpleasant. This leads people to attempt to compensate for this failure by having their own pleasant environment surrounding their house — their suburban yard. Of course, once you do this, you are locked into a cycle of automobile dependency. The city becomes overwhelmed by roadways, parking lots, and useless “green space” to make all the pavement a little more tolerable. The overall result is that the city becomes overwhelmingly antagonistic to humans.
You are no doubt familiar with this catastrophe. Now it is time to understand the solution. Sit back and watch the videos.
This is the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. It is a little like Times Square in New York City, although much bigger, much more interesting, and much more fun. This video also enters Kabukicho, which is an “adult entertainment” district.
What do you see here? Notice the Really Narrow Streets, typically 12-25 feet wide. No sidewalks. People walking right down the middle of the street. Automobiles aren’t banned from these streets, and indeed all the shops you see here get deliveries and so forth from motorized vehicles. Taxis make dropoffs. But, for the most part, cars don’t go there because it is hard to drive! They stick to the nearby “arterial” steets (you will see them sometimes in the videos) unless they have a destination on a Really Narrow street.
This is the Shibuya district of Tokyo. It is about three miles south of Shinjuku. Shibuya is a center for younger people, particularly teenagers up to about age 25.
What do you see? Again the Really Narrow Streets, no cars, and also not many bikes either. Most everyone here arrived by subway.
This is the Akihabara district of Tokyo. It is about five miles east of Shibuya. The video starts on a large “arterial” street, actually more like Grand Boulevard size. You can have streets of this size, but not too many. I generally suggest about 3% Grand Boulevards, 17% Arterials, and 80% Really Narrow Streets, by street length. Akihabara is known as “electronics town,” and is also a center for “otaku” culture. It is basically a 365-days-a-year comic book convention.
This is the Harajuku district of Tokyo. It lies between Shinjuku and Shibuya. Harajuku is well known worldwide as a center for extreme Japanese fashion.
Now, we will leave Tokyo and go to another well-known example of Traditional City fabulousness, Venice.
Venice is so beautiful, it is almost painful. That’s why I like to focus on Tokyo. It is not so classy, and thus seems much more attainable than Venice. Actually, the buildings in Tokyo are very simple, mostly plain concrete boxes, often with some lights. Most buildings in Venice are not complicated either, just plain boxes with a grid of windows.
The important thing is to notice that the basic formula in Tokyo and Venice is the same. Really Narrow Streets and buildings side-by-side with no setbacks. This emerged independently in both places, and indeed in all places worldwide.
Here’s a walk in a village in China:
Wow, it’s the same as Venice and Tokyo! Is this because Italians, Japanese and Chinese had some international conference and agreed to do this? No, it is because this is the proper way to make cities.
Here’s a look at the streets of Cairo, Egypt
My goodness, it’s exactly the same!
Here’s a walk in Mumbai, India:
It’s the same. Again.
Although this is a poor part of Mumbai, even by Indian standards, it is quite pleasant in its way, don’t you think? Maybe nicer than your Suburban Hell shithole?
Here’s a walk in Barcelona, Spain:
Wow, it’s the same there too.
Now let’s go to Santorini, Greece. Like Venice, this place is so beautiful it has become a major worldwide travel destination. But why is it so desirable, that everybody goes there, while nobody spends their vacation in your Suburban Hell nightmare? Is it because it is in the Traditional City form?
Let’s hop over the Atlantic to Mexico City. New continent. Same Traditional City design.
Now, finally, let’s return to near where we started. Kyoto, Japan.
Doesn’t that all seem comfortable and familiar? You already know how to do this. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people are already living this way. Millions more pay lots of money to spend a week there on their vacations. Maybe you have too.
It’s so simple.
Really Narrow Streets
Notice how there are no cars in any of these examples. You didn’t miss them, did you? You easily became accustomed to a no-car environment, didn’t you? Actually, there might be some cars here and there. They are usually not banned completely. Certainly, there are commercial vehicles for deliveries, trash pickup and so forth. It’s not really a problem.
There it is. Life Without Cars. It already exists.
Why don’t we have this in the United States? It’s because we are extremely stupid. There is no other explanation.