Since reading Gregory Shill’s writing about how heavily subsidized cars are in the United States, I’ve been on the lookout for different frameworks for thinking about America’s relationship to cars. I recently ran across a pair of interesting things about cars & housing. First, a refresher on what Shill had to say about how our nation’s laws have made cars all but mandatory:
Let’s begin at the state and local level. A key player in the story of automobile supremacy is single-family-only zoning, a shadow segregation regime that is now justifiably on the defensive for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country. Through these and other land-use restrictions — laws that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards — zoning rules scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot. The resulting densities are also too low to sustain high-frequency public transit.
Aaron Bady shared a few meaty pages from Nathanael Lauster’s The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City about houses being urban parasites and their symbiotic relationship with cars. Here’s an excerpt (italics mine):
Returning to the metaphor provided by the pine beetle and blue stain fungus, one parasite often works with another. In similar form, houses cultivate cars. Integrated through planning, they displace vastly more habitat than either could manage alone. Because houses consume space and tend to surround themselves with other houses, which also consume space, people often cannot walk to where they need to go. Because all that space results in a relatively low population density, it is also not very efficient to run public transit lines to areas with many houses. Low-density areas tend to end up with very few riders for what are often very expensive systems to maintain. In short, public transit loves density. The relationship between urban density and public transit use is exceptionally strong, with some suggestion of a cutoff — perhaps around twelve persons per acre (or about three thousand per square kilometer) — below which ridership drops off and expense per user makes transit impractical. By contrast, cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back.
Houses cultivate cars. Cars love the sprawl associated with houses and houses love cars back. Lauster continues with the nature metaphor:
Altogether, house habitat displaces alternatives. The establishment of a Great House Reserve has protected house habitat even as it continues to expand in size. Agricultural and wild lands suffer in an immediate sense, as do the more urban habitats prevented from expanding beyond a constrained Urban Core. The house allies itself with the car at the same time as both contribute to global warming, potentially risking the displacement of everyone and everything. The house habitat excludes the poor. But even for those who can afford to live there, the Great House Reserve is a troublesome place to live. By its nature it leads to disengagement, contributes to inequality, and encourages a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle.
And so on:
Houses are not just unaffordable for most people; they’re ultimately unaffordable for cities too. The fiscal situation of cities varies from place to place, but overall, houses tend to create a drain on municipal coffers. They are often taxed at lower rates than other properties, reflecting zoning restrictions on what could be built on single-family lots and how they can be used. But houses are more expensive to service on a per-unit basis, both in terms of the basic utilities infrastructure and, as previously noted, in terms of transit and transportation infrastructure. This could mean that my modestly wealthy neighbors and I, living in low-rises and town houses, end up supporting the very wealthy house owner nearby by paying more property tax relative to the amount of urban land and services we receive. The disparity becomes more notable as one crosses municipal boundaries into nearby house-dominated suburbs, where residents frequently enjoy the services (e.g., roads, commerce, employment opportunities) provided by the city without paying into the municipal tax base at all.
Josh Vredevoogd’s No Parking Here is about the poor parking policy in LA and leads with the statement: “Let’s build houses for people, not cars.”
For commercial buildings, it’s common to see a parking space required for every 100-200 sq ft. Meaning that parking is built at an almost 2:1 ratio to actual retail space, marginalizing the place that actually creates value and prioritizing temporary car storage. This inefficiency is carried into rent, groceries, meals, and overall raises the floor for cost of living.
Per City of LA code, a set of storefronts like above are illegal to build, instead they are required to be surrounded with empty pavement at the cost of walkability and comfort.
This forces people into driving. Parking requirements increase the density of cars but reduce the density of people. It also puts pressure on businesses by taking up useful real estate and replacing it with car storage.
Certainly a lot of food for thought here. See also Cars! What’s the Matter with Cars Today? and on a lighter note, What On Earth!, Kal Pindal’s Oscar-nominated short film about Martians visiting Earth and their observations about the dominant form of life here, the automobile.