Last week I wrote about how owning a car can be the most efficient mobility solution for an individual.
In that article, I argued that because of this fact, cities that want to reduce traffic caused by cars should try to change the equation for individuals, so that other options like walking or public transportation appear more efficient than driving.
However, there is another side to my argument: While a car is usually the most efficient transportation solution for an individual, it may also be the most efficient solution for society. This is because car owners take care of most of their own needs – they buy the car, they maintain it, they drive it. Society only has to provide the road. What are the consequences of this observation?
An Efficient Solution
This means that in a society where most people can afford a car, and where cities are designed to accommodate all the resulting traffic, focusing on cars can be a very good solution. As the Economist points out in an article this week (link), America has managed the feat of having one of the highest overall traffic speeds in the developed world, despite the fact that each American household owns about two cars. This is also true for large cities, with the exception of New York.
This accessibility by car makes it possible for more people to live in the suburbs, where they are less affected by the negative effects of traffic, such as noise and pollution.
And for those who can’t afford or drive a car, bus networks are a fairly efficient solution, since they can share the roads with cars and thus don’t need extra infrastructure.
The example of America shows that there is an alternative to the arguments I presented last week.
Or Is It?
On the other hand, there are some obvious drawbacks to this approach that the Economist article leaves out. One obvious problem is that you need a lot of space for all those roads – the US is in an exceptional situation: A big country with a lot of space, with cities that started growing about the same time the automobile became fashionable.
Another point is that if a society is going to embrace the automotive lifestyle, it has to make sure that everyone can participate. This means that fuel must be cheap – and as we can see, making oil cheap to the population has been a major driver of many geopolitical decisions made by the US. The cost of this is often borne by the people in the countries that produce the oil.
Then there is the question of how urban centers develop. In my opinion, the centers of most US cities are rather boring. There are lots of offices in skyscrapers, but few opportunities for shopping or going out, as people drive to malls and other entertainment venues after work. In a way, this kills the incentive to go downtown in the first place, as you miss all the people, chance interactions, and surprises that you can experience walking around a European city, say. Not to mention the fact that when everything is designed for cars, pedestrians are secondary and a walk through the city is not very entertaining.
As we have seen, cars can be an efficient solution, not only for the individual, but also for society as a whole. But as always, there are still some drawbacks that should not be ignored. So where does this leave us in the car versus public transport debate?
First, we should accept that it can be a good thing for a society when people take care of their own transportation needs by owning a car.
However, making the car the only available option also comes at a high cost, as it can exclude people with lower incomes, and it also comes at a cost to city centers.
Ultimately, the optimal transportation mix depends on the population density of a given area. In low-density areas, the car is clearly the most efficient solution, both for the owner and for society, as providing a comprehensive public transport network is quite expensive and travel times will still be much longer. Bus-on-demand services, such as the one introduced in the Ingolstadt region (see my article), have the potential to improve this equation for people who don’t own cars.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have high-density cities like London or Shanghai. Here, we are clearly at a point where the private car is no longer the optimal solution, so authorities need to limit the influx of vehicles into city centers. In such crowded cities, the private car is no longer optimal for society because there is simply not enough space to accommodate all the cars and it cannot be made available – while on the other hand the individual may still perceive the car as the best solution. Even if you are stuck in a traffic jam, you are stuck in your own car, not in a crowded subway. This is where redesigning cities to make people rethink whether their car is really the best solution for them is most important, as I wrote last week.
And, of course, there are all kinds of situations in between, in small and medium-sized cities or on the outskirts of large metropolises.
In the end, we should recognize that there is no right or wrong solution to traffic problems. We should not condemn the car, as many political movements do, but neither should we worship it, as others do. Ultimately, as a society, we should discuss how we want to shape each city: Many places in the 20th century chose to emphasize the car – especially America, but also many German cities after the destruction of World War II. Or should we ban cars altogether, as in the planned city “The Line” currently being built in the deserts of Saudi Arabia?
The basic question for us is: Should our cities be more individualistic, or should they be more inclusive? In the end, it cannot be an either/or solution, as I have argued in this article, but rather a spectrum. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to decide where on that spectrum we want to live.