The Little White Lies We’ve Told Ourselves

The first in a series–How we got here

More than a few of our friends were absolutely concerned that we were planning to live car free in Spain.

Living in the US, we had four cars between the two of us as we started making our plans, so our friend’s concerns were not without some basis.

An address that works very well with no on site parking or nearby auto access. A vacation spot and also a local neighborhood that is alive with families. ©
An ancient address in the old town of Alicante

It is hard to imagine a space without cars when you don’t experience anything like that where you live and work. We had had the experience of charming, dense, walkable communities on our vacations, in some special tourist destinations, but not in our day-to-day lives.

Car Free Street
Car Free Street

And, a vision of mobility that includes transit, walking, biking and cabs is hard to share with friends who are living in landscapes that are all about cars. This is especially true when so many US landscapes lack the basic infrastructure that could allow transit, walking or biking to be an easy or even temporary substitution for daily car trips around town. Living in these “car centric” places makes it hard to imagine doing much of anything without a car or truck.

How would going car free work for us exactly? Wouldn’t we be isolated? Would we be safe in a city without the “protection” of a private auto of some sort?

We can’t blame anyone for being concerned. We absolutely had our own moments of doubt.

In our daily travels in US cities, we pretty much expect to encounter car storage at every destination (parking), wide roads for cars and structures that accommodate cars –like drive thru restaurants on pads in the parking lots of big box retail centers located near freeway off ramps. There is comfort in this familiarity. But, this is not the landscape of our grandparents, or their grandparents.

As a nation, how did we, collectively, get to a place where mobility is entirely about cars for so many of us who are auto dependent? How did a very different image of community–like the one in the photo below–become the norm for so many of us?

Houston, Texas a city divided by this freeway. ©
A city divided. Under the Katy in Houston

However it happened, in the US, we collectively traded the dense urban landscapes that we had inhabited for millennia for a landscape based on cars that is just now a century old. Did we buy the promise of freedom that the car seemed to offer, even as the reality of auto dependent landscapes became clearer?

A scheme that never operated as advertised.

Our car centric landscapes require huge investments to do what our feet had always accomplished in traditional urban areas. If the need for the massive investments and dislocations would have been made clear from the start, we might have said no. But, instead these costs were only evident sequentially and there always seemed to be a ready solution almost at hand.

Of course the issue is always congestion and some expansion of the road network, or some technological breakthrough to address congestion is the solution.

We continue to anticipate a final solution that delivers the sort of mobility envisioned since the first decade of the 20th Century. But, the ongoing need for more investment to address emerging symptoms of cars in our urban places is ever present. Our cities have lived for over a century with these promises of a better tomorrow after one more investment.

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Somewhere West of Laramie

The promise of freedom behind the wheel is older than this advertisement for a car produced just about 100 years ago. To be clear, the promise was of more than freedom and mobility.

This ad tells us a lot about our relationship with cars and the seduction that we, collectively, continue to experience in the corner of the mobility market devoted to private autos.

Appearing in the June, 1923 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, the ad promoted the Jordan Playboy, with art by Fred Cole showing a car driven by a cloche-wearing flapper hunkered down behind the wheel in abstract fashion, racing a cowboy and the clouds.

“SOMEWHERE west of Laramie there’s a bronco-busting girl who knows what I’m talking about.”She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.”The truth is – the Playboy was built for her.”Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race.”She loves the cross of the wild and the tame.”There’s a savor of links about that car – of laughter and lilt and light – a hint of old loves – and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing – yet a graceful thing for the sweep o’ the Avenue.”Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale.”Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.” Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Edward_S._Jordan

Even today, we are told that we just need a little more investment in infrastructure, technology and engineering.

A bright future populated with electric self driving cars is the latest and current hook to keep us invested in populating our communities with cars. This is the current lie in that long list of lies that we have told ourselves, about our future with cars. Not surprisingly, and like all of the other lies about cars that we’ve repeated over the last century, this solution will require more massive investment. And, it will still not address the core problem of cars in cities–the form factor of the car itself. The reason for the congestion.

A brief history of the lies we have told ourselves:

The first lie came with the first automobiles and the promise that “every man” could have a carriage like the rich folks had that would transport the family to the country on Sundays. In a very short time, the result was massive Sunday traffic jams as families headed out in their flivver on their day off to see the countryside en mass. The phrase “Sunday Driver” was coined.

This opportunity to increase our personal travel options, “take a load off” and “have a seat” holds great appeal to this day. But, the form factor of the car is such that you have to clear streets and move buildings to create auto storage (parking) at both ends of every trip and on the streets themselves.

Our solutions have always been about solving symptoms related to congestion but we have never addressed the primary problem; the form factor of the car.

There is just no room in cities for all of the cars we would have if storage were not the real problem. The first symptom we addressed was taking the room necessary for cars from the public streets across the nation. Other takings then followed.

We Americans have the right to assemble written into our constitution and our streets are where much of that public assembly took place.

Automobile drivers arrived before any sort of signalization or standardization of operation was adopted. Streets were public places and everyone joined in the mix, traveling in every direction. These new road users joined in under those terms and they immediately presented real threats to public safety. These new and errant drivers were known as Jays. These Jays were the impetus behind efforts to ban cars entirely in some cities or to at least force installation of governors on their motors to control speed. Monuments to dead children were erected to force action to make public streets safe again.

He Jaywalked: A photo of a signed numbered serigraph by John T. McCarthy, Jr owned by the author. Photo is ©
Image of my copy of The Streetcars of Milwaukee, Serigraph by John T. McCarthy, Jr

That was when the American Automobile Association (AAA) and other groups stepped in and flipped the script to blame everyone walking in the street and label them Jaywalkers. Massive media budgets funded by a powerful new auto industry prevailed and the deaths on city streets were blamed on the victims.

For a great look at these early issues, check out Peter Norton’s interview on the topic of early autos in the city and the invention of the Jay: https://www.vox.com/2015/1/15/7551873/jaywalking-history

Over time, and even with the invention of traffic signals and with streets now reserved for cars, congestion only got worse.

There were no clean air or clean water acts prior to the 1970s and so the soot, smoke, stench, noise and hazardous chemical plumes (negative externalities) associated with industrial and commercial land uses were a real public health issue for anyone living in an urban area.

In the 1920s the US Supreme Court ruled that land use planners could create zones to move homes away from industry.

Zoning became a common element of land use planning. In creating zones, planners separated the origins and destinations of the daily trips in a community’s life into zones for industry, for commercial activities and for housing, etc. These schemes became complex with each zone further divided by level of intensity of industry or density of housing, etc. Travel between work, shopping, home and school that might have involved no more than few blocks of walking could now involve travel between zones that were miles apart.

The implication of cheap transportation in the success of zoning was never discussed in my graduate classes in urban planning and it was not a topic of conversation in any of the continuing education I participated in as an AICP.

But, for zoning to work, a way to reconnect essential uses that were now spread across zones had to be identified.

In the absence of an intentional reconnection, families would be left isolated with shopping and work now out of reach. This implied transportation reconnection is at the heart of every land use zoning scheme.

After snaking trolley lines out from city centers in all directions in the early years of zoning, cars increasingly filled the reconnection role and car dependent landscapes were born. These tended to be on the outskirts of urban places and appeared as in-fill between trolly line developments which tended to be miles long, but only blocks wide.

Cars were now a necessary element in urban planning’s “new modern” landscapes.

Integrating cars into urban places, was not nearly as exciting for thought leaders as imagining cars and rail transporting drivers to new forms of community far from the city. These became their focus. Planners and architects proposed new ways to live where the automobile provided access to idyllic rural settings free from congestion–ironic right?

Frank Loyd Wright proposed a rural development, Broadacre City, in the mid 1930s and continued to champion the concept for the rest of his life. The family auto was the only form of mobility for the families that he envisioned living on the one acre parcels he proposed.

The driver of a car has a big footprint compared to that of a walker or a strap hanger riding on the trolly, but there was never an honest discussion of just how you make room for all of those autos in an urban community.

The Regional Plan Association of New York (RPA) and the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) presented their vision at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Together with GM and others, they were promoting a suburban future based on the mobility provided by cars traveling on freeways and other grade separated structures.

The RPA/RPAA movie, The City, presents a world of rural isolation and urban dirt, blight, danger and congestion. But, all of that is proposed to be cured in the future they portray. Their film was scored by Aaron Copland and written by Louis Mumford. This was the moment for urban planners and they took center stage.

If planners had anything to say about it, our future was firmly in the suburbs.

Here is the full movie that planners created to share their vision for the future. You might want to bump the speed up in this and the other three videos, they drag by current standards.

The City, 1939, Producer-American Institute of Planners, National Archives Identifier: 89849

GM created the most buzz at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with a ride that transported participants to a future where roads were grade separated and congestion would be impossible.

Thousands lined up to see Futurama, a future modeled by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors (GM) that transported you over a massive model of his vision of life in the US in 1960. A scale model of every physical aspect of urban and rural America was below you and the scale increased as you moved along until you were deposited in a future landscape at full scale.

To New Horizons, GM 1939 World’s Fair The future starts at 8:48 in the video as we enter Norman Bel Geddes model. The most visited and talked about exhibit at the fair, the model accommodated 30,000 riders a day. This somber film gets brighter–and the new technology of 1930–Technicolor–when we enter the future
Norman Bel Geddes Designs America Hardcover – 2012 – A companion to the Exhibition in Austin, TX

The GM video slowly gets to the motorways at about the 11 minute mark and if you need speed, you can skip ahead to 14.27 in the video to see the freeway without the land use context. In either case, the model you see is the one that everyone lined up to glide over in an individual chair as speakers in the chair whisper into their ears something like what you are hearing in the narration.

Once on the ride, you started out gliding over tiny houses, farms, dams, rivers, rail roads, airports and cars on roads–freeways–that you were told were designed to never suffer the sort of congestion common on roads across the nation at that time. By the end of the adventure you were dropped off in a full size model of Bele Geddes’ vision of 1960.

In this future place you were surrounded by brutalist architecture and the latest cars GM had to offer in 1939.

The images are recognizable to anyone who has seen photos or visited new town cities like Brasilia that started new with auto-centric landscapes. Bel Geddes claim that his new road designs would eliminate traffic congestion is worth considering the next time you are stopped on a freeway or when someone touts the future of self driving or electric cars.

Ford provided a much more traditional exhibit at the Fair offering a ride on an elevated structure that resembled a freeway on ramp.

We were far from done telling ourselves lies about cars, but you get the idea. The notion that freeways were a vision that Eisenhower brought back from Germany after WWII is not based in fact.

The largest corporations and most powerful thought leaders had shown us the future. We would just need to destroy the fabric of our cities and wedge most everyone into an automobile. GM and Ford were OK with that and so were the planners.

Now, as auto affordability slips through the hands of many families dependent on cars for mobility, they are being told the future is self driving and shared mobility systems based on fleets of–you guessed it–more cars.

We are stuck with the built environment we have created since we started building cities for cars and much of it will be worthless without cheap cars. Those zones will not reconnect themselves. But, there are alternatives.

The Blue Line Minneapolis, MN The Twin Cities are re-densifying  themselves along two light rail (tram) corridors that connect St Paul, Minneapolis and Bloomington. Except for the state fairgrounds, these lines connect nearly every major destination in the area. ©
The Blue Line Minneapolis, MN

We have more to talk about, soon..

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2 Replies to “The Little White Lies We’ve Told Ourselves”

    1. Rachel, it is worse than anyone would expect.
      I got into the whole maker thing way before it was a thing. I built a house–as in with my own tool belt–that had earth shelter and other energy saving features. I built a pickup truck from available parts, so my ’55 IHC R-100 short bed had a 6 cylinder Chevy engine out of a ’55 Corvette and a four speed Saginaw transmission out of a Chevy Vega with Ford taillights and a fuse block out of a Mazda. That required the welding we talked about to get the Chevy engine mounts right. I built my own furniture and gut rehabbed three houses. Oh, and I gutted a commercial building and installed the framing before the contractor came in and finished our new HQ for a SE Asian refugee group I headed for a time. Except for the truck and one of the rehabs, that all happened during or after grad school.
      So, feet in both worlds all along…..And you? Any welding you want to mention? ha
      This is fun, but I’m thinking that this might be the wrong contact page for my site. There is more building to do–the page sent my comment back to me to moderate my own comment….arrggg

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