How I became anti-car

Visiting Amsterdam does things to a person. It’s one of the most socially liberated cities in the world, and its varied sensual attractions can come as a shock to those of us from more repressive English-speaking cultures. There’s a street in Amsterdam where you can purvey curvy, scantily-clad young women dancing behind windows and, should you be inclined, pay them to have sex with you. There are so-called coffeeshops dotted around Amsterdam’s streets where you can buy and smoke legal hash there on the premises, like Victorian opium dens but not as dingy and disreputable.

What stayed with me when I visited Amsterdam, though—and not just Amsterdam (I use Amsterdam as an exemplar), but many old European cities—wasn’t the libertine attractions that tourists ogle at, but its charming old-world good looks, its convenient compactness and elegant density, the pleasurable experience of walking its ancient streets and canals, and, not least, the omnipresence of bikes and the relative absence of cars.

Amsterdam, I’ve come to understand, is a case of urbanism par excellence. It is compact, it is convenient, it is beautiful, it is a pleasure to live and work in, it is efficient, it is walkable, and its main modes of transport are bikes and feet—not cars. These are the things that make a city liveable, and make the experience of living in a city happier, easier and better, in quality of life terms. They are the things that make a city the kind of city people want to live in and move to. Amsterdam is the most well-known example, but it is by no means the only city that scores high on the “urbanism” metrics—see also: Copenhagen, Oslo, Tokyo, Taipei, Singapore.

Let’s be honest, Amstedam’s urbanism factor, as well as its famous canals, are the reason it is the massively popular tourist destination it is, not the Red Light District and the coffeeshops (although no doubt they also contribute to Amsterdam’s draw). Amsterdam, and other such cities (especially European ones), is so removed from the urban experience of those of us in English-speaking countries, speaking as an Australian but this also applies to Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and even some cities in Britain, whose cities are invariably sprawling, ugly and car-choked, that when we visit a place like Amsterdam, we marvel at how it is possible for a working, thriving modern city to be this way. Is not a tangle of asphalt and a glut of cars the only way?

It certainly never entered my head, before I visited Europe, that my experience of living in a city, namely, Brisbane, Australia, was not the only possible experience, that Brisbane was not the only way a large, modern city could look and function. Like most large cities in Australia and the United States, Brisbane sprawls for thousands of kilometres, is carpeted by roads, requires a car to get practically anywhere (unless you live in the inner suburbs), and its public transport options are neglected, inefficient and underutilised. If this is your whole experience of urban life, as it was mine, a place like Amsterdam, or even London, is going to open your eyes.

I never had anything to compare Brisbane to before, but, now that I had, my home city, and life in it, felt lacking next to London, Amsterdam and Oslo. I felt that the inhabitants of those cities had a fuller experience of urban life that we Brisbanites were missing out on. It’s not that space, and the privacy that comes with space, doesn’t have its own attractions and advantages over compactness and density, but the advantages of space are inversely proportional to a community’s geographic size and population. Suburban-like space is fine when you live in a small town with a population of 5,000, but not so much when you live in a metropolis of 2 million.

What I came to understand is that what is wrong with Brisbane can be put down to the fact that Brisbane is dominated by, and built for, cars. Cars are so omnipresent in a place like Brisbane that they practically blend into the landscape. Asking a Brisbanite if he thinks his city is too car-dominated is like asking a fish to describe water. It’s only when a Brisbanite visits places that aren’t car-dominted that he begins to see the cars in his own city. They’re simply everywhere, and they take up so much room in the city, as do the infrastructure built for them (roads, parking space), that it’s staggering and absurd when you think about it, and the economic and social consequences that result.

The result is that only in very small, expensive pockets can you find something resembling the urban experience of places like Amsterdam, or in multi-storey indoor shopping centres such as Westfield, which consciously imitate the European pedestrian shopping street, but are poor substitutes for it. Or in kitsch imitations in places like Disneyland and Warner Bros Movie World. The rest of our cities are mostly asphalt-carpeted, car-strewn, sprawling suburban wastelands. We tolerate it, even embrace it, because, frankly, we don’t know any better.

Cars destroy cities. They destroy communities. They turn cities inside out and make them places designed primarily for the movement of cars through them and storage in them, rather than living human communities. In the car-dominated city, humans are an afterthought, pushed, literally, to the peripheries: cars are the basic unit of society, around and for which everything is planned and built. The lion’s share of space in the car-dominated city is given over to roads for hundreds of thousands of cars to drive on and parking space for them all to sit idle. Preposterously, we space out our cities over thousands of kilometres because we plan and build for the service of cars and car travel, not humans. Car-dominated cities are not places where humans live and work, they are places humans drive and store their motor vehicles.

Same size: the entire city of Florence and one Atlanta highway interchange

Here’s the excellent Lewis Mumford in The City in History on cars:

By allowing mass transportation to deteriorate and by building expressways out of the city and parking garages within, in order to encourage the maximum use of the private car, our highway engineers and city planners have helped to destroy the living tissue of the city and to limit the possibilities of creating a larger urban organism on a regional scale.

I might be accused of being too harsh on my home city, which is, after all, a relatively young city that grew up with the motor vehicle. I disagree. There was nothing inevitable about Brisbane becoming as car-dominated as it is. Building infrastructure and planning the city in a way that facilitates and subsidises car transport over all other options was a conscious policy decision made when cars were but one of many transport options. Building roads for cars, and planning the city in a way that forces people to use cars, was, and continues to be, a conscious policy decision.

The city’s authorities, at the critical moment at which they plumped for cars, could easily have made a different policy decision, one preferencing more efficient mass transit, such as public transport, bikes and, above all, pedestrians, and built the infrastructure and put in place the regulatory framework designed to facilitate those options. For one thing, the potential of ferry transport on the Brisbane River is woefully underexploited. Brisbane would be a very different, and better, city if different policy decisions had been made in the past.

Lewis Mumford again:

Our highway engineers and or municipal authorities, hypnotized by the poplarity of the private motor car, feeling an obligation to help General Motors to flourish, even if General Chaos results, have been in an open conspiracy to dismantle all the varied forms of transportation necessary to a good system, and have reduced our facilities to the private motor car (for pleasure, convenience, or trucking) and the aeroplane. They have even duplicated railroad routes and repeated all the errors of the early railroad engineers, whie piling up in the terminal cities a population the private motor car cannot handle unless the city itself is wrecked to permit movement and storage of automobiles.

If technical experts and administrators had known their business, they would have taken special measures to safeguard more efficient methods of mass transportation, in order to maintain both the city’s existence and the least time-wasting use of other forms of transportation. To have a complete urban structure capable of functioning fully, it is necessary to find appropriate channels for every form of transportation: it is the deliberate articulation of the pedestrian, the mass transit system, the streets, the avenue, the expressway, and the airfield that alone can care for the needs of a modern community. Nothing else will do.

The case of Brisbane is the case of every city plagued by the pestilence of the motor vehicle. In every of these cities, bad decisions were made in the past, with the result that we have ended up with sprawling, ugly, soulless, anti-human car-dominated cities which are the opposite of what a city should be. I don’t want to ban cars or eradicate them entirely from cities—I think there is a legitimate and needed place for cars—but I think they should be one of many transport options, and should be at the bottom of the heap in terms of which options are preferred, facilitated and subsidised. Transport options should be preferred proportionately to how efficiently they move people, with pedestrians and bikes on top, public transport in the middle, and cars at the bottom.

As to how we get from here to there, there has been so much damage done that needs to be put right. It’s a tremendously formidable job, and, frankly, I have little faith in short-termist democratic politicians to seriously take it on. There have been some promising moves in the right direction (e.g. in Brisbane, the Cross River Rail and the Brisbane Metro projects, and the construction of protected bike lanes on some inner city roads), but these are feeble moves in the scheme of what needs to be done.

In my libertarian fantasy world, of course, all public land would be privatised, and all planning and building regulations repealed, overnight; and the market would rapidly reshape our urban landscapes into the cities we want to live in. In the world we have, though, all I can do is exhort our politicians: Go to Amsterdam! Go to Tokyo! Look at what makes them the liveable, attractive cities they are! Imagine how we can be like them! Follow @ScootFoundation, @createstreets and @BrentToderian on Twitter! Now, come home and get to work!