What If? Some Poorly-Linked Thoughts on Utopia

Everybody needs some power I’m told
To shield them from the darkness and the cold
Some may see a way to take control when it’s bought and sold.

From “Power,” Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), 1979

Yesterday was trash day in Hamden.  As I rode my bike through the streets, I saw things piled up next to driveways, ready for the trash trucks to haul away.  I saw tables and desks.  I saw suitcases.  I saw children’s play kitchens, car seats, toys.  As I rode around, I got to thinking:  Is this really trash?  I’ve written before about my trips to Goodwill, here and here.  So when I see a radio, a play stove, a suitcase, I have to ask myself—is this really trash?

And then I got to thinking.  We live in a mass of ephemera.  I’ll bet that almost everyone has a suitcase.  But how often do you use that suitcase?  I’ll wager that almost every homeowner has a washer and drier, and that—if you are a homeowner, and your family is like mine, you use that washer and drier one day a week (or actually, a few hours a week). 

Do we really need that kind of stuff?  In an ideal world, built from scratch, maybe there’d be a rental service.  You’d realize you need a suitcase for a week, so you’d go to the community rental and get a suitcase, subject to a deposit, for two weeks (just to cover).  If you were going somewhere to stay, your community rental would contact the community rental at your destination, and you’d be expected to return the suitcase there.

A community center on each block (as appropriate—I’m thinking of my urban neighborhood of single-family houses; burbs and condominiums would be different) could be equipped with banks of washers and driers so that no one house would need to take the square footage to store appliances used so rarely.  Use of the communal equipment could be scheduled, or it could be on-demand.  Yes, there might be some time conflicts.

So here I am, thinking of the ideal community, part commune, part private home (there’s enough diversity in cooking that kitchens are probably best non-communal, and people tend to cook every day, so it’s worth having that stove and refrigerator.  Honestly, though, there’s not that much variation in laundry) when it hits me that we’re talking centralization/decentralization.  And then I look around at all the cars.

Each house in my neighborhood has at least one car associated with it, and I’m willing to bet that the average is greater than two.

Now.  What if there were no cars?

…Wait for it…

Not just no cars for you but no cars at all.

First—how would you get to the drugstore?  How would you get to the supermarket?  How would you get to school?

In my community neighborhood, there’s a drugstore about 1/4 mile away.  The next closest one (in the same chain) is less than three miles away.  But there are several other drugstores in-between.  But let’s say the average distance is (.25 + 3)/2 = 1.63 miles.  OK.  So it would be over a three mile walk to get to and from a drugstore.  Not too bad, actually.  That’s about 45 minutes by foot, and much less by bike.

There’s no full-service grocery closer than two miles.  But, dang, it’s a full-service grocery, with a health clinic, a pharmacy, a bank.  It’s big!  Speaking of banks, there are enough within easy walking distance (i.e., one mile) that robbing them could reasonably constitute a career.  And then, of course, there are ATMs.

You can see where I’m going with this.  People talk about the need for walkable neighborhoods in cities but—at least here in Connecticut—we’re already there.  Oh, it could be better.  Stores could be more decentralized, so instead of going to Stop’n’Shop or Shoprite or Pricerite or one of those, you’d stop by the neighborhood store for your bread, milk, and eggs.  And if you could do that, especially if you could do that on your way home from work?  You might even be able to get by with a smaller refrigerator.

How would you get to school?  That’s more of a problem, except that—guess what?—most schools are already served by buses.

Cars aren’t necessary.

OK, let me see if I can focus on a main point here.

It’s common to think of cars as a source of freedom, at least in the United States.  Once you have a car, you can shop anywhere, go to school anywhere, attend church anywhere.  You’re not geographically bound.  Your world is radically decentralized.

But is it, really?

You go to Target to shop, or to a mall, or to a commercial strip.  Which is surrounded by parking lots.

Guess what?  Cars have made the world more centralized. 

Rather than commerce being distributed throughout neighborhoods—drug stores, grocery stores, that sort of thing—it’s concentrated in enormous marketplaces that are often distant from any housing whatsoever.  What’s more, the cost of getting to those commercial centers is imposed on you and me.  That’s right—in addition to the price of a loaf of bread (for example) we pay for the gasoline to move a two-ton hunk of glass and steel from home to the store and back.  And not just the gasoline…

The insurance.  The repairs & maintenance.  The additional cost to housing of a garage.  The pollution that emerges from these beasties.  The health costs of not exercising (my boss drives to the gym at lunch time to exercise—something I find hilarious).

And then there’s parking, and the destruction of our visual landscape because it’s filled with cars.  I’ll bet you can’t walk outside without seeing at least one.

And there’s another way in which cars do not promote freedom.

I graduated from high school in the summer of 1976, and immediately found work for the summer in an electronics factory.  I worked at the wave-soldering machine along with an employee who had been there for about six years.  He told me that he had graduated near the top of his high school class, but that he had never gone to college because the first thing he did on graduation was to buy a car.  The next was to get a job, so he could pay for the car, the insurance, the gas, and so forth.  And then he used the car to get to the job and so he needed to maintain it.  Etc.  He was a victim of car addiction.

We can escape these problems.  We can use energy better and more efficiently if we centralize some things—the things we use or do rarely—and decentralize others, the things we need daily or near-daily.

Smart decentralization.  Laundry might be more centralized; food shopping might be less centralized.

What if we did that?  What would our world look like?  This is a theme I hope to return to here, recognizing that I’ve stuffed about ten pounds into a one-pound bag in this post, without adequate development and consideration. 

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12 Responses to What If? Some Poorly-Linked Thoughts on Utopia

  1. Regarding ‘walkable neighborhoods’, I live a quarter of a mile from a bunch of stores that offer a range of services that my family needs. The problem is, we are separated from most of them by two six-lane highways with no pedestrian overpasses or tunnels and very few zebra crossings, making the actual time spent getting there twice as long as it should be, and many times more dangerous than it should be.

    To illustrate, we live about here:

    ‘Walkable’ doesn’t just mean within easy walking distance – it has to mean that, and also convenient and safe to get to. Our problem here is that, if it weren’t for the constant stream of traffic and a traffic system that puts their movement above everything else, we’d be ‘already there’, as you put it. But that stream of traffic and the infrastructure that makes its movement paramount is preventing us from being there, and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.

    And I’m one of those cyclists that transportation engineers call ‘strong and fearless’, yet I can’t take my wife and daughter on their bikes on a 6-lane highway – my wife would not be able to deal with that and I’m not sure my daughter could handle making the necessary maneuvers to turn left if we wanted to visit our local Starbucks or the bank.

    The problem is not centralization due to cars. It’s that the government don’t view non-motorized transport as important – at all! Sure, they talk a good game about encouraging pedestrians and cycling, but every year the money goes into making cars travel faster, which makes it less and less realistic to get where we’re going any other way.

    • You make an excellent point:

      >‘Walkable’ doesn’t just mean within easy walking distance – it has to mean that, and >also convenient and safe to get to. Our problem here is that, if it weren’t for the >constant stream of traffic and a traffic system that puts their movement above >everything else, we’d be ‘already there’, as you put it. But that stream of traffic and the >infrastructure that makes its movement paramount is preventing us from being there, >and that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.

      In New Haven, just a few miles from me, neighborhoods have been carved up and divided by massive main roads. Actually, now that I think about it, even in La Crosse, WI, where I used to live, we faced this kind of traffic issue. There, a poor partial solution was to build small bike/ped tunnels under the main roads. Lovely, except that those choke points are about as inviting to pedestrian traffic as public toilets (with which they occasionally share functionality).

      Hamden recently put a bike/ped tunnel on the Canal trail, allowing cyclists to pass under Skiff Street or, more properly, allowing motorists to use Skiff without having to stop occasionally for cyclists and pedestrians who hit the light button in order to cross. It still amazes me that the money was available to do that (the plan was well under way before I moved here four years ago). I’m sure the idea got support from cyclists as well.

      Perhaps one thing we need to think about is the degree to which separating ourselves from traffic *creates* problems. The trail is nice, but by removing bikes from the traffic stream, it just further enables the shoulderless high-speed roads that dominate New England. It also passes through some rough neighborhoods, and a number of cyclists have been mugged along the trail’s length. It seems to me (though I could be wrong) that those sorts of attacks would be less likely if bikes shared a road with cars, instead of being completely isolated. But I’ve wandered from your point.

      At some point, per the Bikeyface post that started this discussion, planners are going to have to realize that cars only take people from A to B; they don’t allow for stops at A.1, A.2, and so on, along the way. Consequently, streamlining traffic is actually BAD for local merchants, and encourages the (dumb) centralization of shopping at parking-lot-surrounded malls on the fringes. They’ll realize that long before they realize how bad it is for residents…

      • I absolutely agree with you. And your point about our current problems being exacerbated by separating slower vehicles from traffic is excellent. It’s all part of modern governments’ (and that apostrophe is not misplaced – this is happening worldwide) push to increase traffic flow. They sell it to us cyclists as if it’s purely intended to make our lives easier, but I think it’s really all about getting cars from A to B as fast, and with as few delays, as possible. This makes cycling and walking harder.

        The good news is that, since 2005, we are finally at ‘peak car’. Financial pressures are finally starting to make the automobile obsolete. The good news is tempered by the fact that, from the peak, it’s a long way down and it’s probably going to be another 20 years or more before we see clear evidence of the car’s demise. But the death blow has been struck, and the monster’s death is inevitable. I still have hopes of seeing the end of the automobile, but I think our society will find ways of putting it on life support for another 50 – 75 years.

      • Tim says:

        I would suggest that you need to be really careful when deciding to ask bikes and cars to “play nicely together” in the same space. I would suggest that the epitome of this idea is to put everyone together, including pedestrians, in the hope that everyone will be more careful. But attempts at this, such as Exhibition Road in London are often criticised – see this article [ http://londonneur.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/daddy-the-cars-arent-stopping/ ] titled “Daddy, the cars aren’t stopping”.

        I think mixing transport modes – shared space – can work in spaces where everyone is forced to naturally travel at the speed of the slower mode already. But given the choice, drivers will always tend to want to take advantage of the internal combustion engine they are wielding. In fairness, cyclists likewise. Where’s the point in cycling if you end up riding at walking pace?

        So, lets look at a place where there are loads of pedestrians and cyclists, and the cyclists include everyone from kids to pensioners and they all love it.

        In the Netherlands bikes ride on the road where the speeds are restricted to 30kph (20mph-ish) or less. In these areas junctions are kept tight to slow turning cars. Pedestrians have priority across junctions onto smaller roads where a raised pavement continues. “Through routes” are closed to cars, which can only use these roads for access rather an A to B means to an end, or a “rat run”.

        Of course, people will need to travel faster than 20mph, but there we have good quality segregated cycle paths – wide, continuous, direct and well maintained. And not shared with pedestrians!

  2. Good point–I was thinking of a single problem and not of the others that arise from trying to solve it. My personal preference would be broad bike lanes replacing parallel parking on at least one side of most roads. Probability? Zero. We have cars. We need a place to put them.

    The problem–not only in cities, but just about everywhere–is dealing with all the structure already in place. It would be ideal to have auto lanes, separate *but parallel and proximate* bike lanes, and then sidewalks. Fast traffic toward the middle, slower traffic toward the outside (I steal this idea in part from Robert Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll,” a story about massive moving sidewalks).

    Parking would have to be off-street, and probably would depend on parking structures every other block or so. Drivers would not like this.

    There would have to be a lot of signals, not only for the cars, but for the bikes and pedestrians (and here we would get pushback from cyclists, who really don’t like stopping, for obvious reasons).

    Crossing (left turns in the US and right turns in the UK) would get complicated for both bicycles and cars, and would require additional planning. There are ways of handling this with signals, but better might be the abolition of respectively, the right or left turn and replacing it with right- (or left-) only turns.

    In an urban setting, this sort of setup would have advantages for merchants and pedestrians, then cyclists; the main disadvantage (unfortunately) would likely be for auto drivers, who are the most influential group. But it I think it’s not an unreasonable way to address the traffic mixture in, say, New York or London (or New Haven or Chicago).

    Outside the urban core, shared roads with shoulders and sidewalks are probably the best solution. As the article Tim linked to points out, I think, simple sharing is *not* going to work in urban settings.

    My main issue with bike lanes is that–in the US at least–they tend to follow railroad beds. This is fine for recreational riding, but horrid for transportational cycling because they don’t go anywhere you need to go, EXCEPT into urban cores. In Hamden, a city on the edge of New Haven, a major road going to and from New Haven is Whitney Avenue. There are lots of shops along Whitney, but the bike trail is blocks away from Whitney, and the cross-streets are comparatively few. So when I need to get tea or cereal, I ride the 4-lane monster that is Whitney. I don’t like it, but it’s all there is. There *is* a bike trail (mostly) parallel to Whitney, but it has on/off ramps only a mile north and a mile and a half south of where I want to go (estimates).

    So: Exurban and suburban and fringe areas (and even small cities) may be OK as is; urban cores need serious re-engineering, but that’s precisely where things get hairy. So, honestly, death of the automobile or not (and even once the auto dies, I see Heinlein-style sidewalks outpacing cyclists; human-driven machinery is far too “low tech” to appeal broadly), I do not think that we’re terribly likely to see this kind of re-engineering.

    So–what that leaves is a kind of re-education, instead. Even in New York and Chicago and New Haven (dunno about London, but let’s assume so) most drivers have learned to get along with other drivers (and, a little surprisingly, with most motorcyclists. Perhaps it might be possible to teach drivers to get along with cyclists–and, importantly–cyclists to get along with drivers and pedestrians.

    So, two questions:

    1) Are you more optimistic than I am about re-engineering urban cores?
    2a) If so, how do we begin?
    2b) If not, can re-education (and I mean SERIOUS re-education, starting with the first driver-education classes) work alone?

    Anything else is, of course, welcome!

  3. The problem with removing bicycles from the roads and placing them on a bike lane or bike path alongside the road is that it over-complicates a system that works perfectly well at safe speeds. 85% of studies on separated cycling infrastructure show that it greatly increases the danger to cyclists at intersections, more than counteracting the gain in safety between intersections – see http://ianbrettcooper.blogspot.com/2012/08/bicycle-infrastructure-studies.html .

    What we need to do is restrict road speed limits to safe levels. No one ‘needs’ to travel at 40mph or more on urban streets. They just don’t. 30mph is plenty for main urban roads, while 20 is plenty for minor roads. We also need automated speed enforcement as a way to police speeds. Freeways and limited access roads can keep their high speed limits. Such a system would make cycling and walking our streets (streets that are supposed to be for everyone) far safer. The only problem is, there is no political will to install such a system. At least, not yet.

    The problem with the ‘Netherlands’ or ‘Copenhagenize’ theory of cycling advocacy is that it serves to encourage higher urban traffic speeds while restricting cycling speeds to <8mph – that of a pedestrian (which Tim rightly says is a bad idea). Cycling in the Netherlands is based on the theory that cyclists are a slightly faster version of pedestrian and NL cycling commute speeds bear this out. The Netherlands model is not a valid model for US or UK cycling advocacy, where cyclists have always been considered vehicle operators and where cycling commute speeds are above 10mph. Besides, no matter how many bicycle facilities there are, cyclists will always need to use the road at some point, and encouraging higher motorized traffic speeds simply makes cycling and pedestrian deaths more likely. More bicycle facilities also makes cyclists less competent to use the road, which also increases their risk when they need to use it.

    The Copenhagenize model simply cannot work in North America. The situation here is very different from that of the Netherlands or Denmark. This has been shown clearly in Toronto, where the segregated cycle tracks that were studied by Lusk et al. in 2011 have had a higher rate of injury and death than the road. It will be shown in the other major cities where segregated cycling facilities have been installed – Chicago, Seattle, Portland, etc. It's just a matter of time.

    Studies show quite clearly that the efforts to bring Holland's version of cycling to the US are destined be a costly (and deadly) failure. There is a better way. It involves reduced surface street speed limits and better education for all road users.

    • I tend to agree on the reduced surface speeds–25 to 30 (MPH) seems optimal for urban traffic. However, car culture in the US is built on a “bigger/faster/stronger” model, which means that cars have lots of cubic inches/liters of displacement that they don’t need but which their drivers are just aching to exercise. And this is not just a vestige of the ’60s. I bought a small car in the ’90s that had .7 liters; the similarly-sized small car I bought recently (a well-used 2000 model) has 1.8. Serious enforcement of speed limits would not be popular, but is a necessity if we are to make things work (“55” does not mean “55 up to the 60 that patrol cars allow”).

      I also agree–for people like me–that mixing traffic between bikes and autos would be much better than segregation, save for the fact that drivers who are already miffed at having to throttle back their huge engines may be pissed if they need to drop from 30 to 20 to accommodate cyclists. When I lived in Wisconsin, where almost all roads (thanks in no small part to the Tommy Thompson regime) had broad shoulders, the shoulders acted as a default bike lane. And in practice, at least in the small city in which I lived, this was not bad. In a denser urban setting like New Haven, where there are no shoulders, things can get ugly.

      The advantage of separated yet parallel lanes is a sense of safety–though this can be a false sense. If such lanes were to work, we would need extensive and costly revision of traffic signals (and possibly one-directional turning). Yet, in the US, these steps *might* make sense for dense urban cores. Outside the core, I do agree (as I think I noted above) that traffic should be mixed. I have to note (with some dismay) that the mixed-traffic model would be very hard to apply to pedestrians, who are generally trained in the US to use sidewalks, and who operate at a speed that is an order of magnitude below that of (most US) cyclists and motorists. I think *that* particular separation is here to stay.

      Here’s a thought that will make lots of people unhappy, yet seems to me worthwhile: A driving license for cyclists. Part of the problem with urban cyclists that I see has to do with a failure to understand the environment in which they are operating. So I see people getting doored, hooked, etc. I do not want to put the entire onus on cyclists by any means, but a more educated cycling AND motoring population–licensed for cycling at the same time as they are licensed for driving–might be one way to get the educational project rolling.

      As I said, nobody is going to like the above proposal…

  4. “This has been shown clearly in Toronto…”

    It’s Montreal, not Toronto. Sorry. I was confusing the 1999 Aultman-Hall study with the Lusk Montreal study.

  5. “…car culture in the US is built on a “bigger/faster/stronger” model, which means that cars have lots of cubic inches/liters of displacement that they don’t need but which their drivers are just aching to exercise.”

    That will change as the price of gasoline edges up, as it must after the 2005 peak of crude oil, and as the cost of living gets higher as we enter the decline phase after the peak. Quite soon, the option to drive heavy vehicles really fast will only be available to the rich. I think in 20 or 30 years, the urge to drive fast will be a costly luxury.

    I’m with you on driving licenses for cyclists. However, a recent study in the UK showed that most cycling collisions are the fault of motorists. Here’s the link:


    As I argue in my blog ( http://ianbrettcooper.blogspot.com/2012/10/london-cycling-accident-statistics.html ), I think the same is probably true here in the US, but with a law enforcement culture that is heavily biased towards the car, police tend to overlook motorist offenses and prosecute cyclists whenever they possibly can. Sometimes they even make up fantasy laws to do so. What we need is mandatory testing for every road user every few years (and the ability to enforce road bans for failure), because studies (and my personal experience) show that many motorists clearly don’t know the rules even after they get their licenses.

  6. >That will change as the price of gasoline edges up, as it must after the 2005 peak of crude oil, >and as the cost of living gets higher as we enter the decline phase after the peak. Quite soon, >the option to drive heavy vehicles really fast will only be available to the rich. I think in 20 or 30 >years, the urge to drive fast will be a costly luxury.

    I wish this were true, but I suspect it isn’t. When I lived in Wisconsin, we experienced a couple of major price shocks in terms of gasoline. Each time it happened, I watched the bike rack at the software firm where I worked go from 2 to 12 bikes and the parking lot go from SUVs to compacts. Within a couple of weeks, the change was gone.

    I think Americans’ reactions to oil prices reflect the old notion about cooking a frog. If you turn the temperature up too fast, the frog jumps out of the water. Do it gradually (and that is what we’re experiencing) and the frog gets comfy at each level.

    Maybe in 20 or 30 years; but so far, all I’ve seen (in spite of the energy crisis of the early ’70s and the 55 MPH speed limit) is cars going faster. In CT there’s a limited-access (no trucks) highway (route 15). The speed limit is 55. If you’re going 70, you had best be in the slow lane.

    As to the other, I have no doubt that auto drivers are usually to blame; I do think that licensure of riders as well as drivers, however, would help drive home (oops) to drivers their obligations to cyclists (as well as those of cyclists to drivers).

  7. I think temporary oil price shocks at a time when oil is cheap, and a permanent oil crisis when oil is expensive, are going to prove to be very different things. But who really knows? We’re just going to have to wait and see.

    One thing is for sure – a weekly paycheck only allows the purchase of a week’s worth of gasoline at a certain price. When filling the tank costs more than the paycheck amount minus the amount the person pays in bills, food and shelter, something has to give.

    Many minimum wage earners have already given up on the idea of car ownership with prices at current levels. Some are taking public transport and storing their cars in the vain hope that gasoline prices will come down to pre-2000 levels again. As gasoline prices rise, or as the economy worsens and more people are put out of a job, this situation will affect more people.

    In the fable about the frog, at a certain point, no matter how comfortable he feels, the frog’s body can’t stand the heat anymore, and he dies.

  8. Hi, nice to consider your writings. I’m a big non-motorized advocate. I have a few sayings regarding cars and driving: I wish I never had to drive again. Driving is a losing proposition. Cars and guns: Two useful tools that are used by the cowardly and the evil to do so much harm. The last one I came up with in response to a story I read about a cabbie who intentionally rammed into a cyclist causing him to lose his leg and almost die were it not for someone by chance hearing his screams. My little saying may sound like cheesy slogans, but they are how I feel.

    That said, I don’t know where we’d be without cars – as in if cars had never come to be. Of course if cars (and trucks – including dump trucks, semis, etc) suddenly disappeared, the chaos would be devastating. But if they had never come to be, hmmm. I suppose we would be a lot more tribal in a literal sense. And things would be very walkable within our tribal communities. Traveling between communities would take a long time.

    But we would sure be a lot more connected.

    Few things give me a worse feeling than being out on the roadway trying to walk, run or cycle somewhere and experiencing a motorist being inconsiderate or even aggressive then being whisked away from the consequences of their actions by the almighty automobile.

    Our town has a serious problem. It is a lovely quaint rural tourist destination with no sidewalks outside the downtown core. Decent shoulders are scarce. The town has been in financial trouble since shortly after we moved here, so almost nothing gets done. Hence my being out on the roadway.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. I will follow your blog, and you can take a look at mine if you wish. I have tons more I wish I had time to write in it, but I have trouble making time for it. The content is developing quite slowly. But it will get there. My beer-by-bike experiences are many. My entries are few.

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