What if cars are NOT the problem?


What if the cars are not the problem? What if plug-in electric cars can do away with pollution, and the resulting degradation of the urban environment? What if the greatest challenge facing urban sustainability are the towers and the skytrains—the private structures and public investments—rather than the cars? What if vehicular congestion is a symptom of bad urbanism, not the cause? Consider that the fleet changes over every 4 to 10 years making it possible to retrofit new clean technologies at a very fast rate. In Vancouver and else where, the taxi fleets have gone hybrid saving about 50% of costs and signalling a truly revolutionary change looming ahead. Towers and skytrain, on the other hand, will be with us for centuries to come inscribing patterns on the landscape and in our social circles much more difficult to break.

Air quality, China


There is good reason to hope that cars will go electric in the foreseeable future. Many government and business fleets run electric and hybrid vehicles. Besides savings in fuel the cost maintenance is cheaper. There are fewer moving parts and less friction to wear out components in electric engines. As a consequence the vehicles last longer. The batteries are all recyclable.

Thus, I can see a day when the new ‘cool’ will be driving vintage low-emission vehicles.

The time is near when all transportation will run on renewable energy. For example, within the urban footprint some jurisdictions have not only given over street space for the exclusive use of transit, but they have converted trolleys and electric streetcars to handle freight off-peak. Not too far in the future our chief concern regarding automobiles may be the particulate pollution resulting from tire wear. Electric cars use engine breaking, thus reducing brake dust pollution as well. Toronto claims that one line of tram or streetcar has the capacity of 11 lanes of traffic. Thus, as we rethink the need for commuting in private vehicles, we are also reshaping the urban landscape.

Of course, this line of analysis simply shifts the burden to the generation of clean electricity. The production of electricity from renewable resources is a topic we will return to in future posts. Including the need to build hydro dams that do support the reestablishment of indigenous fish species in their traditional habitat.

Guangzhou So Business Cen



Consider that towers are impossibly inefficient. The building form has its two smallest faces in exactly the wrong place: one is in contact with the earth, the other is facing the sky. The earth is a constant 10°C. First, by putting the largest side of the building in contact with the earth, we maximize passive heating and cooling. Second, the roof is the optimal place for collecting rain water; light and solar energy; weather proofing our buildings; and minimizing heat loss. Second, by putting the other largest side of the building facing the sky we maximize the opportunity for passive solar strategies, wind design and water collection.

Towers expose their four largest sides to the cardinal points, triggering uneven heating and cooling conditions. It is commonplace for one side of the tower to be calling for heat, as the other is calling for cooling no matter the season of the year. The greenhouse effect of glazing makes solar gain as problematic in winter as in summer. While off-balance cooling and heating in towers suggests a heat-exchange opportunity, mixing air from one building occupancy to the another runs into fire code restrictions. Finally, towers compound social problems presenting point-loads of hyper use. Commonplace issues like car storage, or waste management are magnified to untenable proportions by the concentration of units on one site. We have grown accustomed to burying garages deep underground, and installing massive systems to handle supply of water and energy, and the removal of waste. However, scaling up in these instances inflates costs, rather than generating economies of scale. Delivery of services above the 4th floor imposes localized inefficiencies in all systems. The tower dwellers are not the only ones paying for that. The community as a whole pays the bill for upkeep of civic infrastructure. The towers pass on the bill.

In comparison, the human-scale urbanism offers it all: maximum contact with the earth; maximum exposure to the sky; ability to collect rain water and solar energy from expansive roof surfaces; social interaction with the neighbourhood and the street; ground oriented units with private rear gardens; provision of front door yards for smaller suites; self-parking without underground garages; fee-simple ownership; openings easily fitted with passive-solar devices; and optimum conditions for social mixing.

The human-scale building also presents a defining social characteristic: it becomes the building block—the base unit—for building quartiers or districts that support social functioning; define walkable neighborhoods; and deliver safe, livable streets. Human scale buildings disperse density along the street and block pattern of the neighbourhood creating conditions with a long-standing tradition of delivering highly functioning social places. Here, tower supporters will cry foul asserting that tower districts are every bit as socially functioning as the human-scale counterpart. I just don’t buy that argument. While we see families in towers in Vancouver’s West End, despite its glorious geographical setting, one doesn’t observe the same level of children at play and families in action as in the walk-up apartment districts inside or outside the downtown, never mind the cottage lot areas. The tower zones seem to cater to a narrow demographic. In Vancouver, they have courted offshore money arriving in great quantities first from Hong Kong, then from China. Yet, while chinese citizens can buy property in Canada, canadians are prohibited from owning real estate in China. Some bargain. Walk-up apartments, fee-simple row houses and bare-land strata maisonettes, all can deliver hi-density products where the sense of community is palpably stronger than in the alienating towers.

Of course, I invite comment from those taking an opposing view. Aside from citing runaway profit margins, I can find nothing quantifiable in the tower neighbourhoods recommending them for universal application. Besides, the environmental under-performance of the tower districts looms as the unsolvable riddle worsening as each decade passes. For healthy communities we need LEED brown, not LEED Platinum. The claims that towers are more sustainable than suburban places just won’t hunt. In my analysis automobile-oriented suburban sprawl and tower districts are opposite extremes in the same, tired paradigm. Thus, I foresee a decommissioning of the towers advancing more or less in step with the re-imagination of the suburbs. The pace of the process will no doubt vary according to regional, political and economic drivers. Yet, their demise is written on the wall awaiting a simple but fundamental shift in our urbanism.

If the car is symptom, rather than cause, then where do we turn for solutions? As we contemplate the need to retrofit the North American suburb, we are discovering the low hanging fruit in the historic neighbourhoods ringing the urban core. There we see modelled our one recourse: to design our cities as generators of healthy living and social well-being. That is the paradigm shift confronting us today. We must choose between building ‘good’ urbanism or putting up with social, economic, and political disfunction.

We decide.



2 thoughts on “What if cars are NOT the problem?”

  1. If all the cars were electric in very short order indeed, we would still have most of the problems that currently beset us. Much of that stems from the urban design based on the false idea that everybody can drive anywhere whenever they feel like it. Parking is one of the issues that electric cars fail to solve. Speeding and motor vehicle collisions (with each other and oteher road users) will also continue to be problematic. Lack of use of the larger muscles of car owners will continue to have widespread health impacts. The air will be a bit cleaner, but making cars of any engine type has considerable environmental impact

    Urban “sprawl” started with electric trains and trams (streetcars). Los Angeles spread out across Southern California thanks to the interurban: very fast, electric trains that could also operate in streetcar mode within the city centre.

    We now get sentimental about the “streetcar village” but seem to accept that car ownership there is as high as in later developments.

    The car is just a tool – like a bus or a streetcar or a bicycle. But that also means we have to be careful about which tools we use to get around – because relying on just one tool for every job is very silly indeed.

    Car dependence is problematic: so is car ownership. Making room for better alternatives, and reducing the need for motorised personal transportation will continue to be essential even in a future where every car is zero emission.

    1. I don’t know that the time-scale is all that critical. We’ve waited 100+ years; we can wait a few more!

      But the point is that we agree that its the most likely outcome, and the most radical change since… we’ll since the cars became common place. We have more and more recognition now for your point that the urban design is an important part of what has to change. Before we get to parking and congestion… Neighborhoods need to be designed to be walkable. Services and transit need to be within an easy walking distance of every door. If we are to take the other necessary step which is to pinch nearly all of the commuter trips from private automobile to transit, then the cluster of neighborhoods that forms a city also needs to be made more walkable (i.e. by providing hi-quality transit service). That last one takes care of the congestion and parking problem with an assist (FIFA needs to look at assists too) from the neighbourhood cores pitching in with job space, services and entertainment more widely distributed throughout the region. That gets us muscle exercise and new perspectives on longevity and aging.

      There can only be one urbanism for one human race. We find ourselves today with two: one is the traditional one scaled to the walking experience of place (they had traffic jams in Imperial Roma too); the other is scaled to the machine: the car, the elevator, the ‘anything at all’ that will do the work for our muscles so that we can just sit and—I don’t know—use our thumbs to work on our personal devices.

      Los Angeles doesn’t really have a streetcar system or anything but urbanism shaped by anything but ‘A Grid of Freeways’. It sister San Francisco keeps its cable car system from the same era as a tourist curiosity. However, it also keeps a good part of the neighbourhood the cable cars shapped in North Beach. And that is still a walkable urban place with one of its ‘nodes’, foci, places or squares at Washington Square. That place is still a thriving people place Columbus Avenue and all.

      We must recognize that Cars liberated us from being stuck in one place. If I lost my job here and found work there, then I didn’t have to transport my family right away. Sometimes the patterns of neighbourhood, school, parks, friends, etc., didn’t have to change at all. However, it has gotten all to be too much. And who can we point the finger at?

      To ourselves. To the way we have chosen to govern the process of urbanization. We have failed to recognize thresholds beyond which changes and adaptations are necessary if we are to avoid all this.

      Now, Stephen, we find ourselves more and more on the same page. Yet, I wouldn’t do away with the car. I would improve it and recognize that the investment in infrastructure is something we can extract social as well as economic capital for centuries to come. They are our ‘Roman Roads’. Much in the same manner, the suburbs have colonized an urban footprint that can serve us well for millennia to come. As a reminder to others we discussed the problem with towers here http://wp.me/p1yj4U-cQ.

      I wish that—instead of building 10 lanes on the Port Mann; widened the Lougheed to six lanes past Maple Ridge; and widening the Dias Island tunnel—we had invested in transit instead.

      * * *

      Then, there is that other issue to consider touching on the Kinder Morgan pipeline to our Burrard Inlet: What are the international political implications of a zero-gas car fleet?

      The politics of the Oil Crisis of the 1970s vanish into thin—and—cleaner—much—cleaner—air. The axis of car manufacturers and oil producers is finally broken. When I need to re-fuel, I just plug my car into the outlet in the garage… the same one I used to plug the radio when I did the oil change and the spark plugs myself.

      It’s a simple idea. But we will be amazed by the extent and reach of the waves set off by this implementation. The last time something like this happened—in the 1920s when we switched from horses to horse power—Wall Street crashed! The reverberations this time could be much much greater. Obviously, hoping against hope I posit that this time the re-shuffling of the power cards can achieve a more equitable distribution.

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