The Utility of Cars in Cities

As part of NPR’s new Cities project, they recently aired a story about the “war on cars” on All Things Considered. It’s kind of a stale topic in my opinion; but alas, here I am re-hashing it, so I’ll admit to being complicit.

Now, I don’t own a car. Neither do many of my friends. But almost all of us drive. How’s that possible? Well… there’s rental cars and car-sharing, to start. Not owning a car is not the same as never driving, a point that’s frequently misapplied in these debates.

The bigger problem with this discussion is that it’s framed as all-or-nothing when it’s actually quite nuanced. Let’s dissect a not-very-good argument from Chuck Thies, who’s made some not-very-good arguments on this topic in the past. Here’s his quote from the NPR story:

Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it’s something that we can’t live without.

OK, fine – there are lots of cars. Then he makes this point: 

When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don’t bring it on a bicycle. They don’t bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It’s easy to vilify the automobile, but it’s not productive.

Here’s the key question that doesn’t get answered… of the 50 cars mentioned in the first part of the quote, how many of them are delivering a refrigerator or a bunch of 2-by-4s to a construction site? And how many of them have a single motorist transporting no cargo at all?

If the answer is that most of the 50 cars are transporting just 1 or 2 people and no cargo, then it’s fair to criticize the automobile, or rather, the very non-productive way that people are using it. It’s being used in a way that it’s jamming up streets and causing congestion and making it harder for the refrigerator deliverymen and the construction workers and the fire fighters to get where they’re going.