Cities 101: The hidden cost of car-centric cities (Part IV)

GoCar’s driving vision is to create sustainable cities by transforming urban mobility. Cities 101, a series by Yan Teh, contextualises this vision within wider urban perspectives. Part IV exposes how much we give up by prioritising private car ownership over people.

Car-sharing offers a host of advantages over private vehicle ownership. As pointed out in Part III, car-sharing is better for the environment (reduced carbon emissions) and better for our health (less air pollution and more physical activity). It is also better for society: when car-sharing providers maintain a fleet of cars in bulk, economies of scale make the process much more efficient, enabling citizens to spend the saved time and money more meaningfully. Furthermore, widespread adoption of car-sharing would require only a tiny fraction of the cars in use today – three percent! Reducing the number of cars on the road will ease congestion, slashing the mind-numbing hours we squander sitting in traffic each year.

There is a less obvious but equally significant reason to pursue a car-light future. Charging ahead with our current car-centric trajectory comes at a hidden cost: we lose out on vast amounts of precious space. Before exploring how much we stand to gain by ditching mass car ownership for mass car-sharing, we need to understand the magnitude of space we are blindly handing over to cars.

Karl Jilg
Above: An illustration commissioned by the Swedish Road Administration in 2014. (Image: Karl Jilg/Swedish Road Administration)


Cities ruled by cars

The biggest problem with our cars is that we barely use them. On average, cars are parked more than 95 percent of the time. Excluding sleeping hours only reduces this to 93.6 percent. Even when being driven by one person, the average car – two massive tons of steel – is 80 percent empty. Car storage is a hideously inefficient use of space, not to mention a waste of the car itself. Furthermore, a lot of vehicle wear (like corrosion) takes place when a car is stationary. Sharing cars which are kept in motion most of the time would actually lead to lower overall spending on cars.

Adele Peters illustrates the insanity of how much space we surrender to cars with this example: parking space at the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles adds up to twice the size of the Pentagon. Except for game days, the parking lot is virtually empty – literally useless. At a capacity of 87,411, Bukit Jalil National Stadium is one of the world’s largest football stadiums. The stadium sacrifices approximately 57,600 square metres to its 5,000 parking bays alone (figure obtained by phone enquiry); eyeballing satellite imagery suggests a total parking area closer to 80,000 square metres. That’s more than 11 football pitches of valuable space languishing as thousands of Malaysian families despair at the lack of affordable housing.

Bukit Jalil
Above: The parking lot at Bukit Jalil National Stadium takes up more space than the stadium itself. (Image: CNES/Airbus and Google Maps)


Are cities for cars or for people?

If stadiums seem like a niche enough land use to cast aside, let’s consider the average street. Twenty-five percent of a typical street is allotted to car storage. That doesn’t even include off-street parking – overall parking space in a downtown consumes anything from 40 percent (Washington, D.C.) to 65 percent (Houston) of land. Petrol stations, car washes, and auto repair shops eat up yet more space. Why do we give more space to cars than to people? As the director of the Aspen Institute’s Center for Urban Innovation, Jennifer Bradley, puts it, “We were very aware that the first time cities met cars, things went well for cars and somewhat less well for cities.”

And somewhat less well for people, too. The more space we allocate to roads and parking, the further apart we push our buildings. Kuala Lumpur building requirements dictate an average minimum of 2.3 parking spaces per 100 square metres of floor space. (In Singapore, it’s 0.4 spaces.) But the cities we love – London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Venice, Hong Kong, Paris, New York City – are dense cities.

Dense is walkable. Walkable streets are vibrant and alive and have an electrifying buzz you can taste with every breath. (Switching from a long commute to walking increases happiness as much as falling in love does.) Not so here in Kuala Lumpur, where priority is given to cars over people. Our roads are regularly resurfaced, but our scarce, pitiful pavements are littered with potholes and broken tiles and lampposts in the middle of the pathway – a great big middle finger to our visually impaired and wheelchair-bound brethren. Oftentimes, there is no pavement at all… For here in Malaysia, car is king. Those pesky pedestrians who refuse to own cars will simply have to venture onto the roads at their own peril. Suck it up, guys.

Streets for cars
Above: The pedestrian bridge near the GoCar office in Petaling Jaya empties into a busy road with no zebra crossings, turning coffee runs into a blood sport: navigate oncoming traffic without getting killed. (Image: Yan Teh)


Private cars push us apart

Mobility is not just about convenience. The more roads and parking lots we build, the harder it becomes to get around without a car. This vicious cycle puts lower-income brackets at an even greater disadvantage, making it harder for them to access jobs and services in the parts of town they can’t afford to live in. Conversely, the more public transport infrastructure and shared car services we provide, the more people will use them, and the more democratised mobility becomes. Mobility is a question of equity and access. Poorly designed urban mobility widens the gap between those who can afford cars or centrally-located property, and those who can’t.

As Glenn Buhlmann quips: “Damn it. Why do you get a tax break if you buy an energy efficient car, but no tax break if you don’t own a car (which is better than owning an electric car)? Oh wait. I know. Because cars.” This recalls the tremendous power of urban planning and design described in Part I: the way you design a city and its policies has an unequivocal impact on people’s behaviour, opportunities, and lives as a whole.


Mobility and democracy

Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, is famous for his take-no-prisoners approach to democratising urban mobility. He helmed the construction of the world’s first modern Bus Rapid Transit system, which now carries over two million people daily. He also expanded Bogotá’s bicycle lane network to 350 kilometres, making it the largest bike network in Latin America.

Peñalosa champions public transport as democracy in action, delivering piercing one-liners such as “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation,” “In our constitution there are many rights: the right to housing, the right to education, the right to health. But I don’t find the right to park,” and “A bikeway is a symbol that shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as a citizen on a $30,000 car.”

Bike protest.jpg
Above: Latvian cyclists highlight the amount of space occupied by a car compared to that of a bicycle. (Image: Let’s Bike It)

Unlike health or education, Peñalosa points out that mobility tends to get worse as societies get richer. In an interview with The Guardian, he said:

If all citizens are equal, then somebody who is walking or on a bike has a right to the same amount of road space as somebody in a Rolls-Royce or luxury car. And a bus with 150 passengers has a right to 150 times more road space than a car with one passenger. Which means we should give exclusive lanes to buses and create Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems; it’s the only solution.

This is not the only solution, but Peñalosa is right in prescribing a more equitable sharing of space – road space and other space – between pedestrians, cyclists, public transit, and private vehicles (in that order).

Building a comprehensive public transportation network and improving walkability and cycling infrastructure will take a great deal of time, money, and political will. In the meantime, leaving behind mass private vehicle ownership in favour of widespread car-sharing would be a powerful start to making our cities more sustainable and liveable. Even in the long run, car-sharing will be an integral component of the transport ecosystem, aiding first and last mile connectivity and covering journeys not possible on public transport.

Having examined the steep cost of hanging on to private car ownership, we look next at what we stand to gain if we reclaim the city ruled by cars and return it to the people.

Coming up: Part V, the final piece in Cities 101, will show how transforming urban mobility and putting people first unlocks the potential of public space. In case you missed it:

  • Part I explained why cities matter;
  • Part II highlighted the professions that shape our cities; and
  • Part III showcased how businesses, brands, and ordinary people are impacting their cities.

Featured image: The parking lot of 1 Utama shopping mall (Jason Thien)

Copyright © 2018 Yan Teh. All rights reserved.


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