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Cars vs Community

March 5, 2013

This Sunday I was offered a chance to go to a crawdad festival.  And a kite festival.  And a flag football game.

I turned them all down.

Why?

The high cost of driving

I don’t mean monetary cost (although gas, wear-and-tear, and parking add up) but the opportunity cost lost due to driving.  Let’s break it down:

  • 15-30 minutes (depending on traffic) to the event
  • 1-10 minutes finding parking
  • event
  • 15-30 minutes back from the event

That’s at least half an hour (but probably closer to an hour) of time spent in the car.  What does that time spend get you?

  • More sedentary time
  • Increased stress/road rage
  • Cost towards vehicle maintenance
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Risk of death or severe injury
  • Eventual arrival at your destination

You could partially redeem that time by listening to educational material, audiobooks, or talking with fellow riders… but those are things you can do despite the car (and can in fact make driving more dangerous).

So there is an extremely high cost (unless you don’t value your time or your health) to driving to an event.  If the event is successful, this may be a cost worth paying.  If the event is unsuccessful, then all that driving time feels like the waste it is.  Even if I leave after 5 minutes, I don’t get those driving hours back.  The result is that I will only attend events that have a very good chance of being successful, reducing both the number and variety of events I go to.

The walking alternative

Imagine this alternative flow of attending an event:

  • 5-10 minutes walking
  • event
  • 5-10 minutes walking back

This is 10 to 20 minutes of time commitment, and it’s time spent walking.  Here’s what time spent walking gives you:

  • decreased stress
  • better health
  • opportunity for serendipity
  • clearer mind
  • improved mood
  • eventual arrival at your destination

In addition, in a well-designed community you will have opportunities to see both acquaintances (built through the mere exposure effect) and nature during your walk.  You will arrive at your destination refreshed, happy, and social.

Is this a utopian fantasy?

This type of situation, where you can quickly walk to most of your destinations, is rare in the USA.  This is because our society has valued the temporary convenience of individual car ownership over the long-term happiness granted by a population-dense walking community.  However, I’ve experienced it before, at Hendrix College, and it resulted in me going to many many events — including “high risk” events outside my comfort zone and core interests, where enjoyment of the event was not guaranteed.  One of the goals of the Urban Retreat (and other city plans) is to bring real neighborhoods closer to the ideal.

From → urban planning

3 Comments
  1. If we could arrange things so that people could live closer to where they work, that would be a huge and good step. But we seem to be unwilling. Again, a big part of this is density. If we lived closer together, we could live closer to things. That’s not all of it though. We need sidewalks and bike lanes. People are conflicted about those things, though. They hate paying taxes to raise money for them, but then they’re delighted when they get them.

    • Precisely! I believe the will to create such things does exist, but it’s not concentrated enough in most places. One of the more interesting shifts will be the concentration of such will; the mass migration of young people (who can afford it) to walkable places. These young people are disproportionately creative or skilled in a trade… bringing their chosen cities wealth and innovation and leaving aging, stagnating ghost towns in suburbia-ridden areas.

      The downside is that then those areas are filled with people who don’t understand how to create walkability and population density. They’ll splatter some (disconnected) bike trails randomly across town, leave the parking lots and sprawl, see that no one uses the bike trails, then declare that no one wants to bike.

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