Diary of an Expat, Part 60
Lessons learned from Europe, again
So here is a blend of a polemic and reflections on juxtaposing life in Berlin and the United States over the last couple of weeks.

One of the interesting things about this juxtaposition is seeing, for example, when things that are good, and helpful, and sharply beneficial for the entire population — that promote health and decrease waste, that mitigate the inefficiencies of a bloated, self-serving, destructive system — are opposed by the increasingly loud, and misinformed, persons who for whatever reason insist that no matter how or why it works in Europe (Canada, etc.) it cannot possibly work in the United States.

The interesting thing about universal health care is that it's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the way you get around town, and the way that many Americans seem to believe that the only way to do so is by strapping themselves into two tons of steel and low explosive, with minimal training, and then also smashing into things to the rate of ten a half million accidents per year.

This does not, by and large, seem to fly in Germany — certainly not in Berlin. In Berlin where, I note, it has been below freezing and snowing this last week, and where I have continued to bike to work without feeling either uncomfortable or unsafe — it helps that in pedestrian-oriented cities, cars are much less likely to behave in ways that are apt to kill you.

We know, intuitively at least, that this is better for us. Setting aside the health benefits alone, if Americans biked (or walked) to work instead of driving, the United States would cut nearly 40% of its petrol consumption (and drop its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10%). It's also better for us economically — unlike adding new roads, adding bike lanes or making urban areas more walkable increases the local property values, suggesting that in many cases investments in reducing the need (and ability) of people to drive through an urban neighborhood is repaid by higher property taxes. It suggests also that stimulus money spent on roads would've created more jobs, and more net return on investment, if it had been spent on something less destructive.

I live in downtown Berlin. In fifteen minutes, round trip, it is possible for me to do my grocery shopping, drop something off at the laundromat, go to the post office, get some fresh bread at one of two bakeries, pick up something at the drugstore, run off copies, recharge my cell phone, or purchase flowers. A fifteen minute one-way walk would get me to the next closest grocery store from five chains, restaurants representing a dozen cuisines, stationary stores, furniture stores, toy stores, several bars, two jazz clubs, far too many cafes, four train stations, and at least six parks.

Unsuprisingly, I do not feel particularly stifled by this. Indeed, quality of life is higher in walkable cities, and conversely car-oriented cities tend to have a lower quality of life. Even in America, it is those cities that are walkable — Boulder, Portland, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle — that draw investment and immigration. The life of a city is directly correlated to how easy it is to maneuver around it, and we know that, consistently, investments in public transport and walkability — and correspondingly, getting cars out — pay dividends both monetarily and for resident safety and happiness.

The reason why this is in my expatriate reflections instead of a general blog post is because, not to put too fine a point on this for my American readers, but Americans don't get it. It isn't something that I have to explain to Europeans — why paid parking, congestion charges, converting traffic lanes to bike or pedestrian lanes, lowering speed limits, etc. are good ideas don't need defense here, because we've already seen them work.

Of course, we've seen them work in the United States, too. The 1989 earthquake that took out the Embarcadero Freeway gave us a beautiful object lesson in what happens when you tell drivers to shove it: you create the second highest ridership of any street car network in the country, revitalize the city's waterfront and increase property values by 300%. Mayor Agnos, who lost his job as a result of lobbying against the freeway, was honored a few years back with a statue.

In the real world, most of the arguments against making cities less car-friendly don't really pan out. We're told that there's something unique in the American character (and population density) that necessitates suburban living — but Australia and Canada were also both founded as frontier colonies, both have lower population densities, and both have lower rates of car ownership. We're told that inclement weather makes driving the only practical option — but the Yukon has twice as many bicycle commuters (per capita) as California, the city with the most linear feet of retail-fronted sidewalks is Toronto, and in the developed world the country with the highest share of walking urban trips (as compared to driving) is Sweden.

We're also told that owning a car makes you more flexible, which is true in certain ways and profoundly untrue in others. It certainly makes it easier to just "get up and go" somewhere — I know this; I have long structured my life so that I could take everything important to me in the boot of a car, and do so in a manner of minutes. On the other hand, it makes you less flexible in the money it ties up in gas, insurance, car payments, etc. It also makes you less flexible in the need to maintain parking both where you store your car and where you drive it to.

This of course is one of the biggest problems, which is that — just like in any scenario (such as health care, or environmental regulation) where negative externalities are involved — everyone else has to pay for your car use whether they want to or not. They pay for it in the damage you cause to their lungs, of course, and the safety risks car owners inflict on others. But they also pay for it in the costs to the city itself — the spaces that could've been stores or houses but have to be left vacant for parking instead, the division of the urban landscape by inefficient, costly six-lane roads, and the creation of parking structures that require massive subsidies and do not recoup their investments, and the money spent on road maintenance that cannot therefore be spent on public transport, even though mass transit investment incurs a 70% greater return on job creation.

It's not entirely my goal to castigate urban commuters. I like cars, and when it's for pleasure I like driving as well. However, comparing life in Germany, San Francisco, Boulder and suburban Denver does lead me to want to be pragmatic about this, which is that car culture in America is a choice that people make. It is not something anyone is actually forced to do; car owners have decided that the tradeoffs are worth it, and as a personal choice I am therefore empowered to express my problems with it.

I think it's also important to understand just how destructive the car has been to American cities, and how destructive the singleminded focus on transportation throughput has been. Whether this is overt, like the destruction of the historic Treme district in New Orleans by shoving an Interstate through it (a very common story, incidentally) or subtle, like the havoc wrought on businesses by the creation of "one-way" streets (most people do their shopping in the evening — what happens if you're a business owner whose street is on the path of business travelers in the morning instead?) the ways in which we have become slaves to the car are rarely beneficial for us.

Nor has the problem ever been neatly solved. Adding more lanes requires making the city less liveable for everyone else but does nothing to alleviate traffic — induced demand ensures that more cars rapidly step in to fill up the mix. The corruption of the system doesn't help: traffic engineers who design cities are also frequently being paid to add in the traffic lights, etc. they said were necessary, and various "departments of transportation" are effectively little more than massive subsidies paid, through various steps, to the oil fields of the middle east. Changing actual transportation patterns would put them out of a job.

The solutions are known, but counterintuitive. Removing lanes adds urban space back whilst demonstrably keeping traffic levels the same (as incidental trips decline or are replaced by non-car options). Removing some of the traditional driver-safety measures (lowering line of sight, deleting street signs and lane markers) actually makes drivers (and pedestrians) more safe by forcing them to be more cautious. Upping parking fees and removing parking requirements leads to more efficient and ultimately cheaper use of the available space.

I think that it's important that people consider these, however. As it happens, drivers exert a disproportionate influence on culture and policy. In the same way as we dislike the ways it seems the extremely wealthy are able to make everyone else do their bidding and to bend the laws to support their lifestyle, drivers have created a cityscape bent (unsustainably and destructively) to their whims and dragged the rest of us along for the ride, as it were. I'm not saying that drivers are bad people, or that they've made the wrong choice.

But there are two things to keep in mind.

The first is that the end of said car culture is not negotiable. It's not something that will happen because I want it to or because left-wingers in Sacramento lobby for it. It's not something that will happen because of anything we do in Berlin, or in Zurich, or London. The idea of living in the suburbs, commuting an hour or more a day, driving to the shops and circling around looking for parking... in addition to exporting hundreds of billions of dollars to foreign petrochemical entities, this entire ecosystem requires that petrol be cheap. It's not going to be for much longer, and I am really not sure Americans understand quite how nice and easy you guys have it right now.

Nor is the tide of public opinion with the car. In the last few decades the number of young people without driver's licenses has tripled to nearly a quarter; young Americans are driving at such a precipitously slower rate that, in the last fifteen years, Americans in their twenties have accounted for almost half their former rate of driving miles. People are realizing that living in the suburban "auto zone" is so costly that the flexibility it notionally affords is illusory — residents of that zone spent a quarter of their income on transportation back before the most recent increases in gas prices. Correspondingly people are moving back to the cities, and it's the cities that have done the best planning that are most attractive.

The second thing is that, as I said, this isn't a bad thing, either. City dwellers have a higher quality of life. Things are more convenient here, and more accessible. Meetups are easier to organize, work demands less of an investment in the commute. The freedom that automobile owners feel they have when they can get the things they need done in fifteen minutes by car is substantially magnified when you can do the same by foot, and save money on it besides. So the impending demise of the car is neither troublesome nor arguable.

I'm telling you this now, as a resident of a walkable city, because this is your chance to start thinking about how you want to get in on that early.
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