Car-free and anti-car are not synonymous

See that reflection? Thats me. I rented this minivan. Photo: Fred Camino

See that guy in the reflection? That's me. I rented this minivan. Photo: Fred Camino

Marc Littman’s recent post about taking his son to a car museum by Metro got me thinking: can one be car-free without being anti-car?

I think there’s an assumption that if someone is car-free by choice, they must just hate cars. While this may be true in some cases, I think it’s the exception not the rule.

People choose to go car-free for any number of reasons. Some do it to save money, others to reduce their impact on the environment. Some people, and I happen to fall into this category, do it because they feel that driving a car in a big crowded city is far more trouble than it’s worth.

Cities are unique places in that they concentrate a large number of people in a relatively small geographical area. This is also known as density – cities have it, rural places don’t. Even a place that sprawls out over thousands of square miles, such as the greater Los Angeles area, is dense due to the sheer number of people crammed into that area.

Density is great because it brings us all closer together so the daily economic, social, and civic transactions of human civilization can occur without requiring us to travel great distances.

“But Fred!” you cry, “cars allow us to travel great distances quickly and with ease!”

This I can’t deny. Cars are an incredible invention in their ability to do this, and have quite simply revolutionized human mobility. But the kicker has to do with density.

Like I said, density it great. But there’s a caveat. Density is great, for people.

Your average American man stands at about six feet tall, less than two feet wide, and depending on his beer gut, no more than a foot deep. He weighs in at around 180 lbs (again, this varies depending on beer consumption). On the other hand, your average American car is about five feet tall, seventeen feet long, and seven feet wide.  It weights in at a hefty 1.8 tons (give or take few pounds depending on how many cases of beer are in the trunk).

In other words, cars take up a whole lot more space than people.  In a dense environment, say a metropolis like Los Angeles, this creates a problem.

According to the California Highway Patrol, in 2008 there were 5,859,407 cars registered in Los Angeles County. If the average car takes up 119 square feet of space, that means that cars alone – not roads, parking lots, or any other automobile infrastructure, just the cars sitting still – take up 25 square miles of Los Angeles County. For context, consider that the land area of the island of Manhattan in New York City is 22 square miles.

Think about that, the entire island of Manhattan, home to about 1.6 million people (over twice that during your typical weekday), is too small to be L.A.’s parking lot.

So it’s not that I hate cars, I just hate that they’ve been widely adopted without thought of their consequences – on our cites, on our environment, on our society.

Driving on the open road is fun. Driving on crowded streets with five million others cars, not so much.

Joe Eaton, a writer for Slate who lives in Baltimore and works in D.C. , went car-free two years ago and is using the money he saved to buy a Porsche for pleasure driving on the weekends. He’s the perfect example of a car-free car-enthusiast. He loves to drive but realizes that cities are not the best place for driving. In fact, he calls city driving “soul-sucking and dirty”.

Another example is Portland transit blogger, Adron Hall, of the blog Transit Sleuth. A dedicated transit advocate and rider, he’s also the proud owner of a sporty 2006 Nissan 350z (although now he’s decided to get rid of his car for good). Adron would take his sports car out on private race tracks or for weekend pleasure cruises with his girl, and enjoy every moment of it.  What he wouldn’t use it for is getting to work, doing chores, or any of the other utilitarian and mundane tasks so often given to machines that clearly deserve more.

And while I’m no car enthusiast, I do enjoy a good road trip and I am a card carrying Zipcar member. Cars have their uses, there’s no doubt — good luck getting that new Ikea shelving unit unit home on the bus. But for day-to-day travel in a dense city like L.A. they are just too much hassle. The more we take Metro, share rides, ride bikes, and walk, the more livable we’ll find our city.

Imagine all the fun stuff we could do with that Manhattan size space we’re currently using for our cars.