The Social Costs of Car-free Living in Small Cities

What kind of a statement does car-free living make in a small city? Today on the Streetsblog Network, Aaron Renn at The Urbanophile
poses that question in a provocative post. Sure, it’s about walking the
walk of sustainable transportation, he says, but it also represents a
withdrawal from the community structure in places such as Columbus and

3605138336_20bffac6df.jpgPhoto by World of Oddy via Flickr.

a metro area that is nearly all auto-oriented, much of the setting of
civic life in that city is outside of the core downtown area and
districts where it is easy to get to without a car. To live without a
car is a deliberate cutting off of oneself from those activities and
regions — especially suburban — and from that part of society.

think it’s that last part that is important. Living carless is a
deliberate rejection of the majority of the metro area, evidenced by
actually enduring hardship by voluntarily depriving oneself of the
means to travel there. I’m sure this message is not lost on the people
who live in those places.

Sure, I get it that there are
legitimate concerns about sprawl and other things. But I also hear
these same urban advocates complain that suburbanites don’t care about
the city, are afraid to visit downtown, won’t support urban core
redevelopment, etc. If you are living carless in one of those cities,
frankly, you have no leg to stand on in complaining about that. (I’ll
make an exception for college students.)

Imagine how this looks
to someone living in the suburbs. What do they see? They are asked to
visit downtown and support downtown, but have to listen to urban
advocates claim that the highest and best form of living is to be
downtown without a car — a car that is necessary to visit the suburbs,
and by extension them.

This brings to mind a recent post from Carfree With Kids
about maintaining relationships with friends in the suburbs if you
don’t have a car. It’s true that for all the ways in which car-free
living can create and sustain a sense of community, it can also be a
barrier to creating social — and political — ties in many places and
circumstances. We’d be interested in hearing about your experiences and
thoughts on the subject in the comments. But first head over to The Urbanophile and read the excellent post in full.

More from the network: The Transport Politic reports that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who previously flipped his position on high-speed rail, has now decided to flop. Travelin’ Local looks at the relative spatial efficiency of various transport modes. And Transit Miami
laments the situation in that city, where the mayor has been handing
out fat raises to his staff while cutting the budget for transit.

  • David Galvan

    This is why I’m a transit moderate. No one has to make this type of all-or-nothing decision: Drive all the time or get rid of your car. Just driving your car less often can be a useful commitment to a transit-oriented lifestyle, and a way to lower your transportation costs and help the environment. It doesn’t mean you have to give up your car entirely. For some situations, it makes no sense to choose transit over the car, while for others it makes sense to leave the car in the garage and use the bike or bus.

    In my opinion, those who demonize cars as the cause of all our society’s problems, advocating that what we really need is a car-free society, simply don’t get it.

  • yeahright

    thats just silly, i wouldnt visit the suburbs even if i had a car. sorry.

  • yeahright

    cars sever social interaction anyways. When was the last time you fostered social interaction from the comfort of your air conditioned landrover?

    besides, whats wrong with car sharing? why are we EXPECTED to own our own car?

  • DJB

    I don’t think living without a car is necessarily a deliberate cutting oneself off from suburbia (unless there’s literally no way to get there without a car). I visit my parents in the suburbs. It’s a pain in the ass to get there on transit, but I still do it because I want to see them from time to time.

    BTW, I’m not quite willing to get rid of my car yet, even though I don’t need it now, so I have it parked at their place and hardly ever use it.

    The post also says “a great city needs great suburbs”. I don’t know if I’m willing to go that far. Suburbs will probably continue to exist because of demand though.

  • David Galvan

    I’ll give an example: This past weekend my wife and I saw a play at the Teatrico Botanico in the Santa Monica Mountains. We live in Sherman Oaks, and we were meeting friends at the play. Those friends live in Santa Monica. So we drove south on Topanga Canyon, and they drove north. There was no public transit option for accessing this site, and it would have made zero sense to carpool with friends who were coming to the destination from the opposite direction. If we did not have a car, we would essentially be making a choice that would cut us off from the option of having that cultural experience.

    Cars are a mode of transit just like public transit and bikes are a mode of transit. They have their good sides and down sides. Absolutism is no solution to our society’s modern-day problems. Cars are not a bad idea. They are a tool that makes sense to use in some situations, and doesn’t make sense in others.

  • DJB

    I’d argue that living without a car in greater LA has some social costs. It’s kind of like being a vegetarian. When you sit down to eat with people who aren’t vegetarians, they wonder if you’re judging them :)

    In Manhattan, or Mexico City riding transit is the normal thing to do, and almost everybody just does it by default. In LA, and most of the country, driving is the normal thing to do, so when you’re trying to interact with people in that mindset, it can be awkward.

    Still, many people have never even considered riding transit and stay away from it based on unfamiliarity and negative stereotypes. Do you remember what it was like the first time you rode a bus? I think I was 14, and I was really nervous (how much is it? how do I get the bus to stop? will the people bite my head off? will I be able to find my way back?). There has to be a culture that supports the use of transit and helps newcomers learn the ropes.

    That culture didn’t exist in the suburb in which I grew up.

  • Oh gasp! Suburbanites feel left out of the fun?!

    Too bad. “Grow up” (an oft heard refrain when I decided to ride my bike everywhere).

    Let’s not worry too much about hurting suburb dwellers feelings, and a bit more of letting economics and demographic trends take care of their hang-ups for them.

    They are the ones living in a state-subsidized bubble which is soon to pop. They’ve got no easy access to non-motorized rule of law, schools, industry, trade, courts, polls, parks, and other basic amenities. Living a city makes a lot of sense, unless you derive your living from work in the countryside. Just because the orgy of 20th century spending allowed people to, briefly, create these cartoon civilizations doesn’t mean we should respect their decisions which, quite frankly, are laughable and absurd.

  • David Galvan

    Laughable and absurd? Really?

    So, my wife and I decide to have two kids (we already have a dog) over the next couple of years. Our 2bed/2bath condo is no longer big enough for our family, so we look for houses. Lo and behold, we can get a 3 bed/ 2 bath single family home with a yard for the dog in the suburbs for 2/3 (or less) the price we could find one for in the more urban areas. The difference in price would more than make up for the extra gas money we’d spend.

    So, by your standards, the decision to spend less money for more space is laughable and absurd? To each their own, I suppose. Feel free to continue to demonize people who are making decisions that make economic sense for their family, if you like. I predict you’ll see no large-scale shift in this behavior until the economics work out on a per family basis.

    Yeesh. We can’t all live within walking distance of Wilshire or Ventura Blvd, you know.

  • I wasn’t car-free when I lived in the suburbs, so I can’t claim to be an expert on this… but I would think that, generally, being car-free (or even car-lite) would still offer the benefit of more social interaction with one’s neighbors. As a suburbanite walks to the bus stop or bikes to the store, she/he can greet neighbors… more so than had she/he would have had she/he driven. I think that owning a car acts as a “social barrier” much more than being car-free does.

    Sure, being car-free means that it’s not that easy to get from Sherman Oaks to Topanga Canyon… but a car-free person, when faced with a destination that’s not easily walked/biked/transited to, can actually rent or borrow a car now and then. I can get nearly everywhere I need to go without using a car – by combining bike, walk, and transit… but now and then (once or twice a year) I do rent a car (like when I went to a wedding near up by Magic Mountain on the Ventura County border) and I am still a car-free person.

    In my opinion, putting up the extreme example (something like “I need a car for when I drive out to Riverside twice a year”) isn’t a good justification for owning a car. Think of the money you could save and the freedom you could enjoy if you didn’t have the burden of a car… and you can still get to places now and then by car… without having all the hassle of a car.

    I find being car-free very liberating; it’s a benefit, a connection, not a “withdrawal” or a “barrier.” I think that the cost of owning, operating and maintaining a car… the stress of driving all the time… yikes! now those are barriers!

    As a long time car-free person, I have to remember that it’s not all or nothing… being car-lite – getting up on your bike or riding the bus now and then can be really liberating for folks who can easily see getting rid of their car. It took me nearly two years to get rid of my car… as I was learning to use it less and less.

    and one more thing:

    Even if I take the quoted assumptions of the article as true – that being car-free is a “barrier to social ties” or “withdrawal”… the question is what the trade-off is. Having a car and being socially accepted and watching one’s air, water, soil, neighborhood, health, tranquility, and peace being degraded… or being car-free with some “withdrawal”… I would still assert that the latter is the more worthwhile choice. If all the lemmings are driving over the cliff, is it bad for some lemmings to socially withdraw?

  • In Southern California being car-free can mean that a job might not be available to you. Driving sucks, but I had to drive two hours to the Howard Hughes Center for a year because that was the only job I could find. I think that experience is what turned me on to web sites like Streetsblog.

    While I will strive to work close to my workplace in the future, in this world you have to take what you can get.

  • In this world, you can get on craigslist in your area code and find work within it. I did it, so can you (unless you are stuck in a cul de sac, “saving money” on housing that you spend on gas).

  • Not in this economy you can’t, and some of the most affordable housing, assuming you don’t want to be crammed 10 or 20 to a house, is in the suburbs.

    It is definitely a lifestyle choice to live in the city. There are some people who don’t have problems being perpetual renters, or with paying fluctuating HOA fees. Unfortunately, I have that problem, but I like the older streetcar suburb type communities of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, like the ones in the San Gabriel Valley along the Gold Line alignment, Main/Las Tunas, and the Metrolink alignment.

    The older streetcar suburbs did have a balance between open space, walkability, and car-accessbility, with the grid alignments, moderate sized lots, and access to public transit. Historic neighborhoods, not just in places like Pasadena and Silver Lake, but also in far-flung places like Pomona, Upland, San Dimas, and Covina, fetch a premium over more auto-oriented, less walkable areas like Rowland Heights, West Covina, and Rosemead. If the coming financial shitstorm (TM) comes, at least with the 3,000 square feet in my backyard, I can raise chickens or grow my own vegetables like I do now. Really dense cities like New York City or Downtown Los Angeles are nowhere near self-sufficient – their food and water is imported from miles away, their electricity from other states, etc. A reasonably sized house with adequate but not excessive space for living (kids don’t need their own bedroom now anymore than they did in the 1950’s, and stuff tends to expand like a gas to fill whatever empty space there is in a house) and a good backyard, with solar panels, a rainwater collection system, some vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and a few hens running around in the back fertilizing the aforementioned gardens and trees is, in my opinion, more sustainable than monster residential buildings such as 1100 Wilshire or soulless apartment complexes.

  • DJB

    I think the whole idea of suburban “self-sufficiency” is a bit of a stretch. You’ll never be able to grow all the food you need on a suburban lot (although you can grow some, and that’s better than a lawn).

    I like the point about small-lot suburbia. If you’re going to build a suburb, it should be built with small lots (I’d say around 10 per acre) so that it retains some density, walkability, and transit viability.

    From my “soulless apartment complex”, I can hear children playing, people chatting and laughing, walk to supermarkets, restaurants, subways and buses. I moved here from suburbia to be close to school and because I was dying of boredom.

    Ironically, I felt more cut off from cultural opportunities in the burbs. Here (K-Town), I’m close to about a billion theaters, museums, concerts, etc. all of which I can easily (more easily actually) access without a car. Furthermore, I’m doing all of this on a shoestring budget.

    I understand the point about driving to work though. Sometimes it’s damn hard to avoid doing that in greater LA. I’ve been there, and I hope I won’t have to go there again.

    It’s true that driving isn’t an all-or-nothing choice, so here’s my blanket statement: I think people should strive to live in a way that requires little to no driving unless they live on a farm and practice agriculture (in which case they should get the cleanest car they can).

  • Can that picture be any cuter? I’ve been Car free in LA for over 10 years – and nope I don’t feel cut off from anything – actually feel really lucky that it works for me as well as it does. Realize it doesn’t work for everyone but it does work for many – but lots of room for improvement. It can be done.

    There is something troubling and unsustainable about the historical trend we have in the US about driving until you can afford to live. It’s a free world and no disrespect on choices people want to make for their best of their family, that’s comes first, but perhaps rethinking this and providing better environments that has a rich jobs housing balance should be something we’re continually working towards – and if you’re reading this blog – no doubt you are.

    different note – just read this pretty funny and right on post

  • John Boucher

    Who ever thought going to the supermarket or taking the kids to a play date would become an ideology? I find all of this laughable. What is not laughable is the designs many have on small cities in regard to imposed hyper-density housing. As can be seen now in Berkeley and elsewhere, in California the big issue has become greenwashed develpment schemes, and the big lie that somehow we can build our way out global warming. This is now a source of growing doubt. Building high density complexes at the heart of our cities will only bring more people into those cities, and with them will come their cars. The notion that because people live in town they will give up their automobiles is magical thinking.

  • DJB

    People won’t necessarily give up their cars because they live in high-density housing (this is a common misrepresentation of urban advocates’ thought), but they will have more destinations withing walking/biking distance, they will be making transit more viable (through their density), and they will drive LESS on average than people in suburbs. It’s the difference between Manhattan and Bakersfield.

    Why does car use have to drop to zero for there to be a benefit?

    Low density urbanized areas are one of the most significant stumbling blocks to addressing climate change (and they gobble up habitat at a rapid rate, which environmentalists are supposed to be against). The human population is growing, that’s the cause of urban growth. Therefore, we should grow in a way that REDUCES the need for vehicles on a per capita basis.

    “No development” environmentalism isn’t helping the cause. We could accomplish a lot just by making walk-up apartments the “default” instead of single-family homes.

  • “The notion that because people live in town they will give up their automobiles is magical thinking.”


    People are engaging in this “real” thinking every day.

    I gave up my car when I moved to New York.

    When I moved back to Los Angeles I created a transit friendly car-free lifestyle.

    Not everyone will give up their car. Not everyone will keep it.

    Some people will be attracted to a low-density, automobile-friendly lifestyle. Others will be attracted to a high-density, public-transit friendly lifestyle.

    It is only the automobile entitled who think that everyone automatically wants a low-density automobile-based lifestyle.

    Even if they do, the old Los Angeles car culture, built on everyone driving and parking a single-occupancy automobile cheaply and conveniently on demand in all parts of the city, has long past its golden age.

  • Nathan Landau

    The idea that living without a car drives social isolation is pretty silly. When we lived car-free in Oakland (a city which in many ways is a smaller version of Los Angeles) we took the bus, took BART (though it was about a 3/4 mile walk), walked, and got rides when we needed to. If we were doing that now we’d probably add occasional cabs and carshares to the mix. Now I commute on transit and constantly run into friends and acquaintances on BART, and sometimes on the bus.

    Though the commentor was a bit snippy about it, urbanites and suburbanites often live in different social worlds for reasons quite apart from the availability of a car. Many young, childless urbanites aren’t that interested in seeing middle aged suburban couples with kids (or recently divested of kids), and vice-versa. The capitalist housing market is pretty efficient at sorting out households within a metropolitan area. I daresay I know the Bay Area better than most people, but there’s a large fraction of the 101 cities here that I have no reason to visit. And there are a great many outer Bay Area residents–most of whom do own cars–who feel very much the same about going into San Francisco, Oakland, or heaven forfend Berkeley. There are cosmopolites (like pleasure-seeking Chowhounds) who use large sections of the metro area, but most people have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the inclination to do so.

    What’s got to be, forgive me, deconstructed is the idea that households need vehicles that can accommodate the most demanding possible trip. This leads to families buying minivans for that occasional time that they need to carpool a group of kids (I have a daughter so don’t try to ding me on that one!) I watch minivans on the road, the overwhelming majority of the time they have one or two people in them. I believe that minivans typically have less occupants than other cars, but I’m not sure of that.

    You need a minivan occasionally, how about reserving one from carshare? Or jointly purchasing one for the neighborhood–now there’s a radical concept. We’ve nursed our sole, 13 year old car along (so far!) partially because we rent a car for long trips.

    The real issues in reducing auto use shouldn’t be compounded with this kind of fuzzy thinking.

  • Well, I just got a new job that I would never even think of driving to. It takes the same amount of time to take the train during rush hour and I can make use of that time on the train to study or relax.

    However, I’ve found that this cripples my ability to do things with co-workers. I have not met a single one who rides transit. If I were to hang out with them after work, the place would need to be near transit and I’d have to leave by a certain time to get back home.

    I mean, I don’t want to hang out with people anyway. I just want to go home and stare and the wall and wait for the next day. But for people who do care about their social life, they won’t take transit unless everybody else is, and that’s happening in New York? SF? Tokyo?


Putting the Brookings Report Into Context

Last week, the Brookings Institute, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks released, Transit Access and Zero Vehicle Households, a report that looked at transit access for the country’s most dependent populations and ranked each major American metropolitan area on how well they provided bus service to this population. Los Angeles ranked second in terms of […]