Why Americans Drive Cars (…and Why We Soon Won’t)

“To everything there is a season.”  -Ecclesiastes 3

It might surprise some readers to know that Frank Lloyd Wright was no fan of cities.  He detested them, in fact, and once proposed a decentralized planning model called Broadacre City that in hindsight was pretty much the blueprint for suburban America.   Most Americans now live in Wright’s utopia, whether they know it or not, and a lot of new urbanists have mistakenly assumed that it’s Wright’s fault for loving sprawl.

Protected bike lane, Toronto.  A future with less cars and more bicycles means that it is entirely appropriate and prudent to take lanes from automobiles and give them to other road users.

Protected bike lane, Toronto. A future with less cars and more bicycles means that it is entirely appropriate and prudent to take lanes from automobiles and give them to other road users.

They completely miss the point. Wright didn’t love sprawl.  He simply recognized that America was blessed with abundant land and cheap oil and that its cities were (in the pre EPA/information economy 1930s at least) pretty wretched places to live.  Given that, it was inevitable that people would choose the good life far from the smokestacks and flaming rivers of urban America.

Cuyahoga_River_Fire_Nov._3,_1952

Cuyahoga River, Cleveland, June 22, 1969. Way to go, Ohio. Courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library

It was plentiful land and cheap oil that made us a nation of motorists.  People like Wright and Henry Ford simply recognized the trend and got in front of it.  That’s what made them exceptional.

It is land and oil that make us different than Europe and, to a lesser degree, other parts of the world.  I recently read a book called “The Children’s Blizzard” that described how Norwegian immigrants came to America not for freedom, but for land.  I dug a little deeper and came to realize that for many immigrants, it was and is land that is the draw.  Land is scarce in other parts of the world. It is tied up in families for generations.  Here, everyone can own a piece of property.  We are somewhat unique in this regard.

The same is true of oil.  With the exception of the North Sea oil fields, there’s not much petroleum in Europe.  We, on the other hand, produce over 9 million barrels per day domestically.  Throw in our imports from Canada and Mexico and it’s enough to supply us with close to 100% of what we use at the present time.

This is all changing very quickly.  The US EIA shows domestic production peaking this year.    From there, it’s all downhill.  Many recent gains were from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, and oil people know that these wells have short life spans.  Mexico is overproducing its most prolific fields including Cantarell, and their decline curves suggest that our Mexican imports will soon be falling as well.  That means much higher oil prices a few years down the road.

On the land front, the good locations are all gone.  Redevelopment of urban spaces is occurring not so much out of an altruistic desire to see revitalized urban cores as it is out of practicality.  These are the best locations and now, in many cases, they are cost competitive with suburban development.

We are at a strategic inflection point.  The two factors that gave rise to car culture have turned against it.  They’re not going to turn back, and so the question becomes one of whether we’re going to embrace change and make it work for us or let it victimize us.  It’s our choice.

How we will move around in the future will change.  It has to change.   The time to plan for it is right now. I believe bicycles are integral, especially for trips of five miles or less.  No other vehicle does so much and asks so little in return.   So find your bike, saddle up and ride..firm in the knowledge that like Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Ford, you’re in front of the trend.

 

 

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