How or Why Cars Erode Cities & Villages

Do Cars Belong Downtown? Haverstraw in 1940.

Jane Jacobs was one of the first writers to document the effects of cars on urban fabric. By “urban,” I mean “old-fashioned” or traditional towns and downtowns. Densely populated cities and villages throughout the United States were beginning to take steps to incorporate automobiles into the built environment. Planners and politicians began to see parking garages, wider streets, more lanes, and asphalt parking lots as essential infrastructure in all places. The more successful and desirable a city or village was, the more parking was required. Ultimately, though, this mindset led to the demolition of millions of acres of the nations’ most precious neighborhoods. Really? Yes, “cars erode cities” and our desire to be in downtowns.  

The first way to understand how automobiles are ‘erosive’ and corrosive to American downtowns and historic, traditional neighborhoods is by analyzing the present condition of such a neighborhood. Take the Village of Haverstraw, for instance. The Village is pocked by a number of vacant lots that have been converted to surface parking lots. How attractive is a vacant lot or a parking lot for that matter? Each and every one of these lots was once stores and apartments and offices, built within mostly three- or four-story structures from the late 1800s. These structures had decoration along their roof line, called the cornice, and above windows. They were mostly made of brick. Since the Village government believed that parking was “required and essential” for the downtown’s economic success, these parking lots soon became “public parking lots” some owned and maintained by the government itself and some zoned to remain parking for the foreseeable future. Instead of returning these parcels to economic use, which subsequently generates increased tax revenues for the local government, the Village instead maintains these parcels as asphalt. No economic development there and no taxes paid to support the government’s activities. Paid parking (garages and on-street meters) often only generates enough revenue to pay meter-maids or to pay for new asphalt and maintenance. This is what we call a “loss leader.”

Another way to understand the destructive nature of cars on downtowns is the psychology that cars create amongst ‘motorists’ or those that regularly use cars to get around. As Americans became more and more reliant on cars to live their daily lives, they unknowingly gravitated toward shopping centers that were most convenient for their vehicle. The closer these motorists could park to the entrance of the store, the better. Downtowns became “inconvenient” and therefore began to decline as places for commerce. This mentality is aided entirely by zoning requirements that force real estate developers to include a certain number of parking spots IN FRONT of their stores.

This basic zoning requirement eliminates the traditional function of retail: drawing shoppers off the sidewalk and into lively and attractive storefronts. So, the arterial road (Route 9W in this case) becomes the “sidewalk” and the only way to attract drivers to stores is by posting massive signs and providing plenty of convenient parking as near as possible to the “stores.” Enter the strip mall. The strip mall is the physical incarnation of suburban zoning laws. Everyone hates them, but they are required; anything other than a strip mall would be considered illegal. You can’t blame the developers; you have to blame your elected officials.

Roads take up lots of valuable space. Asphalt takes up nearly half of the surface of Manhattan. That seems unbelievable, right? Well, it takes up even more space in Haverstraw. Asphalt is a suck on the economy: it requires taxes for maintenance, and doesn’t generate any income (unless you toll your asphalt, or charge high rates for parking). Asphalt also sends pollutants from rubber tires and oil leaks and trash into storm water catch basins and into our rivers and lakes. In Haverstraw, you’ll soon be drinking that water. Instead of rainwater soaking into the ground, getting naturally filtered along the way, the water builds and builds and sometimes causes flooding and damage to homes and business.

We seem to think that we want more and more roads so that more and more people can get to businesses, shopping, and to work. We also want more and more parking so these people can store their cars once they get there. Basically, this is a destructive cycle of thinking. As we attempt to add more and more roads and more and more parking, we destroy what made the attractive place attractive and desirable in the first place. How does that make any sense? We must learn to restrain ourselves, I think. But, you might ask: “Well, then where would everyone park? Wouldn’t local businesses suffer?” Let me explain why that’s a delusion.

If we could change our politicians’ minds to change the defunct zoning code, we could begin to make a dent on the delusion I just mentioned. The parking and roads delusion is precisely a delusion for some simple reasons. For example, if we can take all of those asphalt surfaces, where currently no one lives and no one does business, and convert that area to stores, offices, businesses, dwellings, and entertainment, then all the people and businesses needed to create a bustling economy would be located within walking distance – no cars needed. We would shift where the shopping, eating, beer-drinking, doctor-seeing, movie-watching population lives.

This doesn’t mean you have to move where you live. If those of us who haven’t decide to move downtown and who remain reliant on cars to get around want to come downtown for a visit, we could park in areas on the outskirts of the downtown (that are less valuable) and walk in, take a taxi, get dropped off by a friend, or perhaps, take public transportation. The walk would be healthy. It might be exciting. Because we’d be moving slower and out from behind a windshield, we would see things that we have noticed in a long time like the architectural details on that Victorian house, or a cardinal in a flowering tree, or we might say “Hi!” to an old friend or even strike up a conversation with a future friend. Plus, you can talk or text on your phone without worrying about getting a traffic violation or killing someone’s grandma or daughter.

This transformation of travel modes, local economic growth, zoning changes is happening right now in most parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and in downtowns in northern New Jersey, Westchester and southwestern Connecticut. Actually, it’s happening in most downtowns across the country. It’s even happening in places where there wasn’t a traditional downtown – a new downtown is being created from scratch.

So basically what I’ve described is not a “transformation” so-to-speak. It’s more like getting into a time machine and heading back to our grandparents’ daily life when they were in their childhood years. Take note: this was before cars really started to dominate our lives. It was before cars started to erode cities and villages like Haverstraw. It’s called rediscovering your roots, finding community, making our downtowns better places to live and do business, and stopping cars from eroding and corroding our villages and cities. Go ahead! Park on the outskirts of town; what’s the use of spending so much time finding the most “convenient” parking spot? Walk on that sidewalk! Peak into that storefront! Stop in and grab a coffee and say “Hi!” to a neighbor. You’re not really a slave to your car as you might think.

I’ll expand more on this later . . .


2 thoughts on “How or Why Cars Erode Cities & Villages

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Cars do so much to destroy community and the enjoyment of life. On the other hand, I am living in Papua New Guinea, where basic services are not readily available to 80% of the population because development is so far behind the times. Within the last 4 years, everyone has bought mobile phones, and this is not surprising since the cultures here are so relationional. And yet, the national “highways” are dirt roads that are completely impassable half of the time. People die because they can’t get to the hospital. People can’t afford to send their children to school because they can’t get their cash crops to town. So I wonder if it is more the city planning rather than the cars themselves that erode cities and villages.

  2. I think it’s a combination of both. If City Planners and politicians can restrain themselves from destroying the city and succumbing to motorists’ complaints about traffic, then the City/Village could be preserved and still have cars in it.

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