Daily Archives: August 3, 2014

Do People Misunderstand the Utility of Cars?

The premise behind a lot of urbanist thought seems to be that there’s a fixed quantity of things you need to access, and the reason you drive is that those things aren’t close enough together. Therefore, if provided with a dense enough neighborhood, you won’t need to drive.

This is the idea behind the “slow transit is ok if there’s enough density” argument that folks have been using to defend slow streetcars and LRT. It doesn’t matter if the transit is slow if there’s a lot of destinations that are close enough together.

I think this misunderstands the utility of driving, and indeed, the utility of transportation in general.

The purpose of investment in transportation is to make it possible to travel more distance in less time. It’s not to provide access to some fixed quantity of things you need, it’s to increase the quantity of things you can access. This is true for both low-density and high-density areas. The difference is that in high-density areas, you can access more things for a given investment of time.

For example, you could live in Koreatown and work downtown. These are among the densest neighborhoods in LA, and you’ll have an incredible amount of amenities within walking distance. But if you want to hit the beach, you’ll have to go to Santa Monica or Venice. If you want awesome Chinese food, you’re going to have to go to the San Gabriel Valley. Or maybe you have friends that live in Hollywood that you want to visit. Or maybe you want to take a class that’s only offered at UCLA or CSU Northridge. Or maybe you just want to go walk around a different neighborhood for a change!

Slow transit doesn’t help you with any of that. And here’s the thing: even if K-town and Downtown get so dense as to offer all the amenities just mentioned, other parts of the city will inevitably evolve to offer different things. That’s just how cities work!

The appeal of driving isn’t that it makes it possible to access the things you need in a low-density area. It’s that speed makes it possible to access more things at any density. If transit is going to compete, it needs to compete with speed.