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“Car Free” as Distraction

By Matthew Yglesias on May 13, 2009 at 3:01 pm

"“Car Free” as Distraction"

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I linked yesterday to a New York Times article about a car-free suburb in Germany because I thought it was an interesting illustration of how many different kinds of places can exist in the modern world. This Dana Goldstein post, however, reminded me that in some ways the whole concept of living car-free is a bit of a distraction:

Rybczynski claims that only six American cities have downtowns dense enough for a mass transit-dependent lifestyle: New York (midtown and downtown), Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. This will come as news to those of us who live in Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn without cars, just to name two communities in which I’ve spent a lot of time. But while the childless lifestyle without a car is rather easy in a number of mid-sized cities, things get substantially more complicated when you’re responsible for ferreting a small, fussy person around to all their activities, while still being on time yourself. Any parents out there have experience with the car-less lifestyle outside of Manhattan? Any childless people who are making car-lessness work in cities other than the ones I’ve discussed here?

This is a useful factual corrective. But one should be clear that nobody lives in Washington, or even Manhattan, without ever using a car. I don’t own a car. But Washington Post superstar blogger Ezra Klein does. And last weekend he and I drove in his car to Costco where we bought supplies for some mass weekend grilling. I take cabs sometimes. And I’ve been known to rock a Zipcar. There salient thing about my life, and about Washington DC, isn’t so much that I don’t own a car as it is that even if I did own a car I wouldn’t drive it very much. It doesn’t really make sense to drive from my house to my office, and even if it did make sense it would be an extremely short trip. The big difference between owning a car and not owning a car under these circumstances is really economic rather than environmental. By not buying a car, I save a lot of money. And people who live in a city where you don’t need a car can save up in advance to buy one, rather than relying on credit—going into debt to acquire a depreciating asset isn’t very financially sound, but it’s a practical necessity for many people.

In environmental terms, however, the crucial distinction is actually how much gas is burned rather than whether or not one reaches a pristine state of carlessness. If someone who’s currently driving 300 miles a week to drive back and forth from Dale City to downtown Washington starts driving to a nearby commuter rail station instead, that will be a substantial reduction in pollution, notwithstanding the fact that he’d still be suburban car owner. Indeed, the reduction involved would be much larger than the reduction involved in someone like Ezra—who owns a car, but doesn’t commute in his car regularly—went “car-free.”

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