Throughout the history of our nation, cities have spawned out of sheer desire to live where opportunity exists. Manhattan took 50 years to go from sleepy suburbanized neighborhoods to towering stacked homes and businesses. Cities around the country sparked up economic booms, luring people and jobs to city centers as our nation expanded west.
Our cities were packed too. Surf the old photos of Kansas City, St Louis, Los Angeles, and even Seattle from the late 1800s and early 1900s and you will see people actively walking around downtown with mixed use buildings providing housing, employment, and shops. It looks like a walkable paradise.
During these booms, nobody complained about the growth of cities. We offered people a chance to relocate, sign up for work, and rent or buy a place down the street.
Crowding was only a problem within individual housing circumstances. Tenements crammed multiple families into two bedroom one bathroom homes, causing a plethora of problems.
But once you walked out that door, the city felt open. This is because our streets offered everyone the space of mobility, where they can safely walk, bike, or take the streetcar at the day’s close. Around the 1930s something changed in our cities and made our streets feel cramped.
It was the cars.
Geometries of Cities Changed for Cars
By now we all know that car infrastructure takes up a lot of space. In the early 1930s as the rise of vehicles clogged our once walkable, spacious, pedestrian dominated streets, automakers shoved us all to the perimeter sidewalks and banned anyone or anything but cars from using 75% of their space.
From streets wide enough crowds could walk through without feeling claustrophobic, to narrow slivers on a street’s perimeter forcing everyone to sidestep slow walkers or loiterers, giving the impression that the city just got crowded.
The concept of a city didn’t change, just the geometries of our streets and priorities did. The days of packing a suitcase and taking the next train to the city for employment were long over. Now we packed up the cars and brought this 200 square feet clunky luggage with us.
By the 1950s cars had taken over. We had just returned from war and the nation subsidized an urban interstate system to rival what the Germans used as international defense. As white flight and cheap land enticed the privaleged white collar class to move out of the core, cities no longer needed the urban transit systems that handled daily commutes.
This forced our city cores to depopulate, segregate, and make cars a necessity. Believe it or not, planners believed in sprawl as nuclear bombing defense, but really it was a way to divide us up, plow through minority and poor communities with car infrastructure, and force every family to go to the nearest lot and purchase a vehicle.
As the children of this generation grew up, they packed up their car and moved to the nearest job center when they reached adulthood. Vehicles gave them the flexibility to drive daily to work, to run errands, and do anything else in between. Urban metros all over were growing and many downtown workers were getting there by car.
The irony was, cities themselves were depopulating, seeing a sharp decline in population, housing, and leaving those streets virtually lifeless after a day’s close.
Cities like Denver, Houston, Cincinnati, and many others bulldozed their urbanism in favor of surface lots and garages. The result was traffic, pollution, noise, and danger. Every new job meant another person, another car to plug into the madness.
Sprawl not only de-centralized populations, it was the only real way we added homes for quite some time. Neighborhoods tore down forests or replaced agricultural fields with suburbanized neighborhoods, and the more people came, the more land they needed to develop.
Eddie Valiant: “Nobody is going to use this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car [streetcar] for a nickel”
Judge Doom: “They’ll drive, they’ll have to. You see, I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
By the 1970s and 80s, established baby boomers were settled in their suburbanized homes and the fear of more popping up became real. In this century, the generation of aging NIMBYs are trying to protect their rising home value, as it’s tied to the vast majority of retirement they have saved up. But before that, when they were much younger, it started out differently.
The Rising Fear of Growth
The 1970s and 80s saw a rise in “environmentalism” paired with de-growthism. It’s easy for someone living in a comfortable home on the fringe of a forest to oppose more neighbors. They didn’t want to lose those trees or creeks, even though their home destroyed plenty of them too. This is where state after state began passing laws that “protected the environment”, killing many housing developments (suburban and urban alike) with the death of cumbersome process, unpredictability, and the power to delay.
All of this is interwoven. You see, highways also became more congested as cities slowly killed transit programs or made them so unreliable people opted to buy a car. This added vehicle after vehicle to every road, every highway, every parking lot and every street people circled blocks for to find a spot without adding a lot of people to the mix.
De-growthism was as much about protecting the physical environment as it was about protecting their own environment.
A de-growther doesn’t want cities to add more jobs, homes or population. They can make it about the environment all they like, but really, it’s about the cars. City metros kept growing, as generation after generation moved to the economic opportunities available. With these environmental laws in place, de-growthers and environmentalists had the necessary tool to stifle development and prevented more cars from clogging their space.
Today, cities are trying to add homes and those who feel crowded out do anything in their power to stop them. Go to any housing project’s public meeting and the first things you hear are “where will they park”, “this neighborhood is full”, “we don’t have the capacity on our streets for this congestion”.
This is entirely about cars.
Cars are huge, they take up space, and they take up *their* space. De-growthers feel crowded out. Their street used to be easy to park on, their highway was not as backed up, and they always found a good parking spot up front at the mall.
In Seattle, de-growthers and environmentalists do not want to plow over the Public Market, they want to preserve it, cherish it and support it. This proves that nobody feels threatened by a crowd of people the way they do about a crowd of cars. Instead, knowing that cars are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, they use environmental laws to delay sustainable office buildings because their solar panels shade the sidewalk and there isn’t enough parking provided. But what that really was about was the fear that more growth meant more cars they had to deal with publicly.
Cars Crowd Us Out
People don’t overcrowd us, cars do. Cars make us claustrophobic. When people show up to a sporting event, a festival, or a parade, we all love the atmosphere and take in the opportunity to spend time with others. Swap that with a traffic jam on a freeway and it’s a different story.
When people push back on growth and more housing, really it’s just because they don’t want more giant cars clogging the spaces we have. And cars are getting bigger, too. With the rise of EVs, cars will also get heavier and, in turn, damage the road much faster.
Every office building to their mind is another 200 cars that clog up their ever growing commute and probably store the cars in their neighborhood street. Same goes with apartment buildings, townhomes and anything else that signifies “growth”.
The reality is, most of our cities are far less populated than before. Yet people tend to believe they’ve gotten crowded. Why is that? I think it’s the cars. How would we fix that? By taking cars out of the streets, by convincing people they don’t need them, by prioritizing means to get around without them.
We already know they’re bad for the environment and bad for urban design. So our solutions should target one thing. The cars.