Ed Braddy: Cars won't be our undoing


Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 3:26 p.m.

In the 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy , a Coke bottle falls from the sky into an unsuspecting African village. The tranquility of everyday life is dramatically disrupted by this exotic object, so the hero, N!xau, leaves on a mission to find the end of the earth where he can give back to the gods their crazy "gift" and, thus, restore his village to its happy past.

Dom Nozzi must own the collector's edition. His May 18 Speaking Out, "Cars are the enemy of the city," is similarly plotted.

Nozzi paints a picture of our idyllic past where innocent urban natives frolicked on wide sidewalks and got to and fro by way of streetcars and other communal means. Then the automobile "emerged" and our happy way of life was lost.

Like the movie, Nozzi's history of pre-auto America is also a work of fiction.

Nozzi argues that there are "fundamental, irreconcilable, clashing needs of the car habitat in contrast of the needs of habitat for people." This view, commonly held in the planning profession, is not only wrong and comically simplistic; it threatens our prosperity and freedom if adopted as a governing philosophy.

Granting self-will to inanimate objects like automobiles is the first clue that he's overreaching. Even odder is denying self-will to people. In the Nozzi narrative, cars are an uninvited species, invading urban areas, leaving parking lots in their wake, and (literally) driving hapless villagers into the suburbs.

As silly as this sounds, Nozzi must maintain this interpretation or otherwise admit people not only saw the automobile as consistent with their "habitat" but also utilized it to improve their living conditions.

As urban historian Joel Kotkin observes: "Since 1950 more than 90 percent of all the growth in the U.S. metropolitan areas has been in the suburbs."

This isn't just an American phenomenon. Robert Bruegmann's research finds that decentralization is "the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."

This doesn't fit the Nozzi narrative. Nozzi proclaims to know what people "prefer" and "enjoy," which is "densifying and intensifying our downtowns."

In other words, people are "eager" to live in congested central cities but have been forced against their will to live in three-bedroom homes on half-acre lots out in the 'burbs. Blame it on the automobile!

Contrary to the Nozzi narrative, cars were invented in the city, for the city. And they're very useful for getting in and around the city except when planners and politicians develop a hostile and historically flawed resentment toward the automobile.

Another problem with Nozzi's argument is equating "cities" with 'downtowns.' Cities have always been more than highly concentrated urban centers.

According to Bruegmann, "as cities have become economically mature and prosperous, they have tended to spread outward at decreasing densities."

This has been a consistent feature of cities since the ancient Romans coined the term suburbium.

In pre-auto America, dense central cities with the characteristics Nozzi praises were often miserable places where people lived in tiny apartments alongside dirty industrial plants and noisy factories. Sure, rich people took carriages to the theater, but those "less fortunate" walked along filth-strewn streets or hopped the streetcar to their downtown dead-end jobs.

It was a nation of renters, most of whom lived in squalor, were highly susceptible to disease and crime, and had virtually no chance at upward mobility. The automobile changed all that by giving average people what was once reserved to the rich; mobility.

Cars are mobility machines designed for personalized decision-making. Its usefulness is on an individual or family level, empowering citizens with the freedom to choose where they want to go, live, and work.

Mobility means opportunity; the "pursuit of happiness," to borrow a phrase. The greater one's mobility, the greater one's pursuit of economic, social, cultural, civic, and religious fulfillment. No longer dependent for opportunities near streetcar lines, Americans with automobiles had the means to exercise freedom in ways never before possible.

Some stayed in central cities while many others left. That there are revitalized downtowns today is due not to the visions of planners but rather to competition from suburbs for businesses and residents. Thus, automobiles forced downtowns to "behave themselves."

Market competition on a metropolitan scale makes planning impossible. Planners like Dom Nozzi make static assumptions whereas a highly mobile society is dynamic and ever-changing. The catalyst is people using cars, not planners employing theories. The public policy question, then, is do we want to make planners happy or people happy?

Ed Braddy is executive director of the American Dream Coalition and a former Gainesville city commissioner.

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