Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Streetcar Suburbs

We can see that much of Americans' spending on housing and transportation is wasted when we compare today’s suburbs with the streetcar suburbs where the American middle-class lived a century ago, which were more livable and cost only about half as much.

This postcard picture of a streetcar suburb in Brooklyn before World War I shows that streetcar suburbs were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than today’s automobile-oriented suburbs. Shopping and public transportation were a five-minute walk away.

Housing in streetcar suburbs would cost about 30% less than equivalent housing in modern suburbs, largely because of savings on land. Streetcar suburbs typically had 10 units per acre, compared with 4 units per acre in modern suburbs. But because they were not filled with cars, they were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than modern suburbs. They also had a stronger sense of community, because people walked to local shopping.

Transportation in streetcar suburbs would cost about 75% less than transportation in modern suburbs, partly because distances would be shorter and partly because walking would be the most common form of transportation.

We all know that automobiles make our cities more congested, noisier, and uglier, and that they cause global warming and global energy shortages, and we tolerate all these costs because we believe that automobiles make our lives more convenient. But in reality, they do not make our lives any more convenient.

In American cities, automobiles have caused low-density sprawl and have increased the distance we travel, so they have not saved us any time. For example, studies have shown that, despite all the changes in transportation technology, the time of the average American commute has remained about the same since the 1840s, when the industrial revolution began. Likewise, it is no faster to drive to the mall in a modern suburb than it was to walk to the local shopping street in a streetcar suburb.

This is the strongest possible indictment of the modern consumer economy. All the extra money we spend on suburban housing and transportation does not make us any better off. Instead, it makes our neighborhoods less livable.

People seem to think that it would be a great sacrifice if we had to consume less to cope with global warming and other environmental problems. But in this case, consuming less clearly would make our lives easier and more pleasant.


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