The New York Times' "Green Inc." blog explores reactions to a previous article on the Vauban car-free development in Freiburg, Germany. Post Carbon Cities author Daniel Lerch is quoted in this article.
[ This is an excerpt; read the whole article here. ]
Nate Silver, a baseball statistician who last year turned his number-crunching craft to political and social matters at the Web site FiveThirtyEight.com (it refers to the number of electors who choose the president of the United States), recently asked this question in a column for Esquire magazine: "Is America Still a Car Culture?"
The question was occasioned, Mr. Silver said, by data showing that Americans, who began driving less amid skyrocketing fuel prices last year, continued to curb their driving even as fuel prices plummeted.
He concluded that Americans tend to react slowly to changes in fuel prices, and while it was too soon to tell the extent to which individual consumers abandoned car culture for the communal exploit of mass transit, a rebound in driving was almost certain.
Still, with the imperative of global warming and the vagaries of fossil-fuel dependence now, perhaps more than ever, embedded in the popular discourse, the axiomatic relationship between Americans and their cars seems ripe for re-examination.
The topic was broached last week as part of Elisabeth Rosenthal's report for the International Herald Tribune on a "car free" German community.
Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, is purpose-built to discourage passenger car traffic — which, she reported, accounts for some 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, and as much as 50 percent in some car-intensive areas of the United States.
Homeowners in Vauban can still own cars, but parking for any length of time is verboten, and relegated to one of two large garages at the edges of the development.
The result is a lot of walking and biking to shops and banks and other everyday destinations, which are distributed far more liberally within the community than a typical American development. And where longer excursions are called for, many residents take to car-sharing.
The upshot: Seventy percent of Vauban's residents have no car.
In a recent e-mail message, Daniel Lerch, the program director at the Post Carbon Institute, a California-based research organization focusing on fossil fuel depletion and climate change, told me he thought "a larger trend away from absolute car-centrism (in both city planning and individuals' preferences) is quite evident and has been under way for some time" in the United States.
He pointed, for example, to the rise of New Urbanism — a school of urban design arising in the 1980s and grounded in the idea that communities ought to be oriented around accessibility, public spaces and, well, walking as a viable option for getting things done on a day-to-day basis.
The growth of car-sharing services like ZipCar, urban farmers' markets, and "the well-established and growing image of the American suburb as a dissatisfying, unhealthy, and even expensive life for more and more people," Mr. Lerch suggested, are evidence of "a continuing and growing trend away from absolute car-centrism."
And yet, echoing Mr. Poole's lament from the exurbs of St. Louis, Mr. Lerch said that for all of this, an American Vaubanism was unlikely to be in the cards anytime soon.
"The barriers to less car-centric living and urban development in this country are very formidable and still pretty institutionalized," he said. "I'm not holding my breath."
In the meantime, American opponents and advocates of the Vauban concept might find equal refuge in data compiled recently by The Economist, in its "Pocket World in Figures" for 2009, which suggests that the United States ranks 16th in terms of car ownership, per 1,000 population — well behind countries like France, Australia, Canada and yes, even Germany.
No. 1 on the list: Luxembourg.