The Human Habitat & The Automobile.

If we were to tell the story of the city, then its early history would be the story of emerging democracy. It is in the first cities that early western society and the ideas of citizenship emerged. In more recent times the story is the tale of transport - nothing defines the shape of the modern city more completely than transport.

We generally assume that the character of a city is determined by some natural force over which we have no control. In fact we probably never think about it at all. We know some cities are different; just picture Paris or Amsterdam and what comes to mind are romantic and vibrant living cities.

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Photo: Paris, Comstock - Amsterdam,

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Photo: Amsterdam, A Fernando, Creative Commons

Now think of cities like Atlanta or Houston and it is hard to visualise anything except a landscape of highways and strip malls surrounded by asphalt and carparking.

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Photo: A Fernando, Creative Commons

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SanFrancisco, Photo: Inky,, Commons

It is tempting to think of “Modern” cities as an unfortunate accident but in truth they are the result of a rigid ideology that expresses itself through building codes and automobile demands. These regulations are now so extensive that they fill up libraries and are so complicated that even lawyers don’t understand them. These are the regulations that make it impossible today to build vibrant living cities.

“Every detail of this environment comes straight from technical manuals. After reading them one might easily conclude that they were organised, written, and enforced in the name of a single objective: making cars happy." Suburban Nation, Duany,Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, p13.

In the next 20 years 85% of the European population will live in an urban environment (2). It Is important that this urban environment respects and encourages social connection. The values of citizenship evolved in Europe's living streets and from its earliest history this civic life has given form to the evolution of western culture. Should we deny the central role of the public realm it may well have repercussions for our culture - perhaps it already has.

Cities can return to these core values, values that foster civic life in the public domain and which respect the city’s unique architectural tradition and local environment. There is no reason why they should be a depressing landscape of exit ramps topped off with the sterile “architecture” of modernism.




To try and reveal how the automobile determines the form of a city let us compare a modern automobile city to Venice, the worlds’ last CarFree city. Venice's long history reaches back to the fall of the roman empire, the communities once based on the mainland retreated to the relative safety of the Venetian lagoon. In time these early settlements evolved into a city of 200,000 people who commanded a fleet of 3000 ships. The rich network of interconnecting streets, canals and squares which Venice had become, survives largely unchanged today. Every year Venice attracts 18 million visitors, making it one of the worlds’ most visited cities.  

All the needs of this vibrant living city are contained within a land area of only 3 sq. miles, however if Venice had the same car parking space per person as Houston, then Venice would require a full 30 sq. miles just to park cars, an area ten times larger than the entire city. But it doesn’t stop at that, to accommodate the automobile you would need an additional 4 sq. miles of motorway (3) plus all the crash barriers, petrol stations, tyre depots, lube shops and exit ramps which define the automobile landscape. To complete the transformation you would need to separate the city of Venice into bits and scatter it across 34 sq. miles of automobile "infrastructure".

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Photo; Venice, Italy, Shutterstock

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Photo: Venice, Italy, Rob Lee,


Venice is a compact living city where you can stroll through living neighbourhoods. In contrast, if the car had its way Venice would be turned into 34 sq. miles of lifeless asphalt (4), a depressing landscape you would have to drive over because everything would be so much further away. All this to what end ? To solve a transport problem the human scaled city simply doesn’t have in the first place, like a drugs addiction the urban car creates distance and danger and then offers itself as the answer to the problem it has created.

The point here is to compare a human city with an automobile city and discover why they are so different; and to try and explain why accommodating the private car will overwhelm any attempt to create a human scaled city. Of course Venice has canals, but that makes little difference, the goods that make there way along the canals could as easily travel by truck, electric cart or even rail, the canals add great charm to Venice but what defines the character and scale of Venice today is its pedestrian streets.

There is no greening of the private car within the urban environment that can address this fundamental problem, no new fuel, no shinny paintwork, no marketing strategy which will make a difference to the fundamental fact that you must choose between human scale cities designed for people to live in or the anti human automobile landscape. 

Is there a compromise between the close knit fabric of a pedestrian city and the boundless sprawl of the auto centric city ? This is the myth of balance and an important question, unfortunately we do not have the space to follow this question. Instead we should try to show how cities have come to be they way they are....  

What makes a city the way it is ? 

It seems reasonable to assume a cities’ size is the result of the number of people who live there, but oddly this is not really true. Research shows that the size of a city owes more to the way people travel then to the number of people who live there. It works this way - people are comfortable to walk a distance of about a mile so the city grows out to a radius of about a mile from its centre (so you get 3 sq. Miles), using public transport maybe they are comfortable with a journey of up to three miles so you get a city with a radius of 3 miles (30 sq. Miles), using a car the limit is about 10 miles (300 sq. Miles) (5).

Across the world today average commute times are very similar at about 30 minutes (6), this pattern seems to hold even over different periods of history. It appears to be hard wired in human nature to resist spending more then 30 minutes on a regular commute. The excuse for building motorways doesn’t work. People still travel 30 minutes: they just use faster roads and faster cars to spread themselves over a larger area.

These two images show the real impact of the automobile

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Human Scale city. Photo; Shutterstcok

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Automobile Scale City. Krapistan. Creative Commons

This is how it happens but not why it happens. The secret here is really no secret at all. People just want to live somewhere nice. If the city is an inviting place to live that’s where people will want to be but if it’s a horrible place they won’t want to live there.

Here is the reason why the car is so deadly, it degrades the city so that no one would “choose” to live there, then offers itself as the means of escape. In earlier times the rich preferred to live in the centre because it offered the best environment. Today the opposite is usually true. There is a conflicting pull at work here, the desire to live in the heart of a vibrant city with the rich social life only a city can offer conflicts with the desire to escape the pollution noise and danger.

For most of human history, cities were built around the needs of people and it was assumed that most people could walk. No one is saying that these cities were perfect. They suffered from plague, wars and the sanitation was woeful, but these fine cities are today among the most treasured places. For those devoted to straight lines the making of these cities is sometimes described as haphazard but the beauty of these cities is no such thing. From Athens to Rome, to the Grand Place of Brussels conscious effort was put into creating a city to be proud of. These cities still function today, and actually in many ways they function better then modern cities.   

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Rothenburg Sq. Carfree Human City. Public Domain

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Automobile Anti-Human Car City. Ashman,

Designed around humans these cities naturally reflect the human scale, comfortable narrow streets, small building frontages, the curve and line of the streets adapting to natural features. Because the speed of movement is walking speed the streets were filled with detail and character, a feature which has been described as “fine grained”. These cities have proved themselves very adaptable as small shops convert from candle stick makers to boutiques, and live over shops switch back and forth between office and residential. Venice is an example of the human scaled city and, because it is inaccessible to cars, the best preserved. Venice is important because It proves a  CarFree city can meet all the requirments of modern life and that it can do so in a sustainable manner.

The widespread use of horse and carriage began in the 17th century allowing a small elite to travel a little bit further in a bit more privacy and its’ use quickly spread throughout Europe (7), city design adapted with wider streets and cities started to lose their human scale. Paris is a late example of a carriage city. Its broad boulevards were designed to allow for the passing and turning of the growing number of carriages and working carts that followed increasing industrialisation. Cities did lose there human scale but were still fine places of which Paris is proof (8).

Then came horse tram and passenger rail in 1830, followed by steam tram in the 1870’s, pulley 1873 and Electric tram 1888 (9). The extra speed of travel provided by passenger rail gave rise to urban development stretching along the rail lines and centred around the new stations (the term “commuter” refers to the discount commuted off the standard rail fare to regular travellers). With the arrival of multiple tram lines the city extended out in all directions matching the time travel theory of 30 minutes. Steam and coal had brought smoke to the city as did heavy industry. Trams, carts and carriages started to clutter some of the streets. By the late 19th century the automobile appeared on the streets. At the very point when town planners were most needed they relinquished the public domain to the private car and within 30 years completely abandoned town planning to the demands of the automobile engineers - auto engineers are today the de facto town planners while the town planners have retreated to concern them selves with no greater vision then the dream of a nicely graded wastewater system.  

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 Human Scaled Street. Photo; Livingspace

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Automobile Scaled Street. Photo; Livingspace

When automobile engineers replace town planners you get an agenda that serves the private automobile, a dehumanising agenda that describes people as traffic flow impedance units and a pedestrian as a motorist who has successfully parked his car. Nothing has changed our cities so much as the space demands of the private automobile. Motorways slash through our cities, parking lots eat out cancerous holes, the public domain becomes an urban racetrack of crash barriers, dayglow lighting and lifeless asphalt, and what is left of the old transit and pedestrian cities are degraded by the noise, stink and danger.

In response, people are driven to escape on the engineers gold plated motorway system that scatters the city over 300 sq. Miles.

Every inch given to the machine is an inch taken away from the human scale and there are a lot of inches involved. It has been said that Houston has 30 car parking spaces for every car and 7 cars for every 10 people; at that ratio we are looking at 7000 sq. foot of automobile concrete for every man, woman and child. With numbers like that you simply cannot create true cities.

“When I came here first I made an effort to walk along the pavement, but I was regarded  as a prostitute. You notice as you drive around the city that pedestrians are non-existent..... you can’t go anywhere without driving” Patricia Maher referring to LA, Irish Independent 17th Feb. 07

Automobile engineers tell you this is what people want, but billions are spent on motorways before the motorist even dreams they might use them while the basic needs of cyclists, pedestrians and community are dismissed as unnecessary. For heavens sake you can’t even get a speed camera in the UK unless you have at least two dead bodies within the previous twelve months and the “merely” crippled and injured count for nothing. Anyone who thinks the automobile engineers are responding to need might ask why they exploit pedestrian deaths by using them as an excuse for removing pedestrian crossings. In Belgard, Dublin a local community pleaded with the auto engineers to reduce the deadly speed of cars racing through their neighbourhood but the engineers dismissively declared that they saw no need and then widened the intersection so that cars could hit 50 mph in a 30 mph .zone.

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Palazzo Pubblico, Sienna, CarFree Human Space

Photo; J.H. Crawford, Wikimedia, Commons

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Georgia State Capitol, Lifeless Automobile Space,

Photo; J. Glover (Autiger), Creative Commons.

Choice has nothing to do with this, people were never given a choice. There is a clear example reported in “Suburban Nation”, when people were given the rare choice between a traditional neighbourhood development and the standard automobile sprawl they purchased the traditional neighbourhood design by a ratio of 44 to 1 (10).

The automobile city is not the result of choice, nor is it a tragic accident. The building regulations make it illegal to build for anything but the automobile. The efforts of community groups who tried to prevent the loss of the public domain and the ensuing destruction of there neighbourhoods were easily dismissed by the powerful automobile industry, a lobby which even today continues to drive freeways through cities, erect pedestrian barriers and add lane upon lane until streets already dangerous become impassable. Communities were eliminated as their neighbourhoods were retrofitted to serve the demands of the automobile. New urbanism seeks to rescue town planning from urban sprawl but by insisting on the presence of the private car immediately sacrifices the public domain and is then left struggleing with both the cause and the cure.

A living city is nearly an organic thing, when you learn to read it you see a complex web of human relationships, the size of the streets, the scale and personality of its buildings, the ratio of population to public space, the relationships that exist between, work, home, social and community. Blind to these relationships town planners today isolate every function they can think of. Thay then place each fuction as far apart from each other as possible. Automobile ownership is then made compulsory and travel distances increased to the maximum possible. This is not the creation of a city nor is it town planning, it is in fact the opposite: the deconstruction of the cities living relationships into disconnected automobile destinations, the very antithesis of a true city. 

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      Seoul City, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea, Mayor Lee Myung-bak decided to demolish a freeway that cut through the city centre. He made no plans to replace it. His purpose was to restore the Cheonggyecheon river buried by highway-builders decades before. Opened in 2005, it’s now an urban dreamland of waterfalls, walking paths, and playgrounds.playgrounds.

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