No Comments

Automobile Evolution and Suburban Sprawl

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

The first car I recall riding in as a child was my mother’s Chevette Scooter, a horribly made car for the family on a budget. Poor quality, no comfort, no AC, a heater that took half an hour to kick in and a crappy radio.

The Ford Escort that followed was honestly not much of an upgrade, and neither was the car that ended up being my first to drive, the Plymouth Colt (which didn’t even have a radio).

1993 Plymouth Colt Interior, Consumer Guide Automotive

Yes, these were bargain basement rides built for my mother’s extremely tight self-employed-music-teacher budget. There were far more luxurious cars in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. But none of these were anywhere near our price range. Thus, we were stuck with cars that just weren’t great to be in for more than short stints at a time. Commutes were a struggle, especially in bad weather. Comfort was something we simply could not afford.

In contrast, let’s look at the 2021 Toyota Corolla. Features include AC, power everything, a touch-screen audio control system with “Amazon Alexa Compatibility” as well as “Android Auto” and “Apple Car Play” standard. You can even get “Sirius XM” satellite radio. The look and feel of the interior resembles something from the future, with painstaking detail to ensure comfort and convenience. Top that off with the fact that the new Corolla has 139 horsepower, nearly double that of the popular Escort mentioned above. And let’s remember, the Corolla is the base-model of Toyota’s fleet. This is the new entry-level car of the budget-minded American today.

When we talk about the “driving forces” (forgive the pun) of American population sprawl away from urban centers and even job clusters, we often cite wider roads, more highways, cheaper rural property, crime rates, employment redistribution and other factors as motivators and facilitators. We rarely talk about the fact that being in a car for long periods of time isn’t quite as awful anymore.

An example of luxurious cars today

The upgrades with regard to comfort, power, tech, audio, safety, all-weather handling, and a host of other creature comforts have made the prospect of a longer commute much more palatable… even inviting. Cars have shifted from uncomfortable, unsafe and unappealing to flashy, exciting and luxurious, even at the base-model-level.

And Americans are willing to spend a greater percentage of their income on this luxury. If you were the average American and wanted to purchase the most popular car in the United States in 1985, you would commit 26% of your annual income to that purchase. If you wanted to do the same today (and purchase the Toyota Camry) you would have to spend 35% of your income.

Car companies have had their finger on the pulse of American psychology for some time. A decade ago, when car sales began to drastically slip with young Americans, the auto industry knew they needed to make a change. Gone would be the days of selling a car based on boring traits like vehicle quality and longevity… instead, a new era of vehicular manufacturing and marketing was built around something young people can’t get enough of: Tech.

From computer-monitored climate control systems to Bluetooth and voice-command applications that tie in with your phone, tech advances in cars have ushered in a new dimension of appeal to the young American motorist. Car interiors have been fitted with futuristic cockpits featuring screens, cameras, colorful lights and flashy graphics. Very few commercials speak to the construction of the vehicle with regard to crash safety anymore… instead they tout the automatic braking systems and auto-piloting features as tech that keep passengers from crashing in the first place.

The ability for a car to sync with a smartphone via voice command is particularly vital. The shifting symbol of freedom in the U.S. is important to note here, as more and more young Americans favor digital rather than (or at least in steep competition with) physical connectivity. Before recent advances in car tech, the automobile was a place where people were legally prohibited any interaction with tech while driving. Taking a bus or a train, however, left the traveler the chance to immerse herself/himself in the digital world while moving about. It is at least somewhat likely that the uptick in transit usage and the downturn in miles driven a decade ago was motivated by the fact that transit allows users to continue their smartphone connectivity throughout their local and regional travels, while cars do not.

Travelers immersed in the digital world, taking advantage of the freedom of public transit

Even prior to Covid, this trend had been steadily reversing. As cars added ways for Americans to stay digitally connected and feel surrounded by luxurious tech, public transit, in most cases, failed to adapt by building on their modest gains. Now that Covid has dealt a cataclysmic blow to transit ridership, the auto industry has never been more vigilant in marketing their product as a vehicle that keeps you connected while giving you a space that is “safe,” warm, comforting and above all, fun.

Pay close attention to car ads today. How many of them really talk about old-school measures like how long the car will last or how the car drives? Instead, look at the attention to tech additives and creature comforts. Today’s cars aren’t being marketed as transportation solutions… they are being branded as blissful islands of escape, with technology and serenity at the center of a newfound automobile obsession.

As urbanists battle against community design that prioritizes automobile utilization above all else, we should all be mindful of the fact that these aren’t the only factors that motivate car sales today. The fact is, cars today are more fun than they ever have been. Even entry-level models boast tech, audio and comfort that bathe the driver in a world apart from the anxiety-inducing reality we live in today.

As we look toward a light at the end of a dark tunnel, we must start planning for the public transportation of tomorrow. One of the considerations we must have is how to compete with the serenity-inducing experience of the car. Public transit’s next step needs to not only focus on how to efficiently move people, but how to do it in a way that pacifies our desire for comfort and need for space in a world that continues to overwhelm us all.

No Comments

When Streets Were Equitable

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog.

“Dude, get out of the road,” you yell in an enraged state fueled by someone’s blatant disregard for the fact that you woke up late and are traveling 10mph over the speed limit only to encounter a man “jaywalking” across the road in front of you. Your displaced anger bubbles over as you find yourself inconvenienced for a whole 9 seconds.

We’ve all been there… getting behind a car that’s traveling 10mph under the speed limit, trying to pass a cyclist with no shoulder, or yelling at a pedestrian who crosses the road outside of a crosswalk with no regard for your time.

Let’s step back in time to 1906. Jaywalking, or the illegal crossing of a street in a non-designated crosswalk, was 20 years from being a thing. The automobile was just beginning to assert itself as a semi-regular addition to city streets that accommodated a multi-modal construct. Can’t imagine what this looks like? Let’s look at this amazing digitally remastered video of a 1906 San Francisco street car ride.

The most important thing to note in this video is how diverse the street traffic is. Horse and buggy, trolley, automobile, bicycle, pedestrian… they all move at approximately the same speed. The well-to-do owner of the car travels at a speed that is similar to the pedestrian and cyclist. While the driver may be able to enjoy an independent, stress-free commute, he or she is subject to the street congestion caused by many different forms of mobility. And while this low-speed chaos would likely be psychologically catastrophic to the car commuter today, it presents some incredibly meaningful lessons with regard to our streets and their effect on society.

Multiple Modes of Mobility

Trolleys, carriages, bikes, cars and pedestrians… count the number of different forms of mobility in this video. The streets were truly for everyone, regardless of speed, size or socioeconomic status.

Similar Speed

Equitable transportation is rooted in the idea that anyone can access jobs and resources equally, regardless of their socioeconomic status. In this piece of video, pedestrians, mass transit and cars move at a similar speed. The difference in velocity between the most exclusive form of transportation and the most humble form of transportation is negligible. Today, the average 15 minute commute by car is likely to be over an hour by bus. The prioritization of the automobile has completely eradicated equitable access to jobs and resources.

Density and Community

Slower, more equitable mobility leads to greater, more efficient urban density. Suburban sprawl has created an inequitable construct based on “pay-to-play” access of upwardly mobile resources. When multi-modal transportation is encouraged, more efficient and equitable communities are possible.

In the video above, the fastest form of transportation, the cars, are moving about 2-3 times the speed of pedestrians. Sure, that difference might be a great deal more on an open road, but the top speed of between 30 and 50 miles per hour for the average Ford… not to mention you needed oil every 250 miles, and the fact that highways were just a glimmer in the hopeful eye of an urban enemy. A humorous note, just two years earlier, a driver was given the first speeding ticket in Dayton Ohio for going 12mph in a 5mph zone.

At such low speeds, the prospect of “sprawl” was horribly impractical. As a result, cities remained unquestionable centers of equity, efficiency and productivity. Because cars were just a slightly faster mode of transportation in a sea of other mobility options, 15-20 mile car commutes were simply not possible.

But cars became faster. Car and oil companies became the dominant lobbyists in the United States. Highways were built to allow for greater sprawl, all subsidizing people’s desire to create exclusive communities outside their city centers.

In Conclusion

I shared this video with a number of friends. The comments back marveled at the clothing, the trolleys, the horses, the man sweeping horse droppings, and the maddening chaos of multi-modal traffic. But when I look at videos like this, I see what cities were like when mobility was far more equitable. Sure, our cities were dirty, crowded, smelly and sometimes scary. Sanitary amenities, cleaner energy and a host of other legal and environmental issues were still hurdles for cities 1906.

But the power of the city as the social, economic and equitable hub of humanity was far greater than it is in the U.S. today. Architecture hasn’t changed all that much, save the skyscraper. Street layout is pretty much the same. The big difference is the fact that the formally diverse streets featuring slow traffic have been replaced with exclusive automobile access, allowing those who own cars to speed to their destinations while those who must rely on public transit are subject to maddeningly underfunded networks, long wait times and inefficient commutes.

The video above shows what streets were meant to be. They were havens for diverse mobility instead of space that is solely dedicated to speed and exclusivity. Our cities have paid the price for this massive mistake, and as a result, equity and upward mobility continue to lag compared to much of the rest of the industrialized world.


No Comments

The American Automobile And Racial Exclusivity

The “Pay To Play” cost of the automobile might be the most racially exclusive component of American society.

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog.

I saw something today that blew my mind. The average new road vehicle retails for $37,876. Can we say that again? Americans are purchasing cars, trucks and SUVs to the tune of $38,000. In a time when we are asking questions of equity and “pay-to-play” constructs in our American culture, is there anything more exclusive than the automobile?

Most of our focus in life revolves around three basic things… our home, our work and how we connect the two. After World War II, the Federal Government subsidized the construction and purchase of homes outside of city limits in areas now referred to as “the suburbs.” But that wasn’t enough… with major employers still entrenched in urban cores as a matter of practical business, the same administrations facilitated the creation of automobile expressways that allowed white Americans, who could afford cars to access jobs while living in racially exclusive suburbs, to commute efficiently to their employment epicenters. And as no surprise, these highways doubled as a way of demolishing “blighted” black neighborhoods, segregating white from black, and rich from poor in our cities.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Redlining and racial property covenants (among a host of other elements of institutionalized racism) ensured that people of color could not transcend their circumstance, creating an un-traversable economic fissure between wealthy white and struggling black citizens in highly polarized and segregated counties.

Car, oil and rubber companies furthered the plight of inner city America by lobbying for wider roads, campaigning for “jay-walking” to become a public offense and famously purchasing the private city street car companies, only to immediately disband them. All this to ensure that the most expensive and exclusive mode of transportation was virtually the only mode of transportation. And of course, this was all done to the tune of billions of dollars in subsidies for auto-related manufacturers and the building of automobile infrastructure that a huge percentage of the country simply could not afford.

How do you disenfranchise an entire group of people? Simple. Tell them they can only live in one place, (which we as a country did) then incentivize everyone else (and thus American jobs) to move away from that place… and for the final touch, make it too expensive for the disenfranchised population to access good jobs, public resources and any hope of upward mobility. The perfect purposeful recipe for racial, cultural, economic and social isolation.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.

Let’s go back to the cost of the average new vehicle, $37,876. The average Black household in the U.S. earns $41,511 (2018), less than $4,000 more than the cost of the average American automobile.

Can Americans purchase a used car for much cheaper? Absolutely. But a huge percentage of disenfranchised communities still struggle with high interest rates and all the “extras” that go along with car ownership (insurance, fuel, maintenance, registration fees, etc.). When the process of conveniently commuting requires 40% of your income, something is seriously wrong.

“The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. … Those who can purchase and maintain a car win…everyone else loses.

As someone who purchased a used car 6 years ago for $7,500 and still occasionally uses that car today, I am in absolute awe of the amount of money my friends spend on cars, trucks and SUVs that I would consider “luxurious.” The financial burden that the car-centric American narrative places on our families is stifling. The amount that middle class American families are willing to spend for the convenience of two SUVs is staggering. But the myth that this choice is a necessity is one of the most racially and socially exclusive economic and psychological constructs in American culture. I would argue that the toxic level of “pay to play” exclusivity in this country is and always has been the veiled mirage of the automobile as the only means of convenient transportation. Those who can purchase and maintain a car win… everyone else loses.

When the average cars costs $38,000, equity is not possible. When the average commute of 23 minutes by car is an hour and twenty minutes by bus, equity is not possible. In a nation where Black Americans were disallowed to thrive in our urban cores, this same social and economic rift occurs today with regard to transportation and the convenient access of jobs and services.

Redlining derailed black neighborhoods by placing a financial ceiling on their communities. Property covenants and other restrictions disallowed people of color from moving to other neighborhoods. The war on drugs targeted black males in a conscious effort to disrupt black families. Today, in a world where mobility is such a strong determinant for success, the century-long subsidization of the most expensive and exclusive form of transportation continues to add yet another wrinkle in the fabric of blatantly racist agendas that our country has supported.

“Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone.”

It’s time to realize that the American automobile, and the immense infrastructure that facilitates its transportation dominance, might be one of the most toxically racial tools this country has ever seen. Want to make the United States more equitable? Support public transit that serves everyone. Support walkability and infrastructure projects that limit automobile speed and prioritize pedestrians, especially in traditionally minority-based neighborhoods. Support urban density that considers the needs and desires of Black Americans. The American car/truck/SUV has pummeled the core of U.S. urban density… let’s realize this as a mistake and get aggressive about building a more equitable future of mobility in our urban centers!


A few related notes and resources from Reconnect Rochester. . .

We appreciate this excellent piece by Arian at The Urban Phoenix that makes new and insightful connections between mobility and racial & economic justice.

Over the past five years, Reconnect Rochester has been part of an effort to examine the relationship between transportation and poverty in our community, to better understand the problem so we can identify possible solutions, and act on them. Resources this effort has generated can be found here on Reconnect’s website and include:

Our efforts continue through the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI)’s transportation work group. In collaboration with many community partners around the table, we work to translate the report learnings into systemic policy recommendations and actions that can create real change.