Orson Scott Card -- whose socio-political essays I normally enjoy -- has written a rant against the automobile founded on the myth of oil depletion. (Check out that second link so I don't have to re-explain why we'll never run out of oil.) Mr. Card longs for subdivisions designed around pedestrians:
Now imagine living in a house where your garage opens onto the alley in the back. You still have a deck or patio in back, and a small but decent grassy area with trees. Big enough for the barbecue. Big enough for toddlers to play in. Big enough for trees to grow and tree forts to be built.
Your front yard is small, too, but you can make it a garden spot and sit on the front porch and watch people pass by just beyond your picket fence, while the toddlers play inside that fence.
Across the street or just around the corner there's a park with wide open greenspace, where those occasional games of hide-and-seek and ultimate Frisbee and touch football can be played. Where neighborhood kids can get together for pickup games of soccer or softball, without having to drive them to league games.
Neighborhoods where everybody walks to school on sidewalks, and shops on foot or on bicycles (or has purchases delivered).
You know, the neighborhoods in It's a Wonderful Life.
Those neighborhoods have disappeared, at first because everybody wanted to appear rich, and later because local governments legislated to make everything more convenient for drivers.
Neighborhoods like this do exist and are currently being built: two miles from my home is The New Town at St. Charles -- it's extraordinarily expensive (like all "New Urbanism" developments) and the best-selling development in the Midwest. New Town is designed for walkers and has very narrow streets to discourage driving. Houses and lots are small, and there is very little privacy. (My wife has talked to people who live there in detached homes who say they can hear your neighbors' toilets flushing.) New Town has great freeway access and lots of common open area, and presumably there are some people who love it. More power to them. If the experiment succeeds, I expect we'll see more such communities.
However, when Jessica and I were looking for a house we were specifically looking for space and privacy. Coming from Los Angeles we were familiar with the old houses on tiny lots, and we wanted some space of our own. Having a public park across the street is different from having a large private backyard. In the former, you have to coexist and compromise with all your neighbors, and in the latter you can do whatever you want. We like owning the space, we like maintaining it, we like decorating it, and we like using it.
That's why I said we have to change our social expectations. We have to make it a mark of shame to be stuck in a neighborhood where the lots are so huge that you can't walk in order to get anywhere.
It's already a huge inconvenience and expense. I daresay most readers of this column spend most of their gas money and transportation time on two things: Shopping and commuting. And how much of that is spent just getting out of your neighborhood?
It takes about two minutes to get out of our neighborhood, and maybe five minutes to get onto the freeway. From there it's another 15 minutes to my desk at work. Including errands, I might spend an hour each weekday in my car, which I don't find to be excessive.
One factor Mr. Card neglected to mention (to the detriment of his argument) is that several times a month I work from home, and many other people are doing likewise. In our service-based economy, a growing number of people can perform their work without commuting at all! This capability will lead to more "sprawl" rather than less, but will also reduce the traffic burden on our roads. Ultimately I expect our cities to continue to evaporate into the countryside, and eventually all that will remain will be their industrial skeletons, the few remaining production-based businesses that require the physical infrastructure of a city to thrive.