On Being Automobile Friendly

In A Sense of Place, Utopia by Astrid Da Silva2 Comments

“Will the city be any fun? The citizen can be the ultimate expert on this; what is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk. He should walk not only the streets of his own city, but those of every city he visits” (Downtown is for People, Jacobs).

In both Downtown is for People and Death and Life in Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs places a large emphasis on the walkability of a city. In order to attest to the strength of a city, Jacobs tells us to turn to the streets and walk around. “Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design” (22). What activities/stores does the average citizen require in a walkable distance? How much of their time is spent on public space or parks? What increases his/her willingness to walk? By observing how the average citizen interacts with their respective city and how they explore new cities, we can uncover what things work and what does not.

Jacobs believes this needs to happen on the scale of the street, by analyzing the walkability of the city today.

But, where do automobiles fit into the story of a city? According to Jacobs, urban planners and designers are unable to conceive of a functional city with automobiles. “They do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow—with or without automobiles” (23).

While its important to provide open public spaces and vibrant, walkable streets, its ever more important to include a plan for how the automobile will interact within the city. According to a study by Experian Automotive, Americans own an average of 2.28 vehicles per household. The experience of driving through a city differs greatly from walking through it, and in order to foster the same ease as when walking, plans to alleviate congestion and traffic must be addressed in advance.

The summer after my freshman year I went on a cross-country road trip with a couple of friends. Our two major destinations: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although both are considered cities in the modern sense of the word, to me only San Francisco served as a functional city. While San Francisco is able to incorporate automobiles, public transportation, and very walkable spaces into its city boundaries, Los Angeles seemed to not consider any of these three. To me, Los Angeles seemed more like a series of overpopulated suburbs rather than a structured city. It proved virtually impossible to get anywhere without a car, walking being entirely out of the question, and even with a car, traffic was inescapable. Would Jacobs consider Los Angeles any fun? A city at all? How can automobiles be better incorporated into the landscape of Los Angeles?


  1. I definitely agree that since cars have become such an integral part of how Americans are moving about in the city and surrounding areas, it is important for urban planners to find a way to balance the walkability of a city with the cars that travel through it.
    I have only been to Los Angeles once and I did not find the traffic to be too bad but I have heard of people getting stuck on their way home from work for hours due to the congestion. To me, the traffic problem in Los Angeles will probably take some time to solve because it will probably be difficult to start any massive construction such as widening lanes on highways and etc. since so many people are using the freeways to travel about.

  2. I think your post really highlights the major problems/ differences with cities that are focused on the movement and efficiency of cars. The main idea behind some utopian planners like Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright were based on the practicality of the car as transport and that they are not built or originally designed to stop at traffic lights every few blocks. Also in an older post I spoke about a study into the way that traffic lights are designed in some cities for the movement of the car and some for the movement of people (based on the time for the pedestrian to cross, or for the time and space of the car from the preceding traffic lights). I think it is really strange to think about the health/social/economic effects that cars have on people in the city and how some systems in place (such as the Congestion Charge in London) have on the city center. I thought your post was really interesting as I have never visited LA or San Francisco but have heard similar things to what you discuss about them both!

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