One of our readers in the past week “suggested” that perhaps the term innovation is an overused term. There is more than a modicum of truth to that, so I’m not sure that the idea of being carless is an innovative idea, or just a practical one.
However, I want to respond with an interesting comment by one of our readers: “Welcome to the world [of] modernization and better and faster ways of getting around with the use of automobiles. It’s called progress. There will always be those who fight innovation and try to stick to their old ways of doing things. We didn’t [used to] use phones either, should we go back to the telegraph?”
I think the reader raises an important point that must be addressed in the ongoing discussion. The internal combustion engine is not new technology – it was developed in the late 19th century, along with the rise in commercial drilling and production of petroleum.
Progress in society is, of course, non-linear. And there are generally unintended consequences of new inventions. With the car comes the tens of thousands of vehicular deaths each year. We have the rising concerns about global warming and the health concerns of the more sedentary lifestyle.
There are really separate issues being raised in the carless debate. There is a group of people – perhaps embodied by the TEDx presentation last week by Maria Contreras Tebbutt – who are, in a sense, choosing to move away from cars, believing that the progress of the internal combustion engine comes with too many personal costs.
At the same time, there are those who see the strong negative consequences of the automobile and wish to mitigate those. In reducing our carbon footprint and the impact on climate change, many are not necessarily looking to turn back the clock of progress, but to carve a new path forward.
This is not new. We saw this emerge out of the oil crisis in the 1970s and a wave of more fuel efficient cars coming onto the market. That has continued with the wave of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles.
So one wave of innovation has been to move away from the internal combustion engine – a technology that is hardly innovative at this point, at 130 years old – and toward alternative fuel cars. Tesla has, in a sense, transformed the electric car industry by introducing a high-performance electric sports car to the market.
The problem that electric cars have suffered from is that they have a short range and a very high cost. A Tesla will range from $70,000 to $100,000 but it has changed the game. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, which has a 75 mile range, Tesla can go 265 miles, similar to the range of a gas tank in a conventional vehicle.
Tesla hopes to be able to produce more affordable vehicles in the $30,000 range with a similar mileage range. And they want to make the vehicles more practical by building a nationwide network of charging stations that can deliver 200 miles of charge in half an hour.
That is one trajectory of innovation – changing the way we drive our vehicles.
But there is another strand of thinking that we highlighted last week – by discussing a number of European cities that have made portions of their city carless – and that is that the single-occupancy vehicle may not be the best transportation choice for every situation.
Even if we move in the next ten years away from gasoline powered vehicles – which is clearly where we are moving if Tesla and others can solve those practical problems, our cities and communities are not set up well for single occupancy vehicles which clog the roadways, require parking, and, at least for the present, emit large amounts of greenhouse gases.
When I lived and worked in DC after undergraduate school two decades ago, I owned no car. Most places you could hop on the metro – it was inexpensive and reliable. For those times when you were in a hurry or for the places metro couldn’t take you – like Georgetown, taxi cabs (i.e. car sharing) were readily available.
Washington was not well set up for the car, as the streets were awkward and congested. It was a minefield trying to traverse two different cultures of drivers – polite southerners mixed with aggressive New Yorkers. Parking was hard to find and expensive. I found that I could actually bike across town much faster than I could drive.
My proposal and discussions of Nishi and going carless are actually driven less by philosophical considerations and driven more by practical ones. As articles we have published in the last week were intended to demonstrate, there are critical traffic flow problems in Davis.
We push people to enter the campus off of Russell Blvd. which makes little sense from a traffic flow perspective. Many cars appear to exit I-80 on Richards Blvd., drive under the underpass, turn left on 1st, turn right on B, then turn left on 5th/ Russell before making a left onto campus.
The alternative way to enter on the north side of campus would be to drive to Highway 113, exit at Russell and make a right. That would be a bit preferable in terms of avoiding driving through downtown.
The best way, from the city’s standpoint, is entering campus from the south end off I-80, or the west end off 113 by West Village.
Nishi is a great location except for the problem of traffic circulation. One reader suggested we might be better able to handle traffic by encouraging cars to make a left onto Olive, drive through Nishi and onto campus.
Still, the issue of traffic circulation aside, you could solve several problems by making at least the residential portion of Nishi carless. First, you would not have to build a parking lot, which takes up valuable foot print. That means that the area where they are planning to build a parking lot could be transformed to increased density of residential housing.
Second, you could densify the entire section.
As we pointed out, for most everyday purposes you would not need a car if you lived in Nishi and either worked at or attended UC Davis. You would be in walking distance from UC Davis and the downtown. Food would be readily accessible at Whole Foods and at a bikable distance from Safeway in south Davis and the Co-op on the eastern portion of the core.
There are times when you might need a car and a bus will not suffice, but that’s why we have Zipcar and other car-sharing options.
We are still trying to obtain the number of students who do not own cars at UC Davis, but my guess is it’s in the thousands and, if Davis is really going to increase its overseas student population, none of those students are likely to have cars.
We have plenty of housing options for students who wish to have cars, but why not accommodate a growing population who doesn’t?
The bottom line is that we don’t view this type of thinking as attempting to roll back progress, but rather a way to understand that progress moves us in non-linear ways.
—David M. Greenwald reporting