The Myth of the Vanishing Automobile

Once upon a time there was a great and wealthy city. But the people in the city were beset by a race of terrible, fire-breathing dragons known as automobiles. When the dragons first arrived, they seemed to be helpful: carrying people to work, to markets, and even to visit grandma in the next city.

But the dragons multiplied and soon there were so many that there was hardly room for people. The dragons demanded more and more of the city for their own use. Sometimes they would get into terrible fights with one another, often killing innocent people. What's more, their flaming breath was noxious and poisoned the air.

One day the people met in a great council to decide what to do. There was long debate but few could agree, for the dragons were fierce. Besides, many people liked being carried around by the dragons and it was a status symbol to have a big one sitting in your yard.

During a lull in the debate, a stranger stood up. "I can rid your city of the dragons," he said. "What is more, I promise that you will be happier when they are gone."

"And what will it cost us to gain this tremendous service?" asked the mayor.

"All you have to do is give me the power to redesign your city," replied the stranger.

So the stranger went to work. First, he moved people's homes closer together. That way the dragons couldn't squeeze between them or lie around in the front yards. He made the streets smaller so no more than one dragon could pass through at a time. He built sharp peaks on all of the roofs so that the dragons couldn't land on top.

The people of the city found that, since all of their houses and shops were closer together, they didn't need the dragons after all. They could now walk to work or market and arrive as quickly as when they rode the dragons.

Those who had to go further could ride a new kind of dragon the stranger brought to the city that he called a "lightrail." Unlike the automobiles, the lightrail didn't breathe fire and never got into fights or hurt anyone.

The automobiles were angry but they were helpless to stop the stranger. "You've made this city unlivable for us," said Cadillac, their leader. And they all vanished.

The people cheered and thanked the stranger, for he had kept his promise and they were happier than ever before.

"I have more cities to save," said the stranger as he started to leave. But before he could go, a little boy ran up to him.

"Wait a minute," shouted the boy. "Who are you? Are you a dragon killer?"

"No," replied the stranger. "I am a New Urban planner."

But It Is Only a Myth

If you live in an urban area--particularly one that is growing fairly quickly--then the New Urbanism is coming to you. If you hear about proposals for light rail, transit-oriented developments, or pedestrian-friendly environments, then you had better watch your pocketbook. For these proposals could cost taxpayers billions of dollars while they do little to solve congestion, pollution, and other urban problems.

Make no mistake: Urban problems are real. Highways are congested and skies are dirty from exhaust fumes. Strip developments along major streets are eyesores and remain inaccessible to anyone who isn't able or doesn't want to drive.

Many architects and planners say they can fix these problems--if we give them the power to redesign our cities. Calling themselves New Urbanists, they want to stop building freeways and build more light rail and other transit facilities. They want to block suburban sprawl and move people into higher density developments. Some of them want to control the shape of our houses, our front porches, even the pitch of our rooftops. They claim these things will reduce our dependence on the automobile and make our cities better places to live.

Most cities employ urban planners, but few have granted them this kind of power. One that has come closest is Portland, Oregon, where a single regional planning agency has the ultimate authority for land use and transportation planning over three counties and twenty-four cities.

City officials and civic leaders from across the United States look to Portland as the model for urban growth management. Attend an urban planning conference and you will hear Portland touted as a prime example of good planning. Advocates of mass transit will tell you that Portland's light rail line is one of the most successful in the nation. The American Planning Association has given Oregon and Portland numerous awards for their growth- and transportation-planning activities.

You should look to Portland too--as a model to be avoided. As Portlanders learn what it means to be a part of this great experiment, many are not so sure they like it. Some of them are quite positive that they hate it. Portland's growth management techniques will require major changes in suburban neighborhoods and lifestyles--changes few suburbanites want to make. And Portland's acclaimed light rail is looking more and more like a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that will do nothing to relieve the area's growing congestion.

Some people might think that new lifestyles and higher taxes for mass transit are a reasonable price to pay if they produce the benefits that planners claim for them. Yet these programs will make congestion, pollution, and other urban problems worse than ever. In fact, even as planners say that their goal is to keep Portland from becoming like Los Angeles, agency documents reveal that in several important ways their real aim is to make Portland more like Los Angeles than like any other city in the country.

The Myth of the Vanishing Automobile is nothing more than a fable, and is just one of the many myths that plague the New Urbanism and confuse nearly everyone who proposes to use large-scale strategic planning to cure the ills of our cities. Different Drummer examines more of these myths as we look at Portland and its growth-management programs. We also provide an alternative: a set of tools that treats problems and not symptoms and that should prove useful to anyone who lives in an urban area.

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