Colliding car cultures

There is a running discussion on Car Clash: Europe vs. the US at the New York Times on their Room for Debate feature. I’m fortunate to have lived in and seen a bit of Europe and marvel at its uberefficient transportation system. For a couple of months now I’ve lived in the US capital. As a foreigner in these two countries, I’d like to give the view of an outsider, if at least that could substitute for objectivity.

Edward Glaeser, being the economist that he is, argues as expected that that market regulations such as gas charges and gas taxes are the deciding factors to discourage driving. I only agree with this proposal when employed with strategies to shift to public modes of transportation put forward in the feature.

However, Staley sided as ‘pro-car’ in the debate and writes this passage:

European planning is notable for its lack of procedural openness and its presumption in favor of experts (planners) to determine where and how people live. American planning, in contrast, is procedurally open and professional planners are limited in their ability to impose their views on an unwilling public.

He did not state his bases for these sweeping assumptions on European planning (maybe the Stuttgart 21 project?). In fact, the opposite might be true. European planning, at least as I know it from Germany, is the epitome of openness with culture of public consultations prior to and during the implementation of a project, or when a burning issue is at hand. Skip this participatory phase, and a leader’s political ambitions are gone to the German shepherds. Moreover. people living in mostly residential areas long to be connected to a tram line to ease mobility, and not lobby against them (Beep, beep, Georgetown!). What Staley must have referred to as the ‘real people’ are interest groups and think-tanks that lobby to the US government (for more roads and cars), a defining feature of corporatist US politics (Elijah Anderson supports this idea). I don’t find the freedom of choice Staley states when Americans are only left with cars as their ‘choice’.

It seems to be a case of bad writing for throwing in libertarian views and arguing that the other party stands on the other side of the fence. I am not surprised it is the most commented piece among the nine contributions.

American urban planning in favor of private transportation is a path-dependency problem that needs structural approaches like Europe’s. It can address such problem by aiming to bring public spaces and mass transportation back to the real public. With a little more tweaking, mass transportation in American cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. could and should be the rule rather than the exception.


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