My brief blog post early this morning on living without car has attracted a lot of interest, and there’s a lot more I can say about it, so here goes.
As demonstrated by the ridiculous NY Times blog post, liberals and SWPLs absolutely hate cars (even though most own one anyway), and they have wet dreams for a carless society. But my contention is that a “walkable” community is either a luxury for the affluent, or a dismal living situation that those too poor to afford a car have to settle for. It’s not something that makes sense for middle class America.
Liberals who hate cars ignore the fact that personal transportation has been a great boon for society, and that before automobiles, people who could afford it owned horses. (Does anyone know where I can find horse ownership statistics for nineteenth century America?) I live in Manhattan, so I know what it’s like to live in a place where most people, even most upper middle class people, don’t own a car.
It has been argued by some that not owning a car saves you money, but my argument is that the opposite is true. Manhattan, the only place I’ve ever lived where it’s reasonable for people to make do without a car, is ridiculously expensive compared to everywhere else. It’s a lot less expensive to live somewhere else and own a car, than it is to be carless in Manhattan. A one bedroom apartment costs $3000/month. A $700/month apartment someplace else would free up $27,600/year to cover the cost of car ownership. On top of that, the local income tax rate is around 10%, higher than any other place in the nation.
Looking at the average cost of owning a car is a deceptive statistic, because most people choose to buy a much more expensive car than they need, and you are averaging in overpriced luxury vehicles with basic transportation. You can buy a brand new car such as the Nissan Versa for less than $11,000, and I’m sure it’s a reliable enough vehicle to get you to work or to the supermarket. Most people choose to spend more on a car in order to display their higher status to other drivers, but that’s a choice they don’t have to make. It’s hard to see why insurance, maintenance, gasoline, and depreciation on a Nissan Versa should cost you more than $5000 per year. This is a lot less expensive than living in San Francisco or New York City.
Anti-car people will argue that the high cost of living in New York City or San Francisco is some kind of anomaly, and that proper government action could magically create low cost of living dense urban areas. I am doubtful. Government regulations usually drive up costs rather than reduce costs (with the exception of regulations carefully thought out to prevent value transference). In fact, the rent control laws in New York City, which liberals think are making housing more affordable, are actually contributing to the high cost of living here. I’ve previously suggested two reasons why dense cities are so expensive: (1) dense cities create transportational and space inefficiencies; and (2) dense cities attract liberal voters who elect liberal politicians who enact dumb laws which increase the cost of living. Maybe there is some third or fourth reason as well. Until someone can demonstrate a place where it’s reasonable to be carless and it doesn’t cost a fortune to live there, one has to assume that such places are inherently economically inefficient.
It was pointed out in a comment that jobs in New York City pay more money, so this makes up for the higher cost of living. But clearly, the reason why New York City jobs pay more is because if New York City jobs paid the same as jobs in smaller cities with low costs of living, no one would choose to live in New York City! (This demonstrates that how much workers need [or think they need] has a big influence on how much they earn: see my post on the Iron Law of Wages.) Why does any business at all stay in New York City when they can hire people to do the same work for a lot less money in Oklahoma or Nebraska? The answer to that question is complicated, so I will leave the answer for some future blog post.
It was also pointed out that New York City is supposedly a better place to live because the people are smarter and more interesting. What that commenter really meant is that she prefers to live where other people like herself live! Yes, this is a standard part of the human condition, people like to live near other people like themselves. I guess they didn’t get onboard with the diversity manifesto. The favorite city of the SWPL class is Portland Oregon, and they love it because it’s the whitest major city (both in demographic whiteness as in hardly any blacks or Hispanics live there, and in SWPL-whiteness because a higher percentage of white Portland residents have upper-middle-class bohemian liberal SWPL values).
What will never change, no matter how walkable your neighborhood may be, is that it’s always more convenient to own a car than to not own a car. If you want to visit some place that’s not in walking distance, and not part of the public transportation grid, you need a car to get there. Thus people who can afford it will always choose to own a car, unless they are extreme radical save-the-planet Gaia cultists. And even then, once they have children, they will probably buy a car anyway because it’s such a huge PITA to take your kids to the doctor or to their sports practice if you don’t own a car. Even in Manhattan, 10% of the people own a car, and that probably correlates pretty closely with the wealthiest 10% of Manhattan residents.
Because the more well off will always, except under rare circumstances, choose to own cars, there will be businesses and other attractions which only serve people who own cars, and people who aspire to be more upper class will be forced to buy a car in order to avoid rubbing shoulders with the lower classes. The existence of poor low class blacks and Hispanics with behaviors that middle class and upper middle class whites find repugnant guarantees the continuing importance of personal automobiles because they allow the upper and middle classes to keep themselves away from the lower classes. Outside of places like New York City or San Francisco, only poor people ride the bus, which in turn makes riding the bus an even less appealing option.
Finally, let me address the issue of walkable neighborhoods in places where you still need to own a car. I once lived in such an area, Arlington Virginia. You still needed to own a car in order to get to work, because nearly all the jobs in the Washington DC area are in the suburbs and not actually in Washington DC. This is partially caused by a dumb law which prohibits tall office buildings from being built in DC. (This is one of the absurd contradictions of liberals: they hate cars, but they also hate tall buildings.) You had to spend a lot more money to live in a walkable neighborhood like Ballston or Clarendon than in a non-walkable part of Northern Virginia. More than the cost of owning a Nissan Versa. Furthermore, the popularity of the Clarendon/Ballston area is in part due to its convenient highway access as well as its walkability!
In conclusion, a walkable neighborhood, or an entirely walkable city like Manhattan, is a luxury good for rich people (a luxury good that I personally have been willing to pay for) and not an affordable alternative for regular middle class people, and especially not for regular middle class people with children. Furthermore, nothing can be done to change this basic economic fact.