The automobile killed the small town and the city neighborhood. Small local stores closed when people chose to driver farther so they could shop in bigger stores. Zoning laws effectively prohibited businesses from being interspersed with housing. I know of one medium-sized city where it seems that all the churches were built in a row along the highway, each with its own parking lot. New schools tend to be built out of town, while the old school buildings crumble. People drive for an hour to go to work and for an hour to drive home, even at the cost of ten hours a week spent in traffic and not with their families.
To reduce our dependence on cars, we need to change our way of living. We need to return to urban neighborhoods and small towns with homes and schools and stores and churches gathered together rather than widely distributed. This might sound like a program that only a large government department could initiate, regulate, and finance, but it is not. Aside from possible tax relief on the part of local governments, no government agency needs to be part of this change. In fact, some compact communities have already been established in the United States.
Begin with a few dozen families who want to exist and thrive without owning and operating automobiles. Find a company or two that needs a new facility—light manufacturing, perhaps, or administration of an on-line business. Find a town or an urban neighborhood needing to be revitalized. Some construction may be necessary to have the school and the stores and the churches centrally located. Most families would have an electric cart, like a golf cart, for times when walking is inconvenient (such as a shopping trip in town). Many families would own bicycles. The main employer might operate a small fleet of vans—either electric or run on natural gas—to bring workers to work and back home again. Many more jobs would be created in the school, in the stores, and in other public services.
Instead of a new and used car lot, a car rental agency or two could operate on the edge of town. When a family needed a car for a trip out of town, they would rent the car they needed. The rental agency would maintain the cars, providing a few more jobs. The town might need a few vehicles—a police car, a fire engine, an ambulance, a garbage truck—but the streets generally would be quiet. People walking or bicycling from place to place would greet each other, not with angry diatribes about the traffic but with pleasant exchanges.
I’m not suggesting that this town would become a utopia. Crime would still exist, and people would still do bad things to each other. Employment would not be guaranteed. Prices would fluctuate according to the national economy. Without the burden of cars and all their expenses, people would have more money to handle the hard times. They would also have more time to do what they wanted to do, without having to factor in a long drive to and from work.
In the twentieth century, retirement villages were designed and built with similar ideas of a compact community. Developers found investors who expected a return on their initial outlay. They would select a piece of land, build a model home or two, and invite potential customers to inspect the property. Those who were interested would buy a share in the company, and gradually the villages arose. Amenities were added as the population grew, because businesses want to be located where customers can find them.
The same kind of compact communities for working families can be funded in this way. It will not require government investment to make these towns happen; it will only require developers and investors who understand the dream and approve of it. Some corporations may take an interest in helping to get these towns built. WalMart probably would not be interested*, but Walgreens is known for its neighborhood stores. Lowes and Home Depot may not care about such towns, but Ace Hardware might want to be involved. Surely some restaurant chains would be interested in designing a store without a drive-through window or a parking lot. Urban hospitals might provide branch clinics for such compact towns and neighborhoods. I can imagine a large school district with elementary and high schools in each compact town or neighborhood, using twenty-first century technology to provide the kind of advanced and diverse classes that smaller school districts cannot afford.
These carless communities are not impossible, nor are they overly expensive to achieve. The result would be attractive, friendly communities, free from the cost and nuisance of cars. Let the investors know: “If you build it, they will come.” J.
* I have reconsidered WalMart. Since customers already order from WalMart online and pick up their deliveries at the nearest store, WalMart might consider sub-stores in compact communities, dedicated only to distribution of items ordered online.