Musical Chairs with Cars

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As the human population increases, many people find ourselves playing the childrens’ game of musical chairs. As more people join the game, either someone gets displaced, or everyone sits closer together. One common solution to this problem is to displace nonhuman species of animals and plants. I suggest that we displace some of the cars instead.

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Musical Chairs with Cars

  1. 1. Musical Chairs: People, Wildlife, Cars Levin Nock January 2007 Copyleft CC-BY v2.0 As the human population increases, many people find ourselves playing musical chairs. As more people join the game, either someone gets displaced, or everyone sits closer together. One common solution to this problem is to displace nonhuman species of animals and plants, whose populations often decline or disappear as a consequence. I believe that, in many cases, we should displace cars instead. Like trees and animals, cars cannot vote, so displacing them shouldn’t be too difficult. Unlike trees, most cars contribute to global warming, which is the primary threat to the security of ourselves and our children. Unlike trees and animals, cars kill more than 30,000 Americans every year. (Some might say that cars don’t kill people, people kill people, but that’s another story.) There is plenty of prime urban real estate currently covered in pavement, reserved for the exclusive use of cars. It’s in the range of 25% to 50% of the land in most cities, and much of it is loud, dangerous, stressful and unwelcoming for any humans who are not wearing cars. We could decrease the amount of urban pavement, while actually increasing livability for humans and other non-car species. For instance, Seoul, South Korea recently replaced an urban freeway with a river and a park. While no cars were available for comment, most humans and birds responded very favorably to the change. Where I live in Portland, Oregon, there are huge expanses of suburban parking lots that stand empty for approximately 51 weeks every year. Because this space is so rarely used, plenty of housing for humans could be built on this car-habitat without generating much protest from the cars. While the idea of narrowing streets might be more contentious, there are “green street” programs that are very successful in Seattle, Portland and other cities, converting former car-habitat into
  2. 2. habitat for various plants and animals, while making the space more pleasant and healthy for humans. From a policy perspective, there are easy ways to accomplish this. First, change the zoning codes so that huge half-empty suburban parking lots are not required by law. Second, tax the land and not the buildings. This encourages developers to build more habitat for humans, and to densify the car habitat into parking garages. I buy free range chickens to eat, and I’m proud of it. However, most cars do not need sunshine and fresh air while they are parked and empty. In fact, many of them seem to prefer a covered parking space, instead of an open parking lot. I understand that the construction of multilevel structured parking is more costly than surface parking. A recent estimate put the local construction cost of structured parking at $50,000 per parking space. So, when car-habitat is encroached by human development, it is often cost-effective to replace some of the cars with pedestrian, bike and transit access, and car sharing programs, rather than building new homes for all the displaced cars. That’s ok with me, for now. If a time comes when all the humans in Portland have decent places to sleep every night, and thousands of homeless cars are sleeping on the sidewalks, then maybe we can revisit the question.

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