Taking Dancing Rabbit to the Cities
This article is also posted on Dancing Rabbit’s March Hare Blog and we encourage you to add any comments there.
Part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants.
People often say that Dancing Rabbit is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s hard to dispute. Rutledge, our nearest town, has a population of 100 (which we hope to surpass in the next few years) and our whole county has fewer residents than some big city high schools (4,843 by the last census).
But what we do at Dancing Rabbit is as relevant to cities as it is to small town USA, and I’ve begun to wonder: what if cities adopted Dancing Rabbit’s ecological covenants?
These six Dancing Rabbit covenants are the foundation of our ecological expectations of residents and members. Our covenants are based in the belief that radical change is possible and that it will come both through personal choices and through major shifts in physical and social infrastructure. They are based in the understanding that conservation is key, and that only with reduced consumption can technological innovation meet our needs sustainably. We’ve found that cooperation is a powerful tool for conservation and we believe a shift towards more sharing is a big part of the social change we’ll need. Our covenants don’t describe every aspect of a sustainable society, but we’ve found that these few simple rules put us far along the path towards sustainability.
In this series of articles I’ll explore what it would look like for cities, neighborhoods, or regions to adopt DR’s covenants.
Our first (and perhaps most impactful) covenant states:
“Dancing Rabbit members will not use personal motorized vehicles, or store them on Dancing Rabbit property.”
What would happen if a major US city passed a law that personal motorized vehicles were not allowed or at least seriously curtailed their use? For example, what if New York prohibited personal motorized vehicles to drive or park on the island of Manhattan? Could that really work? Would people stand for it? Would the city suffer or flourish under such a law? What exceptions would have to be made?
People have written whole books about New York City transportation systems and I can’t possibly cover it all in that level of detail but here’s a quick look at the possibility.
While Dancing Rabbit’s covenant is worded simply, it required a lot of work to clarify the details of what constitutes a motorized vehicle. New York would have to do the same. At DR, anything powered by internal combustion and anything much bigger than a bike is a motorized vehicle. With some careful wording you could make sure to allow electric bikes and maybe scooters, as well as wheel chairs, Segways, or electric skateboards while still regulating electric cars and motorcycles.
What about through-traffic from New Jersey to outer boroughs, upstate New York, and Long Island? To address this, New York City could create a few corridors for people to travel across the island and such travelers would probably see a speed up with no local traffic to contend with (current average cross town speed – 5.2 mph).1 Of course, this was Robert Moses’ plan, in opposition to which modern, community-based urban design was born and which still inspires spirited controversy today. Some creative thinking would be required to find a way to allow corridors to exist without disrupting neighborhoods and the robust pedestrian network that makes Manhattan unique among American downtowns.
New York would also have to define what it means for a vehicle to be “personal”. The law should allow for police, fire, and ambulances, as well as various forms of public transit. Business delivery vehicles could be restricted to certain hours and areas to allow pedestrians and human powered vehicles free access. And what about the ubiquitous NYC taxi? Taxis would likely still be allowed and their use might even increase to meet the needs of the now carless residents and visitors to the city. People with certain disabilities might be able to get special vehicle permits if transit could not meet their needs.
New York might even plan for a system like the car co-op at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Our car co-op serves the needs of 60 people with only three vehicles. Companies like ZipCar, Mint, and Connect by Hertz could provide vehicles for short term use when a taxi or transit just won’t work, or for those taking a trip off the island. (Peer-to-peer carsharing is a non-starter when no-one has a private car.) To prevent an easy loophole (“This SUV? It’s my one-person carshare!”), New York would need a clear definition of a valid car co-op or carsharing program. A good litmus test might be a minimum member to car ratio, which could be set at 40 to 1, ZipCar’s current ratio.
If New York banned cars in Manhattan, more people would park in New Jersey and the outer boroughs and take mass transit from there. This would mean increasing the parking capacity at existing transit stations, as well as creating some new transit hubs with additional parking. New York could also provide parking at each bridge, tunnel, or ferry crossing, with taxi and transit service from these locations. New York’s current expansion of the ferry system would serve the car-free plan quite well.
What benefits would New York enjoy in such a scenario? At present, over 35 percent of the area of Manhattan is occupied by roads.2 One reason for this is because personal vehicles are a remarkably inefficient use of road area. Therefore, it’s likely that without private vehicles, road area could be reduced by 30-60% as street parking was removed and major roads narrowed. As most roads were turned over to pedestrians and bicycles, safety and convenience would increase for more ecologically sound forms of transit. Some existing road space could be converted to parks or gardens, allowing for urban agriculture and recreation. Other space could be used for commerce such as street vendors or outdoor seating for restaurants. New York City has been doing these things already, with over 250 miles of new bike lines (including protected lanes segregated from car traffic) installed since 2007,3 and new car-free pedestrian plazas at major intersections all over the city.
Transit ridership would jump, which would mean better service for everyone as buses, subways, and trains would come more frequently to meet the higher demand. Transit systems feeding NYC would also see an increase as many people would opt to take light rail to get into the city.
Air pollution would drop drastically, as “motor vehicles contribute approximately 11% of the local PM2.5 (fine particles) and 28% of the nitrogen oxide emissions” in New York City.4 It could be reduced even further if New York mandated that all taxis and car co-ops met high mileage standards, or were electrified. Buses could also be electrified (don’t get confused by the MTA’s current “hybrid-electric” bus fleet – that’s different) or use alternative fuels with lower pollution potential.
New York’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint would also drop, since 18% of New York City’s GHG inventory is from on-road transportation.5 While only some of those vehicles are private cars in Manhattan, the effect would nevertheless be profound.
There would also be health benefits as more people would walk and bike – “New Yorkers residing in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) levels compared to other New Yorkers.”6 Local businesses would benefit as well – a New York University study, in collaboration with Transportation Alternatives, found that protected bike lanes and select bus service in Manhattan’s East Village would increase spending at local businesses, despite fears that reducing parking would hurt sales.7
Overall, New Yorkers would see significant quality of life improvements with less noise, cleaner air, more outdoor space for kids to play, and better transit systems. Not only that, New Yorkers would have more money. According to the New York Times, “American families who are car-dependent spend 25 percent of their household income on their fleet of cars, compared with just 9 percent for transportation for those who live in walkable urban places.”8
A huge change like this would require large infrastructure investments, so the obvious question is, how would these changes be funded?
Revenue would likely come from a variety of sources: transit fees, taxi medallions, parking fees, tolls for delivery vehicles, leasing newly vacated roadways, tolls on through traffic, and reduced cost for roads. Care would need to be taken to prevent any undue burden on any specific segment of the population.
One option is to transition towards banning cars by implementing some form of Congestion Pricing. This is a system adopted in some European cities (e.g. London, Stockholm, and Milan) that charges any vehicles to enter certain areas of the urban center, sometimes with rates calibrated by time of day or current congestion. Such a system was proposed for New York City a few years ago9 but, while widely popular with the majority of New Yorkers,10 did not pass the New York State legislature, a required step for implementation. Using such a system to transition to car-free areas could generate significant revenue from the vehicle surcharges (after accounting for lost income from moving violations and parking tickets) which could go towards the infrastructure improvements required for a car-free city. It would also allow for a smooth transition as areas of the city are designated for a surcharge, with a ban on cars following a few years later. These areas could expand at regular intervals to allow people and infrastructure to adapt.
There would also be significant cost avoidance in a car-free city, since “traffic costs the city nearly $30 billion a year due to losses in employee productivity, traffic accidents, air pollution, traffic noise and roadway damage.”1 Perhaps some of that $30 billion could make its way towards increasing the mass transit infrastructure.
Regardless of how improvements were funded, there would be some folks who would not appreciate the change. Those who make their living off of the car culture in the dense urban center and people who simply want to own and drive their own vehicle in the city might resent or resist the plan. This type of cultural change may always have its malcontents, but as with the pedestrian riots when new-fangled automobiles killed walkers in the 1920s, once the shift occurs, the new way of doing things quickly becomes “normal” and protests are few.
So what about cities besides New York, could they ban personal vehicles?
New Yorkers are not your average Americans. New York’s high density and robust transit system make it an ideal candidate for a car-free city, and over half of all NYC households don’t own a car. In Manhattan, that number is around 75% almost ten times as high as the national average of 8%.4 These exceptional characteristics make New York a natural place to start envisioning a car-free urban center. Nevertheless, could other cities consider banning personal vehicles?
It would certainly be harder in some of America’s sprawling metropolises like Houston or Phoenix, which would require a major infrastructure overhaul to allow for a switch away from private vehicles. But it’s not hard to imagine cities like San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, or Seattle banning private vehicles in major portions of their metro areas and then allowing those new areas to grow as the infrastructure and demographics shifted with the new system. While it would be harder for some cities than others, any place could make the shift if given the time for the infrastructure to change.
How Crazy an Idea is this?
There are already a number of car-free places in the world11 ranging from small towns and islands to small zones in urban centers. An experimental, mostly car-free suburb near Freiburg Germany. Car-free parks and weekly car-free days in major American cities. Pedestrian shopping centers. City centers in the developing world and the ancient world.
It is clear that car-free cities can be both possible and amazingly vibrant. I have no doubt that a move away from private cars will make our cities not just more sustainable but more livable and enjoyable for all. Hopefully our citizens and political leaders can take the brave step towards such a future soon.
This is part 1 in a series of articles exploring cities adopting DR’s covenants. In the next article we’ll explore eliminating fossil fuel for most significant uses.
Jacob Corvidae and Cecil Scheib also contributed to this article.
2 http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/goodman-cars.htm — An essay from 1961 on banning cars on Manhattan