Cars have many advantages over other forms of transportation. They move from point A to B faster than most other modes (when congestion is not a consideration) and therefore offer the flexibility to live farther away from the necessities of daily living—work sites, grocery stores, banks, schools, etc.
But the ability to live farther and farther away from the city center, whether because of the desire to get out of the city or the need to find affordable housing, comes with significant disadvantages. Aside from reduced air quality and increased carbon emissions, one detrimental consequence of the car compromises the economic success of our urban core and significantly impacts our natural environment like no other—SPRAWL, defined as low-density, auto dependent, and many times exclusionary residential and commercial development.
The negative externalities of cars go well beyond those concerning emissions. Cars enable and exacerbate sprawl, and sprawl leads to land degradation, loss of resource and farm lands, storm water pollution due to increased amounts of pavement, income disparities, and extensive costs due to infrastructure installation and maintenance. These should not be forgotten when discussing why we need to get people out of their vehicles (and not just into electric cars).
It all began with the Sunday drive… urbanites leaving the cities to “get away” for the day. As developers realized the profit potential in untapped lands just beyond the urban border, they pandered to the desire of many city dwellers to live away from work and the perceived ills of urban life. For the first time, city residents lined up to purchase “suburban” homes… homes less urban, not fully pastoral, yet with access to the benefits of both.
Over time, additional factors exacerbated the suburban phenomenon—crime, underperforming schools, racism, and homeownership and auto subsidies combined to push city populations further from the dwindling center. More and more suburbs formed, many now decaying inner ring suburbs bordered by even farther reaching outer ring suburbs.
The car and its seemingly endless energy source enabled this sprawl, offering the luxury to extend beyond city boundaries and well beyond necessary and predicted expansion due to population growth.
In the Puget Sound area, sprawl is present around major cities, though not as dramatically as in other states thanks in part to Washington’s Growth Management Act. While the GMA does offer some protection, it merely mandates boundaries for growth and requires agencies to plan accordingly. Within that boundary, it is largely up to counties and cities to work together to protect their natural resource and farm lands from sprawl. And as with any large-scale interagency effort, the difficulty of coordination and the property tax dollars incentive does not effectively inhibit sprawl 100% of the time.
We have all mourned the loss of a farm or wood to yet another strip mall. At some point, however, we have to ask ourselves how we as individuals make it stop. And one very good way is to recognize that owning a car , even an electric car, does not mean that an hour drive from suburbia goes without consequences—consequences such as sprawl that significantly impact the natural and physical environments around us.