An Added Dimension of Trouble in the Auto Industry’s Future


The New York Times (12/05, “In German Suburb, Life Goes on Without Cars” by Elisabeth Rosenthal) informs us of a threat to the commanding position the car in the life styles of the developed world. In the longer run this could actually do more to undermine the future of mega-auto firms that anything on Wall Street. For it promises to recoup our contact with one another concern our environment.

“Vauban, Germany – Residents of this upscale community are suburban pioneers, going where few soccer moms or commuting executives have ever gone before: they have given up their cars.

“No, their cars are not being repossessed. It is the inhabitants of this unique community who are doing what repossessing is taking place.

“Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders. Vauban’s streets are completely ‘car-free’ – except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community. Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park – large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000 along with a home.

“As a result, 70% of Vauban’s families do not own cars. 57% sold a car to move here. ‘When I had a car I was always tense. I’m much happier this way,’ said Heidrun Walter, a media trainer and mother of two, as she walked verdant streets where the swish of bicycles and the chatter of wandering children drown out the occasional distant motor.”

Putting the Car in Its Place

“Vauban, completed in 2006, is an example of a growing trend in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to separate suburban life from auto use. It is a component of a movement called ‘smart planning.’

“Automobiles are the linchpin of suburbs, where the middle-class families from Chicago to Shanghai tend to make their homes. And that, experts say, is a huge impediment to current efforts to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tail-pipes, and thus global warming as well. Passenger cars are responsible for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and up to 50% in some car-intensive areas in the US.

“While there have been efforts in the past two decades to make cities denser, and better for walking, planners are now taking the concept to the suburbs and focusing specifically on environmental benefits like reducing emissions. Vauban, home to 5,500 residents within a rectangular square mile, may be the most advanced experiment in low-car, suburban life. But its basic precepts are being adopted around the world in attempts to make suburbs more compact and more accessible to public transportation with less space for parking. In this new approach, stores are placed a walk away, on a main street, rather than in malls along some distant highway.

“‘All of our development since World War II has been centered on the car, and that will have to change,’ said David Goldberg, an official of Transportation for America, a fast-growing coalition of hundreds of groups in the US promoting new communities less dependent on cars. ‘How much you drive is as important as whether you have a hybrid.’

“Levittown and Scarsdale, New York suburbs with spread-out homes and private garages, were the dream-tows of the 1950s and still exert appeal. But some new suburbs may well look more Vauban-like, not only in developed countries but also in the developing world, where emissions from an increasing number of private cars owned by the burgeoning middle class are choking cities.

“‘In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is promoting “car-reduced” communities. Many experts expect public transport serving suburbs to play a much larger role in a six-year federal transportation bill to be approved this year,’ Mr. Goldberg said. In previous bills 80% of appropriations have by law gone to highways.

“In California, the Hayward Area Planning Association is developing a Vauban-like community called Quarry Village on the outskirts of Oakland, accessible without a car to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the California State University’s campus in Hayward.

“Sherman Lewis, a professor emeritus at Cal State and a leader of the association, says he ‘can’t wait to move in’ and hopes Quarry Village will allow his family to reduce its car ownership from two to one, or even none. But the current system is still stacked against the project, he said, noting that mortgage lenders worry about resale value of half-million dollar homes that have no place for cars. Most zoning laws require two parking spaces per residential unit.”

Those Blasted Mortgages Set Our Lifestyles Again

“Besides, convincing people to give up their cars is often an uphill run in the US. ‘People in the US are incredibly suspicious of any idea where people are not going to own cars, or are going to own fewer,’ said David Ceaser, a founder of CarFree City USA, who said no car-free suburban project the size of Vauban had succeeded in the United States.

“In Europe some governments are thinking on a national scale. In 2000, Great Britain began a comprehensive effort to reform planning to discourage car use by requiring that new development be accessible by public transit.

“‘Development – comprising jobs, shopping, leisure and services – should not be designed and located on the assumption that the car will represent the only realistic means of access for the vast majority of people,’ said PPG 13, the British government’s revolutionary 2001 planning document. Dozens of shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and housing compounds have been refused planning permits based on the new British regulations.

“In Germany, a country that is home to Mercedes-Benz and the autobahn, life in a car-reduced place like Vauban has its own gestalt. It is long and relatively narrow, so that the tram into Freiburg is an easy walk from every home. Stores, restaurants, banks and schools are more interspersed among homes than they are in a typical suburb. Most residents have carts that they haul behind bicycles for shopping trips or children’s play dates.

“For trips to stores like Ikea or the ski slopes, families buy cars together or use communal cars rented out by Vauban’s car-sharing club. Vauban, the site of a former Nazi army base, was occupied by the French army from the end of World War II until the reunification of Germany two decades ago. Because it was planned as a base, the grid was never meant to accommodate private car use: the ‘roads’ were narrow passageways between barracks.

“The original buildings have long since been torn down. The stylish row houses that replaced them are buildings of four or five stories, designed to reduce heat loss and maximize energy efficiency, and trimmed with exotic woods and elaborate balconies; free-standing homes are forbidden.

“By nature, people who buy homes in Vauban are inclined to be green guinea pigs – indeed, more than half vote for the German Green Party. Still, many say it is the quality of life that keeps them here.”

Fair enough. The mollusk’s nature is partly the product of his shell, as the shell is of the mollusk. There is no separating them. Destroy one and you destroy both.


– from Economic Reform, June 2009