On February 20, 1994, two men got into a dispute while driving on I-95 in Massachusetts. When they both pulled over, one of them—a 54-year-old church deacon, 101st Airborne veteran, and high school valedictorian—retrieved a crossbow from his trunk and shot the other man dead with a metal-tipped arrow. The incident is trotted out in high school civics classes and driver’s education courses as a notorious example of road rage, but it is far from unique. Driving makes people livid, and they often attack each other in the process of getting where they need to go. Particularly in the United States, where frustrated motorists sick of traffic and breathing other people’s exhaust often have a pistol tucked under their seat or stashed away in their glove box, driving can be a perilous activity.
But road rage is far from the main danger: Our big, heavy vehicles go too fast, for too many miles. Drivers routinely smash into shop windows, other cars, and pedestrians. Globally, 1,350,000 are killed each year in cars, but we insist on calling these events accidents: the unavoidable cost of modern mobility. While Americans admonish drunk driving, texting behind the wheel, and carelessness, they and their lawmakers have little to say about why the entire landscape is made for cars and not people. The massive militaristic boxes we drive are both a danger in crashes as well as a major source of climate change. But convincing people to get out of them—even just for a stroll to the corner store—is viewed as dangerous, foolhardy, and maybe even un-American.
Nothing is accidental about our car-dominated streetscapes or the places we store cars. Two new books explore how we got to this point, particularly in the United States, where the space used up by roads and parking is the size of West Virginia, and the average driver is behind the wheel for 39 miles per day. In Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It, Daniel Knowles explores fundamental questions about sprawl, car culture, and pedestrian deaths, showing that “we have gotten so used to the domination of cars that we have forgotten how unpleasant the consequences are.” Henry Grabar analyzes parking in Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, taking a topic so quotidian that, when explored with his masterful knowledge of urban history, it becomes almost metaphysical. Unlike previous books that look to solutions such as traffic calming, smart garages, and congestion pricing, Knowles’s and Grabar’s are more radical: The authors are millennials who did not grow up in the previous two generations enamored with car culture, and their solutions veer toward private vehicle abolitionism.
Both authors stress that Americans—and to some extent everyone else in the world—have allowed cars to dominate their lives. We drive them incessantly, and hardly ever in the mountain roads of BMW commercials, but rather in the chockablock midday traffic of endless overpasses and interchanges that have made our landscapes into a wasteland of nonporous asphalt. Our addiction to quick and free parking has turned our cities into vast expanses of garages and tarmac that are unsightly and dangerous to walk across. The popularity of SUVs has completely canceled out new gas efficiency standards, making the spew of exhaust coming from cities just as copious as it was a decade ago. Most worryingly, we have become a society of people used to single-passenger vehicles. We regulate the space around us completely, not compromising with others. When we do interact with other people, it is to lean on the horn and shout expletives in their direction. Covid isolation made this worse: Even with fewer people driving, 2021 saw the biggest jump in traffic deaths ever recorded. On the road, we are our worst selves, and, given the state of the country, it seems this behavior is frequently spilling over into public life writ large.
The American love affair with cars began when they were still a luxury item in the early twentieth century, and traffic laws were patchy at best. But car culture came into its own after World War II. Cars were an essential aspect of the military-industrial complex, with automakers producing one-fifth of all combat material during the war. They have puttered along on Cold War path dependency since then. The mass adaptation to cars came with the shift back to peacetime civilian production in the 1950s. The creation of federal highways with the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was the most expensive federal infrastructure project in U.S. history: The argument for them was that large roads could move troops in the event of a Soviet attack, but, given their convenient stopping points in prime suburban locations, the highways looked a lot like federal subsidies for private residential developers.
The highways were essential to the white flight of the postwar decades. As Knowles observes, “the fact that white people could afford cars, and most Black people could not, made it possible for the car to be used to enforce segregation indirectly, at a time when the Civil Rights Act was making it harder for it to be enforced directly.” Through massive investment in highways, the federal government encouraged suburbanization that occurred exactly when Americans were meant to be integrating schools, housing, and the workforce. Inner-city neighborhoods that were harder to access by cars were consistently devalued, with less investment in parks and recreation and a shrinking tax base to support public schools.
By the time gentrification began in earnest in the 1990s, transit systems in densely populated urban neighborhoods largely remained underfunded. Cars park in the bus lane, while subway construction takes decades to complete and is subject to capricious voter bond referendums. Even pop songs chastise nondrivers. (“Hangin’ out the passenger side / Of his best friend’s ride.”) The popular sentiment is that those without a car have failed in life. People cycling to their jobs on the side of highways, or waiting for the train in the cold, or pedestrians walking on streets without sidewalks are punished for being poor. If they worked harder, they would have a car; until then, this reasoning holds, the danger and discomfort they endure is their comeuppance for fecklessness.
The material effects of all these cars are shocking: Drivers in Texas alone account for 0.5% of all global CO2 emissions—which is more than all of Nigeria. Metropolitan Houston has 30 parking spaces for each of its over six million residents, using a land area nearly 10 times the size of Paris. All that parking has not made Houston a thriving city: It has exacerbated the city’s low-lying geography and stymied rain drainage, creating a giant paved basin that floods regularly, costing billions of dollars.
Knowles, a British reporter based in Chicago, is pretty frank about his distaste for American car culture. In a chapter he spends at a monster truck rally, he remarks that a Chevy Suburban “looks like something your eight-year-old son might design on Roblox: no curves at all, just a giant metal box.” He is frequently shocked by the harms that people have accepted for the sake of their cherished cars. Were driving not so wrapped up in the national dream of freedom and independence, Knowles suggests, Americans would have declared it an epidemiological emergency and set up a commission dedicated to its demise.
Since the early 2000s, defensive driving increasingly means trading up to larger vehicles to dominate the road. This shift was partly the result of bad policy: SUVs were not taxed as luxury cars despite their high prices, because they are for both “sport” and “utility.” Never mind the fact that one would be hard-pressed to find anyone hauling things with their $120,000 Lexus LX 600. Now, we create enormous roads because average suburbanites drive luxury tanks. Ford has nearly stopped producing cars in North America to focus on SUVs and trucks. This popularity touches on two trends. First, there is the self-delusion of the suburban white-collar workers who imagine they need a big car for all the “big jobs” they never quite get around to. And then there is the bandwagon effect: No one wants to be cruising a highway in a Fiat 500, feeling vulnerable as everyone else lords above them in Tahoes, Expeditions, and Escalades.
Knowles draws on current research to show that SUVs are far more deadly than sedans because local governments allow them to travel too fast on city streets, and because they are heavier and higher off the ground. This means that when they hit a pedestrian, they smash into that person’s vital organs rather than their legs, often killing them instantly. SUVs are particularly dangerous in cases of “rat running”: when people speed down local streets in order to avoid backed-up highways, turning the local laneway into a scene from Mad Max.
The mainstream political solution to this plethora of dangers is, of course, more cars: in this case, electric vehicles and self-driving technology. Deploying a Britishism, Knowles calls these predictions of a brighter future “bionic duckweed,” shorthand for technology that overpromises and is premised on faulty science. In fact, electric vehicles are only as clean as their power source, which in many places means coal-burning plants that are dirtier than gasoline or even diesel. While more energy may come from renewable sources, it is hard to see that on the horizon. Likewise, autonomous vehicles are also an environmental threat: They could encourage people to live outside cities and nap during a two-hour commute, or send out their car to do errands while they watch TV on the couch. Sure, the communication between multiple vehicles’ self-driving systems may—or may not—reduce reckless driving and fatalities, but it could also carpet cities with a constant traffic jam.
There have been many well-popularized recent books on cars and their environmental impact. Their proposed solution—less driving—will be engineered through taxes, more mass transit, and higher-density neighborhoods. But what if the solution is not to attack cars but to make it very hard to store them? Writing a book about parking, particularly parking as a major explanatory factor for all of urbanization, is a brave move. As Henry Grabar, a noted urbanist and writer for Slate, acknowledges: “if driving is freedom,” then “parking is its cramped, contested partner, driving’s ill-tempered brother, the thing you never see on television because it is simultaneously too boring and too irritating.”
In taking on this subject, Grabar makes a powerful statement about cities: For all our idealization of architects and cautionary tales about all-powerful planners like Robert Moses, most things get built with little thought and by nonprofessionals. The results are cities dominated by surface-level parking that is an eyesore, economically unproductive, and demoralizing to constantly traverse.
Grabar’s broadside against parking is inspired by another book: The High Cost of Free Parking, a treatise on urban economics written in 2005 by the UCLA professor Donald Shoup. This book is so popular among transit activists that Grabar calls them Shoupistas for their veneration of the now-retired planning professor. Adherents to Shoup’s philosophy make two simple points: that the economic costs of parking are huge, and that parking minimums for residential and commercial buildings encourage people to drive more because they know they will always have a space.
Channeling these ideas, Grabar explores a number of incidents where local parking regulations stymied important projects, particularly the creation of affordable housing in places with dire shortages. Ginger Hitzke, an affordable housing developer in Solana Beach, California, attempted to rehouse people displaced by the demolition of a slumlord’s apartments in the 1990s. But the town was ambivalent about her project location, because it was to be built on a municipal parking lot—even though she planned to construct a 53-space underground garage at great expense. Parking was the main obstacle to planning approval, used as a NIMBYistic cudgel first by the city, then by local homeowners who claimed in a private lawsuit that the land should remain surface-level parking forever. After over seven years and winning planning permission and the lawsuit, Hitzke ran out of funds and gave up on the project. Despite the fact that the “intended inhabitants … were one-time neighbors, real people with faces and names” who had waited for the project for 30 years, the barriers proved too great. Grabar shows how parking inhibits the production of new homes, creating the sad situation in which by “square footage, there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person,” and more three-car garages are built than one-bedroom apartments each year.
Parking is, in fact, often downright sinister. Until the advent of automated ticket machines, many garages were controlled by the mafia. Grabar takes us on a tour of parking’s underbelly, including the Philadelphia airport where attendants collected between $3 million and $7 million in cash a year in the 1990s by underreporting long-stay parking. Owning parking was a good way to launder money and cheaply get a piece of downtown real estate to develop later. Parking was a tough business, and it has been routinely made macho in popular culture. Garages are unloved parts of the urban landscape, and they produce an unsettling feeling when inside. Deep Throat set up his meeting with Bob Woodward in one, and Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered in the subterranean garage of the Dallas Police Headquarters. Yet, despite the suspicion that garages are where bad things happen, most cities want to build more of them rather than phase them out.
In contrast, parking enforcement is feminized. In New York City, where Grabar grew up, he observes that the original meter enforcers were all women and were briefly fetishized (à la “Lovely Rita” in the U.K.) before being despised. In 1987, an attendant named Ana Russi was decorated with the Woman of the Year Award by Mayor Ed Koch even after she told the mayor’s limo driver to leave an illegal spot. For Puerto Rican New Yorkers like Russi, being a “meter maid” was a foothold into stable, well-paid public service despite constant harassment and even physical assaults. Today, many New York City parking enforcers are Bangladeshi immigrants. Despite new laws that carry special penalties for attacking meter readers, they are routinely harassed. The hatred of parking enforcement is socially accepted and even joked about with more than a whiff of casual misogyny. In the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the characters all want to kill one another, but they unite in repeatedly knocking out a traffic warden because, apparently, no matter what their differences, Londoners want to hit parking enforcers.
The story of parking is largely a story of unintended consequences and subsequent regrets. One of the better known and vividly told stories in Grabar’s book is of the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, a Viennese Jew and socialist, who fled Austria after the Nazi occupation in 1938. Gruen envisioned the mall not as a triumph of consumerism, but as a twentieth-century agora where people could become pedestrians again, enjoying the company of others in public space. Yet malls were not built within walking distance from most people’s homes; they had to drive to visit them, and driving meant parking. Gruen was appalled by his own creation—particularly the seas of parking around malls that emphasize how contrived a vision of pedestrianism and public space they are. While malls are losing popularity in the United States, their replacement may be no lovelier. Advocates of walkable “New Urbanism” hope for neighborhoods where cars are optional, but the reality in most cities is that malls are giving way to all-in-one box stores, online shopping, and grab-and-go dollar shops. The future of consumerism is not the food court by the indoor fountain but Uber Eats consumed in solitude while opening Amazon packages.
As Grabar surveys the proliferation of shopping malls, strip malls, garages, and valuable real estate demolished for surface-level parking, he asks the very sensible question about American cities: “Dude, where’s my town?” A Buffalo, New York, Chamber of Commerce member, surveying the damages of urban renewal, remarked that “so many buildings had been demolished it looked like the city was paving the way not for cars to park but for airplanes to land.” Indeed, parking is a powerful lens through which to understand architectural modernism: The old city was destroyed not for the human but for their car. People were left exposed by the side of massive highways, vulnerable to high-velocity steel objects, and, all along the way, we were told this was the dream of the good life, and all the sacrifices were worth it in order to drive down the parkway with the wind in our hair.
Books about driving tend to serve two policy and public opinion purposes: They try to show that the American landscape—dominated by roads, cars, and parking—did not have to be this way, and they serve as a cautionary tale to decision-makers in the developing world. The suburban home and the big SUV that goes with it are quintessential signs of the good life in many countries of the global south. North American urbanists are in the difficult position of lecturing developers, government officials, and planners in India, China, Nigeria, Egypt, and many other countries, in effect saying: “This may look nice, but you will regret it, not to mention it’s bad for all of us in terms of carbon emissions.”
At this point, the dream of mobility without cars is elusive. Europeans have created a viable model in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where protected bike lanes and trams create safer streets that are more pleasant for strolling, but these places are minuscule on a global scale. Carmageddon and Paved Paradise make one thing clear: The “carrots” of nice bike lanes and sparkling new tram lines are not enough. Governments will need to deploy the “sticks” of gasoline taxes, private vehicle bans in urban areas, and dynamically priced parking in order to decrease car use. If they do not, Americans, and increasingly the rest of the world, will keep spending 250 hours a year commuting through traffic while telling themselves they are living the dream of the open road.