Cities and Cars

By July 13, 2001 No Comments

Civilization is about cities, while much of history and archeology records the horrible things that befall great cities. Floods and tidal waves can inundate them. Earthquakes can shake them flat, and they can be buried under volcanic debris. The streets of cities can be stalked by plague or famine, savaged by barbarians, shelled into gravel by artillery or be burned flat by accident or Mars run amok.

Yet all these things are survivable and cities are resilient creations. The Middle East is dotted with tels – high mounds that mark where cities were built upon the ruins of cities, year after year. When Heinrich Schliemann dug up Troy, looking for evidence of the city of Priam, he found dozens of layers implying that Troy survived repeated traumas. Rome’s fabled seven hills are hard to notice now, as the low points between them have been filled up by the debris of long centuries.

In short, a city can survive as long as the land around it is habitable and can generate a reason — usually economic — for people to come to it. City sites have been abandoned because the arable land around them was depleted – often through overgrazing, deforestation, or the water table changed (radical climate change has always been with mankind – its one reason why we evolved as we did). Other reasons for the abandonment of city-sites reflect a change in trade – which is why the “Silk Road” between China and the West is dotted with ruins. Alternatively, a city built purely for religious or administrative reasons – such as Machu Picchu – might be abandoned when the culture that created them is disrupted.

Otherwise, the constant resilience or resurrection of cities on flood plains or natural invasion routes is a reflection of their most fundamental characteristic. Cities represent a concentration of talent and ability, of human capital as the contemporary term has it. When the flood recedes, or the barbarians ride off, the survivors start working to piece things back together again. Skilled specialists return to their former activities while gifted communicators start trading and politicking once more, they generate capital and rebuild. Then the city once again creates and attracts wealth, knowledge and power.

In the 20th Century, we have had ample evidence of the ability of cities to regenerate. Some observers in May of 1945 noted that there was not a building with a roof to it in the vast expanse between Moscow and Berlin – the exaggeration is only a slight one. Warsaw was ground to powder on the orders of a vindictive Hitler while Tokyo had been twice visited by catastrophic fires – one generated in the aftermath of a horrible earthquake and one by 300 US B-29 bombers dropping incendiary bombs in the most lethal air raid in human history. Yet Berlin has been completely rebuilt – as have Warsaw, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Stalingrad (albeit with a new name), and San Francisco – pummeled by a major earthquake — and a host of other centres.

There are two lessons to draw from this. The first is the confirmation that cities can be rebuilt because of their concentration of human talent and skill. The second one, which seems lost on so many people, is that cities sometimes have to be rebuilt. In short natural or human disasters are never far away.

The urban and semi-urban landscape that now sprawls across much of North America, and which seems to be raising its scabby head in Europe, is a phenomenon never before encountered in the 10,000-year history of civic life. The automobile, now nearing the centennial of its appearance as a mass-produced means of transport for individuals, has re-defined the shape of our cities and our civilization.

Individually, people find a number of advantages in owning automobiles. They convey a sense of personal freedom, by letting people rove where they will at a time of their choosing. They are convenient forms of individual transportation, especially for parents with families. They can be status symbols, contribute to a sense of privacy, and give many of us more space.

Arguments against automobiles (they pollute, lead to extravagant energy use, kill large numbers of us in accidents, promote our epidemic of obesity, etcetera) must confront another hard fact: We have designed our cities, our lifestyles and our economy around them. No matter how sensible an argument against the automobile culture may be, there is little or no incentive for us to climb back down the path we have been following for nearly 100 years.


Automobiles use energy – a lot of it — although the efficiency with which they use fuel notably improves with every decade. Yet the Ford Model T and Rolls Royce of 1904 burned gasoline, as do almost all current cars. Oil reserves may be finite and certainly fuel prices will climb before we can figure a way around this problem. The potential use of Nanotechnology to convert almost any material into fuel, or the development of fusion power would remove this limitation, but these are still very much in the theoretical stage and decades from providing commercially available products.

Automobiles also demand infrastructure… there has to be money to pay for roads (and more roads, and still more roads, and bridges and tunnels and… ). This is their second vulnerability.

Civilizations do get disrupted, and it is inevitable that some combination of human and natural causes will someday savage North America’s population. Just because no North American city has seen anything too traumatic since the 1906 Earthquake or the 1918 Influenza epidemic (or the destruction of Atlanta and Richmond during the American Civil War), there is no reason to imagine we are invulnerable to disaster.

When this occurs, we may find that the automobile was a mistake. Cities bounce back from disaster because they are concentrations of talent and resourcefulness. However, the automobile has led to a major dispersal of our populations. Suburbs that may only be an hour’s drive from the city’s core are a two day journey for a fit man on foot. This dispersion mitigates against rapid recovery in a major post-disaster environment. Moreover, our neglected railway systems certainly could not fill the gap either. Those suburban communities that do have train stations are still spread out – with outlying subdivisions being several hours walking time away.

Worse still, a city of a million people is one that requires a lot of food on a daily basis. In a situation where the transportation infrastructure has been severely disrupted, it would be useful (or even vital) to eke supplies out by harnessing arable land around the city. However, when all the fields for a 100 kilometres around have been ploughed under for sub-divisions, this option becomes a severely limited one.

Robert B. Edgerton’s book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (Free Press 1992) is a classic study of maladaptive practices in primitive societies. He points out that most peoples can survive little idiosyncrasies (like female circumcision believing in witchcraft, or taboos on useful food-sources, etc.) until their society is severely challenged by outside circumstances. At that point, their capacity for survival is severely reduced by both the disaster and the continuation of their cultural eccentricities. We should take care to see that our love affair with the automobile does not damn our future by making our cities too fragile to survive major catastrophes.