Turning The Cars-Versus-Cities Debate Inside Out

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Much ink, both real and digital, has been used writing about cars and cities. On one end, some people want to completely ban cars from cities (some even want this for small cities). On the other end, there are people who fight for continued vehicular access to even the most dense urban cores. Most challenging the status quo take a position somewhere in between, with ideas for a mix of different transport that doesn’t always prioritize drivers.

As I’ve thought about this, and read from a variety of people taking different positions, I realized that almost everybody in this debate shares some very basic assumptions:

  • Workplaces and living places are fixed locations.
  • Moving these fixed locations to new fixed locations that are closer together can help.
  • The only other thing to argue about is how to best move people between home, work, and sometimes to other places (recreation, shopping, travel to other places).

There are some groups of people who challenge these assumptions, though. We’d be wise to look for ways to learn from these groups and see if we can find non-traditional ways of solving transportation problems in cities.

The Homeless

If there’s anybody challenging the assumption of fixed locations, it’s the homeless. As cities have grown in population with a lack of new housing, prices have spiked. Like a sick game of musical chairs, not everyone can afford a seat when the music stops and the remaining seats go to the highest bidders. Despite the lack of a fixed place to live, and often lacking an income from a fixed place to work, they still stay in the city.

They challenge all of the assumptions the rest of us live by, and this makes it very hard for cities to even know how to help. Homeless shelters are overrun with need, but don’t have enough room for all. In some cases, shelter rules (no pets, limited property, no sexual partners) keep people from seeking a bed. Lacking security, a place to keep clean, and the inability to accumulate things without theft, escaping homelessness can be a real challenge.

In Los Angeles, one man found a solution to help people start working their way out of the hole: tiny houses. After crowdfunding $100,000 for his new charity, Elvis Summers worked with contractors and volunteers to build small houses to put in parking places and on sidewalks. Getting out of tents, some of the homeless started to feel like they could risk going to get a job without having everything stolen or thrown in the dump. Unfortunately, this solution was too far outside of many people’s paradigms, and the city ended up hauling some of the houses off. The city recently passed a $1.2 billion traditional housing plan to end homelessness, but these future promises don’t help people sleeping on the sidewalk tonight.

People living in their cars after becoming homeless are having slightly better luck. In most cases, people trying to sleep in their cars get harassed by police, and it’s not a small problem. Some of the estimated 16,500 people living in cars in Los Angeles have been invited to sleep in “safe lots” provided by local churches and charities. Like homeless shelters, there is access to social workers and help to get people out of homelessness. Unfortunately, even that plan has detractors, who fear criminal behavior and don’t want such lots in their neighborhoods.

Like other cities with homeless, Portland is also having problems with people living in run down RVs. While better in some respects than living in a car, not all RVs are the same. In some cases, the vehicles either don’t run or barely run well enough to move. Without access to water and sewer, conditions in many of the RVs are unsanitary, and drug users litter their floors with used needles. Combined with their rundown appearance, this leads to reports of “abandoned” or “zombie” RVs, despite the fact that people are living in them. In response, the city has been identifying the worst of them and having them hauled off for destruction.

Gentrified RV Living, Van Life, & “Stealth”

While there are poor conditions and criminal activity going on in the RVs Portland is towing away, the association between RV living and homelessness isn’t really fair. While much more common among the retired, there are also many young professionals and others with incomes living in RVs. In fact, some estimate that over a million people in the United States live in an RV.

Search on any social media site for #vanlife and you’ll find many pictures of cute young couples, mostly of the heterosexual white variety. You’ll also find “Skoolies,” or people living in school buses converted to feature most of what you’d find in a house. There are also “workampers” and many other subgroups, some of which are part of the “tiny house” movement.

Despite being on the up and up, many of these people run into trouble when trying to park their vehicles in cities. Even if police don’t bother those in RVs, others often will. Business owners will try to have them towed away from parking lots and NIMBYs, or those who don’t want the RVs in their neighborhoods, will call police to make false accusations in hopes of driving the owners away.

This all leads to “stealth camping.” Travel trailers, motorhomes, and other such vehicles attract a lot of attention. In response, some people try to blend into their surroundings. By living in vans that appear to be normal work or travel vans on the outside, they can get away with living in a vehicle in urban settings without all of the problems that typically accompany that.

Are Cities Going About This Wrong?

I’m not suggesting that cities should allow drug addicts and prostitutes to live in your neighborhood in a 1978 Winnebago with three wheels, complete with HIV-infected drug needles falling onto the sidewalk next to the park where your kids play. At the same time, though, we could probably find a more sane middle ground between that and a ban on all RVs in cities.

If we can find ways to safely accommodate tiny houses, #vanlife, and other mobile or non-permanent housing in cities, we may be able to kill several birds with one stone.

For one, this non-traditional housing is cheaper. With the critical housing shortages in coastal cities well beyond breaking points, this could give lower income people some much-needed breathing room.

Also, tiny houses (mobile or semi-permanent), have much lower environmental footprints. As electrified RVs begin to emerge, the impact will continue to get lower. Cool concepts, like this Tesla Semi RV, and this non-Tesla conversion, show how this could go. Nissan is even getting into the game with eNV200 pop-top van prototypes.

Photo by Nissan UK.

There are even people working on going completely off-grid with solar-electric RVs!

Route Del Sol converted an electric cargo van (an International eStar) to charge an improved battery pack (120 kWh) with almost 8 kW of solar panels. Were someone to park this vehicle in an open space within a city, they’d not only have a much lower footprint than nearly any apartment, but with no emissions used to move the dwelling as needed. As solar cell technology continues to improve, the needed panels will continue to shrink to more reasonable and wieldly dimensions.

Being able to re-plan dwellings by moving them can cut congestion

If someone in a solar-powered RV/tiny house can move their home closer to work on Sunday evening and stay there through most of the week, they’d be able to get to work much easier. Some employers in Silicon Valley already allow this, so it’s clearly something that could work if done right.

When changing employers to another across a city, people living this way wouldn’t be pinned down to a house or apartment, and could easily make a quick move across the city to a new parking area during the week. On the weekend, or on vacations, they could use clean EV technology to explore the countryside or go visit family across the country while causing far less harm to the environment.

If we can find ways to integrate non-permanent homes into cities, we could improve things a lot.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1945 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba