Why More Cars Are Not The Answer (Full Version)

By Dustyn Thompson & Marissa McClenton
As Featured in our 2023 DE Sierra Magazine

We live in a time when it is almost unthinkable to live without a car in Delaware. But that has not always been the case. There was a time when we had a large number of villages and hamlets where people had everything they needed within a mile or so. Are we doomed to be driving to and from everywhere, forever? Well, so what if we are, as long as we have EVs and other clean cars, right? Wrong. Even the cleanest cars have a tremendous impact on our planet, our lives, and our wallets, and developing land to be car-centric is devastating as well. Having a home to live and age in-place where you can get around without a car has a tremendous benefit to your quality of life - and we are not just talking about fewer traffic-induced tension headaches. But how do we get from where we are now to that sort of future?

In a word, density. Now let me take a second to say that we are here to convince you today that density is not a four-letter word. Density itself can be good or bad. If you do it wrong, traffic can worsen, emissions can go up, and your ability to get around without a car can actually get worse!

In areas that are already developed, density requires infill development. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a great slogan for infill development, “turning parking lots into places.” Infill development is essentially just that, taking parking lots and other vacant or underdeveloped lots in an already developed area and turning them into additional places to live and recreate. The key, as Montgomery County has found out, is to offer a mix of uses in a condensed area, preferably less than a square mile. That means having doctors offices, restaurants, housing, shopping and grocery stores, banks, and other necessities all within a mile of one another. Most folks think of this as having a complete, or walkable/bikeable, community because everything you need is within walking/biking distance.

That is, unfortunately, not what we have in most of Delaware. Two areas that folks think of when they think of density are Concord Pike in New Castle and Route 1 down at the beach. These are some of the worst examples of commercial development and are actually the opposite of density. They have sprawling parking lots slapped down in front of the stores and next to a very busy highway. There are very few to no compact residential properties that are safely accessible to the stores by walking or biking. And the highways going through the overly commercially developed parts are used as thoroughfares for travelers and shoppers. This is the opposite of density but is essentially commercial sprawl.

But if we put housing in those areas, wouldn’t that make traffic worse? Sure, if we do it wrong, traffic could get worse. But that is assuming that the roadways, speed limits, and theory behind the development stay the same. None of which can be the case, if we want to successfully redevelop those areas. But we also have to think about the new developments popping up. If we design complete communities and dense developments from the start, without cars in mind, traffic never starts to begin with because those denser areas are not used as thoroughfares. To fix Route 1 and Concord Pike, the same has to be done. Those areas need to be reimagined as complete communities serving the needs of those specific areas of the state and traffic patterns need to be redeveloped to allow for travelers to make their way to their final destinations while safely traversing those areas.

But still, what if people need to get around and can’t walk and don’t want a car? What about public transit, rather than density, as a solution to the problem of too many cars? With public transit, we are stuck in a chicken versus the egg situation. You actually have to have two things in order to effectively use public transit, a lot of people who choose not to use cars and density. Public transit is designed for short trips, usually under 5 miles. In order for folks to want to use the bus, it has to be convenient and quick. If you have to ride more than five miles, neither of those boxes will be checked. So resources have to be close to homes and roads and businesses need to be designed with buses in mind, rather than just cars. 

Well, what about rail?

If you wanted to get around Delaware by rail today, you would be limited to traveling between Claymont, Wilmington, Churchmans Crossing and Newark. These stations are most often used to travel to other destinations like Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and NYC. Is this the best we can do though? Most people have been stopped by a freight transport train in Delaware, so we know that it is possible to carry things through the state, we just need to apply that to carrying people as well. Investing in passenger rail throughout the state can help curb sprawl and connect people to other areas of the state that they would otherwise have to sit in traffic for 3 hours to visit (“cough cough” beaches). Rail travel allows us to reclaim some of the time we spend on our commute mindlessly staring at the bumper in front of us. Imagine all of the books we could read, crafts we could finish, games we could watch, and other value we could add to our lives if we spent less time sitting in traffic. Rail is a win/win for everybody, we just need the initial investment and political will to make that jump so we can ride the rail into a more sustainable future. But that too is also reliant on land use concentrating development in key areas, rather than sprawling communities. 

There are a lot of factors at play that stop us from smart development. Historically, land use decisions have not kept pace with societal needs on many fronts. It has become far cheaper to build sprawling developments, primarily on cheap agricultural land, with no resources within 5-10 miles. We have started to pull back on the reins on that front, but it is still far cheaper to build out in very rural areas than it is to infill within a city or a town. 

Nimbyism has also been the main thorn in the side of infill and smart development. We are stuck in this mindset of getting into an area and then wanting to shut the door behind us because of the overwhelming fear of traffic impacts that come with the development designs of the past. 

Traffic itself is probably the main hurdle to infill development. If we continue to require vast, sprawling, surface-level parking lots and wide high-speed roadways through metropolitan areas, we will actually continue to make traffic worse. While most would want us to design with cars in mind, doing so is exactly why the traffic problems exist in the first place. The more we design for people, not their cars, the more people will rely on rideshare, public transit, carpooling, and other vehicle reduction strategies to traverse these complete communities.

There is no silver bullet to get us from where we are, after decades of poor development and land use decisions, to where we need to be with complete, fully accessible, resource-driven communities. We must break away from the surface-level parking lots and stop widening roads to accommodate more cars (clearly folks have not seen the movie Field of Dreams, because if you build it, they will come). We have to incentivize the infill development that makes sense, much like Montgomery County has done, and actually penalize the sprawling developments that are destroying our farming communities. We need to invest in towns and cities that want to become complete communities and help them with staffing and resources to succeed. 

We must do all this because it is imperative that we reduce emissions, get as many cars off the road as possible, be they EVs or gas-powered cars, reduce traffic accidents and pedestrian fatalities, and bring back the safe, vibrant communities in which we all thrive. As we want to attract younger people to Delaware, we need to think about what kind of housing they want. As it turns out, it is actually the same type of housing our aged and retired population wants. Namely, to be able to live, work, play, and someday retire in their homes in their communities. This shift in land use could be the great uniter our state needs, but we have to reimagine how we think about these issues first.