Living in Car Country

For most Americans, driving is routine. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to get around by other means—by bus, say, or by bicycle—but in most places, compared to driving, such alternatives tend to be inconvenient, uncomfortable, inefficient, and sometimes even unsafe. As a result, when most Americans need to go somewhere, they reflexively reach for the car keys. In short, most Americans live in what I’ve come to think of as Car Country. And in Car Country we drive. A lot.

Of course, not everyone in the U.S. lives in Car Country. Some live in places like this:

Manhattan, 2010

Houston and Broadway, Manhattan, 2010.

And they walk. A lot.

Why? In walkable places, the entire built environment encourages people to move around on foot. Driving, not to mention parking, isn’t particularly welcoming. Such places manage to confer the automobile’s normal advantages of convenience, speed, and safety on other ways of getting around. (In addition to all the people moving around on foot, note the bus in the background and the cabs on the left. You’ll have to imagine the subway stop around the corner.)

To understand the full significance of how the built environment conditions the ways that we move around, compare Manhattan to a typical American suburb. For the sake of convenience, let’s look at Eagan, Minnesota.

Located south of St. Paul, Eagan houses a bit over sixty thousand people on 34.5 square miles of land, and is organized as a series of exit-ramp neighborhoods along I-35E. Built mainly in the 1970s and 1980s in relation to the newly constructed interstate, which connects it to downtown St. Paul, Eagan’s land-use patterns differ little from those that have dominated suburban design since the end of World War II. From a transportation perspective, its street system follows a clear hierarchy. The interstate sits at the top, and is followed, in descending order of size, speed, and traffic load, by arterials, collector roads, and winding residential streets.


Cartography by Birgit Mühlenhaus, 2011. From Christopher W. Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (2012).

Although its street system reflects a clear orientation toward cars, it is Eagan’s land-use patterns–not just its street system–that make it such a good example of Car Country. Most importantly, note the concentration of commercial properties in just two places: clustered around the intersection of I-35E and Cliff Road (this neighborhood’s primary arterial route) and at the intersection of two arterials, Cliff and Thomas Lake Road.

Imagine yourself living here. Imagine yourself needing a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, or a haircut. Because prevailing land-use patterns have concentrated all commercial activity in just a handful of places, you don’t have the option to walk a block or two to a corner store. Instead, you’ll need to follow a residential street to a collector, follow that to an arterial, and then travel along it to your destination. With the nearest thing you need a mile or two away, located on a heavily trafficked arterial next to the interstate ramp, do you walk? Do you ride your bike? Or do you drive?

For residents of densely settled Manhattan, of course, the calculus is quite different. Most of life’s minor commercial needs there can be satisfied by heading outside and taking a relatively short walk.  Manhattan is Car Country’s antithesis, a rare example from the opposite end of the spectrum. But you don’t have to go as far as New York to find less car-dependent places than Eagan. You can find them right here in the Twin Cities.

Take, for example, the neighborhood around Macalester College, where I work. This neighborhood, Macalester-Groveland (or Mac-Grove, as it’s commonly called), is one-third of Eagan’s size, measured by population. Measured by area, on the other hand, it is considerably smaller, just 2.25 square miles to Eagan’s 34.5– occupying five times less land per person than Eagan.


Cartography by Birgit Mühlenhaus, 2011. From Wells, Car Country.

In addition to housing more people in less space, Mac-Grove’s zoning patterns differ markedly from those of a typical suburb. Unlike Eagan, where all retailers are located in a couple of concentrated, high-traffic areas, Mac-Grove’s retailers form small clusters every few blocks along the neighborhood’s four big arterials (all but one of which are physically smaller, with slower speed limits, than Eagan’s). As a result, nearly every home in the neighborhood is located within easy walking distance of multiple small retail clusters.

Not everyone in Mac-Grove walks to the store, of course. But when they do drive, the closeness of local retail means that they drive much shorter distances than residents of Eagan.


From Wells, Car Country.

Not only do Mac-Grove’s land-use patterns have lower “designed-in” mobility requirements, but they also make getting around without a car much easier. Because so many stores are located nearby, and because low-traffic streets parallel and connect with high-traffic streets, it is easier and safer to bicycle here than in a place like Eagan, even with its separated bike lanes. (See what these look like on the right side of this Google Street View image.) In addition, the linear layout of Mac-Grove’s retail corridors makes it easier for residents to get to the businesses they want relatively quickly and painlessly by bus.

Mac-Grove did not achieve its greater residential density, walkability, bikeability, or transit-friendly status because its residents have notably anti-car attitudes. Nor did it achieve these things because it has adopted particularly forward-thinking policies. Its local zoning discussions, in fact, sound much as they do in Car Country.

So what is its secret?

To put it bluntly, the neighborhood inherited its walking-, biking-, and transit-friendly street system and land-use patterns from the past. The entire neighborhood grew up around streetcars. Today, many decades after the last streetcar made its final trip through the neighborhood, its residents still benefit from the lower mobility requirements that were woven into the basic fabric of this streetcar-oriented neighborhood.

So why did we abandon the walkable layouts of streetcar neighborhoods? What transformed the United States into Car Country? I tell the story of this national transformation in my book. But there is also a larger, more contemporary lesson. Our everyday transportation needs–and the distances that we travel to conduct our daily affairs–are as much a product of the places that we live as the choices that we make about how to get where we want to go. Whether you want to drive less as an individual or you want to work for policies that will reduce the carbon footprint of the entire transportation sector, begin by paying greater attention to the built environment. The solutions to our current dependence on cars lie at least as much in building better places as they do in developing better transportation technologies.

Chris Wells

About Chris Wells

Chris Wells is associate professor of environmental history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His research and teaching focus on the ways that technology—and especially technological systems—have reshaped the American environment, mediating and structuring people’s relationships with the natural world. He is the author of Car Country: An Environmental History (2012), which focuses on the proliferation of car-dependent landscapes in the United States before 1956.