The biggest criticism I’ve gotten in comments to Matt Yglesias’s link to my previous post was about my comparison of Puerto Rico’s car ownership with that of neighboring middle-income Caribbean nations. Multiple people claimed that Puerto Rico is much larger than the other countries and therefore needs cars, whereas in the rest of the countries people can walk everywhere. The correlation between size and car ownership is not statistically supported – whereas that with urban density is – but I’m going to instead narrate the pedestrian experience in Barbados to explain why positing such correlation doesn’t make sense. One commenter, Peter from the Block, writes:
Unless you are on a small island like Barbados or Antigua or Barbuda, in which case everything is close [enough to walk]!
My experience with Barbados comes from a week-long conference in Holetown last year. The conference was at the beginning of May, when the Sun came within two degrees of the zenith. The main road we’d use to get back and forth from the institute where we slept and the conference was held to the area where we could shop for food has little shade and even less tree coverage. The sidewalks are narrow, and there’s no real street wall: on the contrary, commercial buildings are fronted by parking lots. With the Sun directly overhead, the high asphalt coverage made for intense heat.
There was not much traffic by suburban American standards, but enough that it was still impossible to walk in the roadway, making the narrow sidewalks a problem whenever more than about 3 people walked together. In addition, the mall we used for food shopping is surrounded on all sides by parking, with a gas station on the side. My recollection of the people I saw in the area, including in the mall, is that they were mostly black, therefore majority-local (for while presumably there were some African-American tourists, most tourists would be white), but tourists comprised a disproportionate fraction.
For trips to other parts of the island, we got around with a tour bus rather than on foot. I tried at one point and failed to learn to use the local bus system and visit the main city, Bridgetown; walking would take far too long. The tour bus took us to a patch of rainforest and back, with a stopover at a beach; none of the points we passed in between looked especially dense, and few looked walkable.
Bear in mind, the above does not apply to Bridgetown. Purely from Google Maps tourism, it looks like a pedestrian-centric traditional city to me, of the kind that Charlie Gardner and Nathan Lewis would rave about. Presumably, car ownership is low because people in the cities can walk to their daily errands. But this is precisely the point I was making about the role of national policy in transportation mode choice: while Barbados’s size and national density are features of geography, the shape of its cities and its urban density are features of government policy.
Another thing one should note is that although walking to local errands was annoying, it was possible. This, again, is a feature of land use and transportation policy – probably inertia rather than a conscious choice, but still a different path from that taken by the US. Local travel is not that sensitive to national size and density.
Barbados is not Monaco. Its national population density, 660/km^2, is high by any global standard, but it’s not a high urban density. There are plenty of suburbs in New Jersey with several times that density where one could not walk to a supermarket. Under an American (or Malaysian) transportation policy, Barbados would’ve not only been pedestrian-hostile, but also sprawled like San Juan or Honolulu.