SUVs: The Product Of Bad Design

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Urbanists like myself often malign the tremendous proliferation of Sport Utility Vehicles, or SUVs. After all, when we advocate for pedestrian safety, environmental sustainability and re-committing road space back to people, the meteoric growth of the SUV market contradicts nearly everything we fight for.

Over 52% of automobiles purchased in 2021 were SUVs, more than 2 to 1 over sedans. The first 4 months of 2022 showed that 72.9% of all car purchased were SUVs and pickups. With the rise of bigger, heavier, more powerful vehicles comes the alarming rise in pedestrian fatalities. The surge of SUVs as the dominant form of the American automobile has, in a sense, taken an already deadly disease and made it stronger.

Often, urbanists challenge the “choice” that Americans make when they buy these massive vessels of capacity. But before we give the stank eye to every neighbor who brings home a new Honda Pilot, let’s look at why Americans believe they need to purchase a vehicle of this magnitude.

Speaking anecdotally, I’ve asked hundreds of people why they chose an SUV instead of a car. The answer I hear the most is “I feel safer.” Right off the bat this is a telling response, as drivers believe they have to arm themselves with a larger vehicle in order to safely move about our society. So we keep pushing our budgets to buy larger vehicles in an effort to compete in the on-road version of Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book.

The other response I receive when I ask this question is obvious… the buyer has multiple children, and having more capacity for their kids and their kids’ friends is vital.

Let’s unpack this. Yes, it’s easier to transport your kids when you have more space to do so. But why do you have to do this in the first place? Suburban sprawl and the rejection of family-centric and densely supportive neighborhoods means that every trip you make, your kids need to make too. Going to the grocery store? Your family is 5 miles away (on purpose) and there is no babysitting option.

And every trip your kids make is a distance that is accessible by car. Soccer game? Can’t walk to that. Band show? Can’t walk to that. So you just drive. And because you must drive, you must have the capacity to drive all of your kids if necessary, and oh yeah, their friends too… because like you, everyone else has participated in this sprawling suburban boondoggle that forces us to buy the vehicle with the greatest possible capacity.

So while we urbanists often see SUV purchases as an unnecessarily individualistic expression of decadence, perhaps we might start to see this reaction as a personal strategy to mitigate a developmental priority that promotes exclusivity and the subsequent narrowing of practical mobility options. In other words, the safety and flexibility that the $50,000+ vehicle provides is not a choice as much as a reaction to the kind of development strategy that the U.S. has championed.

Sometimes the most powerful narratives are the ones that reposition winners as victims of a system that has been cast upon them. As urbanists, it might behoove us to view the proliferation of the SUV as a product of a flawed community design rather than an irresponsible individual choice.