Americans put over 13,000 miles on their vehicles every year. If car commercials are to be believed, this is all done off-roading into the woods and driving sports cars through empty, rain-slicked city streets.
In reality, much of this mileage is racked up commuting to work. And, according to Texas A&M’s Urban Mobility Report 2019, the average auto commuter spends an extra 54 hours in his or her car every year on top of the time it should actually take to get to the office.
If you live in a city like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York, that figure doubles. In Los Angeles, for example, commuters spend 119 hours each year delayed in their cars—that’s almost three full weeks spent idling. Sure, there are podcasts, and catching up on phone calls, and dozens of other tips and tricks for convincing yourself it isn’t a waste of time, but the truth is that if the 128 million Americans who drive to work only spent one extra week in their cars every year, that would mean, collectively, that we waste nearly 2.5 million years annually stuck in traffic.
Those same cars are belching out greenhouse gases, a key component of global warming. It’s estimated that “20 percent of emission reductions needed to limit temperature rise need to come from trips avoided or trips shifted—from cars to trains, buses and bikes.”
In addition, motor vehicles remain a leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing over 35,000 people every year (along with the eight people hospitalized and 99 people treated and released for every one person who dies).
While these are all good reasons to reconsider our love affair with cars, there’s an extra bonus that doesn’t often enter the discussion. Places without cars are simply more pleasant places to be.
Recently, I traveled across Europe, where cities from bike-friendly Amsterdam to car-free Central Ghent are figuring out successful ways to reduce car dependency. Even large cities like Paris and London have instituted congestion pricing measures and car-free days to tackle the problem head-on.
It’s time for America to get on board.
It can be easier to imagine European cities car-free because for so much of their histories—whether they are 300 or 3,000 years old—they were. Streets evolved as pedestrian thoroughfares, and cars still seem like interlopers. If you are a city with actual medieval walls, like York in the U.K.—a pioneer in pedestrianizing its old city—those walls can offer easy templates for vehicular “no-go” zones. This is true in large cities, too, such as London and Madrid. It’s no coincidence that the Madrid Central plan, which keeps older vehicles out of the center of Spain’s largest metropolis, covers the 1.8 square miles once surrounded by the ancient city walls or that London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone is rolling out in the densest and oldest part of that city.
Could those principles be brought to bear in U.S. cities?
While American cities can seem new when compared to European counterparts, every major U.S. city—with the exception of Las Vegas—was founded before the introduction of the automobile. Although many have grown up so symbiotically with cars that it seems impossible to disentangle motor vehicles from the urban framework, urban planning in America is rooted in pre-car, mostly European models.
New York, for example, didn’t extend much beyond Chambers Street (a mile from Manhattan’s southern tip) until after 1810. As recently as 1850, most of Boston remained within walking distance of Boston Common. Even by the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—the first public introduction of the automobile in the U.S.—when Chicago was growing rapidly, street cars and pedestrian thoroughfares linked its neighborhoods.
Today, those three cities—along with Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles—are the most congested in America. Each has made (sometimes token) efforts toward improving traffic, but there’s a lot more work to be done.
Walking around European cities—from bustling urban centers like Milan and Amsterdam to smaller cities such as Ghent and Bruges in Belgium, and Ravenna and Padua in Northern Italy—it’s clear that there are numerous improvements that can be borrowed for the United States and implemented relatively quickly and inexpensively:
❏ Make streets multimodal
❏ Implement congestion pricing and/or limited traffic zones
❏ Eliminate street parking
❏ Boost transit options
❏ Reclaim plazas and other public space for people
In the process of reducing car dependency, U.S. cities also have the potential to do better than their European counterparts: Many of the successful ideas discussed below aren’t aimed at people with disabilities, and many European cities lag behind when it comes to accessibility. Any American city seriously interested in reducing car dependence must also take a hard look at just how badly most urban spaces are designed. Too often, access is an afterthought—we must make it a priority.
Make streets multimodal
On the streets of Amsterdam, bikes whizz by and walkers step blithely in front of cars (often with no demarcated crosswalk in sight). In America, we privilege automobiles to the point that pedestrians and cyclists are often considered at best secondary to urban design and at worst a nuisance. In Amsterdam, where biking is booming and multimodal transit is the norm, it’s the reverse, and I spent too many minutes at intersections waiting for some signal that it was my turn to cross. In many instances, it was always my time to cross. As an American pedestrian who expects traffic to be more segmented, it took time to get used to the fact that roads are designed to be shared. It was hard to return to the States and be shunted to the sidewalk—and I’m fortunate to live where sidewalks are the norm. In many American communities, like Austin or Atlanta, cars are so much the default that there’s little or no sidewalk at all.
This type of shared street is known in Dutch as a woonerf, which literally means “residential area” but is better translated from an urbanist perspective as “living street.” In areas that have been woonerf-ized, bikes, pedestrians, and cars intermingle without barriers. In the Netherlands and Belgium, this is frequently accomplished by having cars share the same space—at the same grade—with the pedestrians and bikers that often greatly outnumber autos. Visiting Haarlem, the city just outside Amsterdam that’s famous as the home of painter Frans Hals and for lending its name to the neighborhood in New York City, we found this type of street sharing is the norm. In the city’s core there are no sidewalks at all: pedestrians, bikes, and cars simply share the street. Forced to drive at safe speeds, cars and trucks become the exception for getting around, used for deliveries and hauling cargo, not shuttling single individuals—unlike in the United States, where “74 percent of [commuting car] trips are individuals driving alone.”
Some American cities are embracing the woonerf, but too often in the most timid manner possible. In Boston, a planned development of 18 homes and 70 apartments will incorporate living streets—but also include a massive parking garage. In Los Angeles, the Isla Connections will do better, with 54 one-bedrooms for the formerly homeless built around woonerf-ed streets, but for this type of street calming to work, it needs to be brought into larger neighborhoods.
San Francisco’s recent decision to ban cars for 1.7 miles of Market Street is a good start. The street will become the exclusive domain of buses, streetcars, bikes, pedestrians, and the occasional taxi. Uber—the headquarters of which lie just outside the new car-free street—and Lyft will only be able to operate on side streets. Manhattan’s 14th Street Busway remains a work in progress, but points toward the possibility that larger swaths of that city could begin to privilege people over cars.
Implement congestion pricing and/or limited traffic zones
Another European prototype that would be simple to replicate is the limited traffic zone, modeled on Italy’s successful program. Called in Italian a zona traffico limitato, or ZTL, the policy specifies hours when vehicles are allowed in designated areas of many city centers.
New York’s 14th Street is actually more like a ZTL than an outright car ban. The current plan allows all traffic overnight, then cuts off private vehicle access from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. But while cars are banned (except for taxis making pickups and dropoffs), delivery vehicles are given free reign, and the former parking places on both sides of 14th Street have been turned into loading zones. Following the Italian model, a better plan would be to give trucks limited windows of time to make deliveries and taxis (except for those serving the disabled) to drop off at the corners of the avenues. Then, the sidewalks could be widened into the delivery zones, taking back some of the street for pedestrians.
Walking through an ancient city like Ravenna, Italy, shows how effective a ZTL can be. Just outside the zone, signs point motorists to the nearest parking garages (complete with digital readouts of how many spaces are left). The city’s ZTL is divided into three parts: streets that ban traffic (with exceptions for residents) from 7:30 a.m to 10:30 p.m.; streets that are traffic-free 24 hours a day (again with exceptions); and public plazas that are pedestrian-only at all times.
During the day, these traffic-calming measures are readily apparent. Our hotel, just outside the ZTL, was situated near a heavily used roundabout where it often took a few minutes to navigate from one side to the other. But once we walked through the nearby city gate, congestion immediately eased. There were still cars, but no drivers were cutting through the ZTL to get to the other side.
Imagine such a plan in Boston—the most congested American city. Currently, Boston and neighboring Cambridge try to solve their traffic issues by limiting parking (which is by permit for residents) instead of limiting cars. Boston could implement a ZTL in the three-mile stretch from Fenway Park to Battery Wharf. As in Italy, Boston wouldn’t have to create an outright ban: Residents—who already have to apply for parking permits—would be allowed into the zone and deliveries could be made during specific hours. Similarly, New York, which has already been considering implementing an Off-Hours Delivery Program, could easily create a ZTL for multiple neighborhoods: the Financial District, the Theater District, or the pleasant winding streets of Greenwich Village.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was recently elected chairperson of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a consortium of 90 cities worldwide committed to fighting climate change. As Curbed’s Alissa Walker points out, if Garcetti wants to put some money where his mouth is, there are numerous streets in his own city, from Hollywood Boulevard to Wilshire, that could transform LA by “kicking out cars for good.”
Another way to create a ZTL is through congestion pricing. New York is poised to become the first American city to implement congestion pricing (after over a decade of discussion). Every European city that has enacted a congestion scheme has followed a different model, but all of them have benefited the environment: London has cut emissions by approximately one-third, Madrid has seen pollution reduced by 20 percent, and Stockholm has seen a 10 to 14 percent drop.
Congestion pricing has been so slow to take hold because drivers, unfortunately, often equate cars with freedom and independence—what many see as the essence of what it is to be an American. The idea that a car is no longer welcome is, to some, an affront.
It can be easier to imagine European cities car-free because for so much of their histories—whether they are 300 or 3,000 years old—they were.
Eliminate street parking
When Oslo, Norway, faced pushback for a congestion-pricing scheme, the city decided to take another approach: limit parking instead of limiting cars. In Copenhagen, often seen as Europe’s most walkable city, the government eliminated 2 to 3 percent of its parking spaces per year between 1986 and 1996, for a total of about 600 spaces over the decade. This could be a viable solution in New York, as Benjamin Kabak has argued for Curbed, and getting rid of free street parking would free up 500 million square feet of public space (though I would suggest that combined with New York’s already robust public transit system, the elimination of parking could happen in Manhattan at a much faster clip).
One advantage of many European cities is that the older the streets, the less hospitable they are for parking in the first place. On many of Padua’s ancient streets, narrow spaces accommodate one or two cars maximum—or often no vehicles at all.
By contrast, too many American municipalities enforce parking minimums, the ordinances that often “require private businesses and residences to provide at least a certain number of off-street parking spaces.” These should be eliminated entirely, and instead a sensible parking plan could follow European models: In Amsterdam, for example, the amount of parking is based on walking distance to nearby public transit stops. In Hamburg, Germany, no new parking is permitted in the central business district, and in Barcelona, all revenues from street parking go toward the city’s bike-share program.
Boost transit options
Of course, limiting private vehicular traffic only works in tandem with robust transit options. While smaller city centers may be completely walkable, any ZTL in a larger American city would require transportation that’s reliable, frequent, and safe.
New Yorkers frustrated by subway delays and repair schedules might scoff in disbelief, but Manhattan, in particular, is home to America’s best transit system. Indeed, this country’s most congested cities also, according to WalkScore, boast some of the best transit systems, with New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., all landing in the top 10.
In Boston, the ZTL area I am proposing includes over a dozen “T” stops. In New York’s Financial District—the subject of a comprehensive “Make Way for Lower Manhattan Plan” that provides a framework to begin ridding the area of cars—is served by free shuttles, three city bus lines, and nearly every subway.
The problem comes in smaller urban areas where transit has lagged behind. Take Indianapolis, Indiana, which has a population similar to Amsterdam, but one of the worst public transit systems in the U.S.: unreliable, infrequent, and used by less than 1 percent of commuters. With the city ringed by highways and with little disincentive to drive, even new investments in buses may do little good, though there are signs that Indianapolis is beginning to make progress.
In Amsterdam, by contrast, a unified transit system which combines an underground metro, a limited ferry service, and street-level trams and buses complements the city’s legion bike riders. Interestingly, Amsterdam has no citywide bike-share service (even Indianapolis has a bike share!), though the Dutch National Railway does stock bikes at stations to help commuters finish the “last leg” of their journeys.
Similarly, in Ghent, a pioneer in banning traffic entirely from its urban core, pedestrians and bike riders share space with the tram lines that crisscross the city. However, it’s a compact enough place that I found it as easy to walk across the city as it was to take transit. (And, honestly, I’m a cheapskate. If I’d been in Tallinn, Estonia*—or Kansas City—and able to take advantage of free public transit, I might have used it more in every European city.) My desire to walk was equally true in Amsterdam, Venice, and even in Milan—a city of 1.3 million—where reliable public transit acted as a supplement to being able to reach most places by foot.
It’s lamentable that for most Americans for whom walking is an option, reaching most places on foot isn’t the norm—or even a possibility. We’ve spent so much time planning our lives around car transit that, as Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange recently pointed out, if we really want to take back our streets, “we need to make the pedestrian life easier than the windshield view.”
In Los Angeles, commuters spend 119 hours delayed in their cars—that’s almost 3 full weeks spent idling each year.
Reclaim plazas and other public space for people
For me, there’s no greater example of this throughout Europe than the pedestrian plaza. One aspect of walking around Ghent—which has 35 hectares set aside as pedestrian-only—is that the spaces are entirely open for people. Shops and restaurants line their edges, but the plazas themselves are left unobstructed. The same is basically true of the many pedestrian campi in Venice, the plein in Amsterdam, and, to a lesser extent, the plazas of Paris and Madrid.
In America, by contrast, we have a tendency to view open space that isn’t a park as a commodity. In New York, for example, in both public plazas and so-called POPS (“privately owned public space”), the landscape is often littered with chairs, tables, food vendors, aggressive Elmos, advertisements, and other detritus. While having a place to sit is important (early proto-POPS like the area in front of the Seagram Building were notoriously user unfriendly, so the city has made progress), it shouldn’t take precedence over the need for open areas. Americans need to learn to love negative space.
New York has been successfully pedestrianizing areas of the city since the Bloomberg administration began diverting traffic around Times Square in 2009. In the past decade, that program has expanded to portions of Herald Square, Madison Square, and more, but this initiative has two major shortcomings: first, the constant need to commodify these spaces; and, second, the fact that they still exist subservient to traffic.
Perhaps the better American models are places like Tulsa’s Gathering Place, or cities as diverse as Belfast, Maine, San Antonio, Texas, and Tampa, Florida, that are reclaiming waterfront space as pedestrian areas. It’s not merely novelty that makes San Antonio’s River Walk the city’s second-most-visited attraction (after its neighbor, the Alamo), it is simply the acknowledgment that pedestrian-focused attractions are a significant draw. However, despite the obvious appeal of such places—and pedestrianism being a central tenet of New Urbanism—Americans still have much to learn.
Still, there has been some progress. For the holidays, New York City eliminated two lanes of car traffic on Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center, expanding the sidewalk on both sides, and closed both 49th and 50th streets between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Those newly pedestrianized areas haven’t been turned over to seating or overly commercialized: The goal is simply to give people more room to walk. While the NYPD has been inconsistent in its demarcation of this pedestrian area, that may soon change: New York politicians—including Mayor Bill de Blasio—are pleased with the success of the change, and some are pushing to make it permanent.
Meanwhile, a block of Broadway between 37th and 38th streets has been closed to traffic and given over to whimsical seesaws as part of New York’s “Seasonal Streets” program.
In Los Angeles, CicLAvia, a nonprofit, works to introduce residents to the joys of pedestrianism by closing streets and turning them into parks for a day. Using the same model, Washington, D.C., hosted its first open-streets initiative this past October, joining over 120 other municipalities around the country that host some sort of street-closing event.
These events are a perfect demonstration that streets don’t need to be the domain of cars. A well-maintained, woonerf-ized city center is a boon for visitors, residents, and commuters. In Suwon, South Korea, a team led by Konrad Otto-Zimmermann created the month-long “Ecomobility Festival,” which transformed a neighborhood for a full month into a car-free zone. As Otto-Zimmermann told Fast Company:
They live it for a month so their daily routines have to adapt. If you only have a car-free weekend, many cities do that, this is not exciting anymore. If it’s only a week, people can still reschedule their way to the dentist or whatever they have that week to work around it. It has to be a month in order to hit people’s daily agenda, so they really experience ecomobility in their daily life.
Replacing 1,500 cars with e-bikes and scooters, residents saw instant changes. When it was over, Suwon instituted permanent changes to make the neighborhood less hospitable to cars in the long term, including cutting the speed limit and eliminating street parking.
As I traveled around Europe—mostly by train—I re-read Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, his travelogue of his 1867 journey to Europe and the Holy Land. The acerbic Twain finds plenty to criticize in every country on his trip, but he also highlights the virtues of European cities:
I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military bands play—no European city being without its fine military music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could not harm a child. … Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.
No American city in the 21st century will ever become the rusticated and idyllic Europe that Twain wrote about 150 years ago (nor, for many reasons, would we want them to be), but in Arizona, we will soon see a step in the right direction.
In November 2019, a 1,000-unit, car-free development called Culdesac Tempe broke ground in Arizona, promising to embrace many of these principles. The name suggests a rebuke of the Sun City model and its lethal form of street planning. In this walkable neighborhood, private vehicles will be banned, and the streets will be shared by pedestrians, e-scooters, and bikes with no private parking allowed. While the emphasis on public gathering spots includes a lot of retail, there will also be noncommercial communal areas (with fire pits) and plenty of green space. To venture further afield, there will be designated ride-hailing pickup areas, and the development will be served by the preexisting light-rail system that connects Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Whether this will turn out to be a signpost for the future or a quaint experiment remains to be seen, but the developers already have their sights set on other cities around the country.
Twain’s picture of a Europe with a “spirit of quietude and ease” does have something in common with modern-day car-free places: the idea that people, not vehicles, have primacy.