Cities are for people, not cars

At least that’s the attitude some European cities are beginning to take, according to this report from the NYT. In order to create more environmentally friendly, less congested, and more livable cities, Europeans are “creating environments openly hostile to cars.”

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

The article notes the contrast with the U.S.:

“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”

U.S. cities are under less pressure to make cities car-free, partly because we haven’t signed the Kyoto Protocol, which was aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we’re apparently not interested in meeting Clean Air Act requirements. In other words, the U.S. urban model is much less concerned with environmental and human health.

Usually this is explained as a simple difference of cultures, where freedom-loving Americans cling to their cars while those pantywaist socialist Europeans try to force everyone onto mass transit (or, God forbid, bicycles!). However, as the article notes, Europeans were on trajectory toward a more American-style model of car ownership and use, but this has been pretty successfully reversed by determined public policy.

It’s also worth pointing out that American “car culture” is not a simple result of individualism or the benevolent workings of the free market. The balance of forms of transportation has been tilted in favor of the auto by specific public policy choices like road construction, land use regulations, and building codes. These choices (not to mention our direct and indirect subsidization of the fossil fuel industry) all make it easier for Americans to choose driving. The European experiment shows that different choices can lead to a different quality of life in cities.

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7 thoughts on “Cities are for people, not cars

  1. are people mistaking TVland for the real world?
    on TV everybody is under 50 and nearly everybody with a job is under 35.
    will granny be bicycling to McDonalds to push burgers when her Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid have all been cut and busrides are $6 a pop?

  2. I don’t see why creating cities that are less car-choked would have to exclude the old or less fit. And since most of the efforts are aimed directly at car commuting, the people it would affect the most would seem, by definition, to be young(ish) working people.

  3. Actually, walkable cities with good public transport facilities are precisely what my elderly relatives and acquaintances need to maintain relatively independent lives.

    When my neighbor was dying of cancer in his early 70s, one of his few remaining pleasures was to visit Manhattan, where he could actually walk around outside rather than be a shut-in (or a mobile shut-in, as it were, in an automobile). The city is flat and, by American standards, well-regulated for pedestrians, so his limited mobility was less of a problem there than anywhere else in the region.

    My grandparents, meanwhile, each reached a point late in life when poor eyesight and a general lack of acuity precluded driving themselves anywhere. Because they lived in towns designed for auto traffic, with no good public transit options, they had to wait around for busy relatives or friends to drive them every time they wanted to make a small trip — even just down the street for groceries. Once they reached this point, they had little independence whatsoever outside their own homes and yards. Yet it’s not as if they couldn’t walk or find their way around, had they been given the chance.

    As for the “less fit,” the midsized city I inhabit now isn’t exactly a pedestrian paradise, yet I see blind people and people in wheelchairs using sidewalks and city buses all the time. (How exactly is a highway better than a walkable city for the visually impaired individual, anyway?)

  4. Great points, Jonathan. I had similar thoughts. And any attempt to reduce reliance on cars can and should go hand-in-hand with making transit and other public infrastructure more accessible to all.

  5. From a libertarian perspective, it has required many intrusions to create the car culture we have. I think back to the complaints of the Federalists that under the Articles of Confederation it was difficult to get a good road built.

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