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.