It’s happening: We’re taking cities back from the cars that have dominated them for a century.
And it can't come soon enough, in Car Talk's humble opinion.
In Ghent, Belgium, the whole inner-city corridor is car-free, open only to taxis, public transportation and special permit holders who have to crawl along at something like three MPH. Copenhagen, Sweden’s Strøget neighborhood features a big car-free zone, as does Dublin—a stroll down Grafton Street will expose you to street musicians, mimes (admittedly, a mixed blessing) and acrobats (that's more like it, Dublin). Venice? Well, it’s never had cars, just motorized waterbuses known as “vaporetti” that traverse the canals.
Peter Busby and Gerry Tierney are, respectively, Managing Director and Senior Project architect at the Perkins+Will design firm in San Francisco, and they’re serious about reclaiming cities. Busby is also the author of the new book Architecture’s New Edges. Through them, here are five reasons tomorrow’s cities will be far less beholden to the supremacy of the automobile than they are today.
Young and old converge on the cities. Inner cities, on the decline for decades are now being repopulated by people who’d rather leave the driving to others, including millennials and seniors. “It started 20 years ago with the New Urbanism and the desire to live downtown again, in New York and other dense cities,” said Busby. “Now we have mixed-use downtowns, condos and entertainment in the center, and several demographic groups, including older people, empty nesters and the young want to live there.”
Goodbye to car ownership. “The younger generation doesn’t seem to need a car,” said Busby. “They’ve grown up around an environmental approach to living, and they’d rather use transit or car-sharing. The auto companies have definitely noticed the trend.” The new approach shows up in polling, including a Frontier Group/PIRG Education Fund study that found 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds prefer to live in smart-growth neighborhoods. Eighteen to 34 percent of 19- to 34-year-olds strongly or somewhat agree that they would reduce their driving to protect the environment.
It returns us to an earlier and slower form of living. “It’s very exciting—we’re changing the fabric of the city,” said Tierney. “We’re going back to the 19th century, before cars took over the streets and relegated us to crosswalks.” To illustrate, he pointed me to a fascinating video shot on San Francisco’s Market Street, just before the big earthquake. Notice how the streets have both early cars and horses, and how people “owned the street space”—crossing wherever they had a mind to, sometimes dodging oncoming vehicles with a studied nonchalance.
Technology enables it. Auto companies are implicated in the removal of the ubiquitous streetcar systems that once dominated urban transportation, but now some of them—including Ford and Mercedes-Benz—are investing in car sharing, and using smartphone apps that let people summon cars effortlessly. And the tech players are getting interested, too. “Apple and Google are working on self-driving cars,” said Busby, “with electric motors in the four wheels and efficient batteries. They’re designed to be shared by people, not owned individually.” Tierney says that "with increased efficiency of street utilization resulting from autonomous vehicles, a significant proportion of public space, currently occupied by the automobile, can be recaptured for other uses. In the case of San Francisco, this could result in recapturing the equivalent of one-and-three-quarter Golden Gate Parks worth of open space back from the automobile."
Bicyclists and pedestrians are gaining the upper hand. “Strong bicycle lobbies are emerging in many cities,” Busby said. “The movement has become profound in many places.” According to Tierney, “We’re working on privileging pedestrians, not the automobile. At Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, a former Navy base, the first priority is the pedestrian, then the cyclist, then the private automobile. We have it in our power to set those priorities. In Europe, statistics show that removing signage and street markings means that drivers don’t have the cues that allow them to speed—they actually slow down to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.”
Have you heard of “woonerfs”? It’s a Dutch word translating as “living yard,” and it’s an area where cars are allowed, but must share space with—and give priority to—pedestrians and cyclists. Cars have to travel at a walking pace, and the concept has gained ground internationally as part of a “traffic calming” movement. (In the U.S., we sometimes call them “complete streets.”)
Coming soon, we hope: apartment buildings without dedicated parking, as in Boston; car-free zones in American central cities (including New York); self-driving car pilot programs; commercial vehicles running on electricity and charging in green loading zones. Okay, maybe not tomorrow. But before temperatures become unbearable. Maybe.