Why Car-Free Streets Are the Future of Cities

Why Car-Free Streets Are the Future of Cities

The automobile was an innovation that bred further innovations, if purely due to the significant amount of time people saved getting from point A to point B which they then channeled elsewhere. It helped domestic tourism flourish and allows far-off families the chance to see each other more often. It’s also a symbol of the American spirit, the ultimate tool for going anywhere and doing anything.

Despite all their benefits, cars cause problems in tight urban contexts. They endanger pedestrians, require a veritable sea of parking, emit environmentally harmful emissions, and have other costs as well. While rural and suburban areas require personal cars, cities simply don’t need them, particularly not to the degree that people currently use them.

Recently, cities all over the world are experimenting with new roadway systems that alleviate the automobile load. To learn why car-free streets are the future of cities and what it takes to transition them well, read on.

Pedestrian Fatalities

First, because of the current traffic system in cities, pedestrians cannot avoid cars very easily. This leads to an alarming number of fatalities. In fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, there was a 53 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities since 2009. Before then, pedestrian fatalities were already a looming problem for those walking and biking around cars.

Why Fatalities Are High

A problem like this doesn’t pop up out of nowhere. The reason these fatalities are so high is that cities prioritize personal cars over practically every other mode of transportation. Buses can’t navigate clogged streets. Those who bike have their own demarcated lanes, yet cars still turn through these lanes and cause accidents. Pedestrians wait at stoplights and risk a collision when they cross. Only subways run unabated, though cities may construct them around their road system.

What Cities Are Doing About Pedestrian Fatalities

By deprioritizing cars, cities decongest roads and protect those footing it to work. For example, in the Netherlands, “woonerfs” slow cars to nearly walking speed so passerby and drivers have easier reaction times. This disincentivizes driving while shielding others from impact, two goals that orient a lot of European cities’ policies.

Parking Takes Up a Lot of Land

Cities deserve their “concrete jungle” moniker. Miles of pavement lace burgeoning cities, and cities dedicate a startling amount of it to parking. After all, that’s the only way to sustain a pro-car city plan. Mandatory parking minimums, which require businesses and apartment complexes to build out spaces for cars, create bureaucratic obstacles that actively encourage driving. Then, with pavement in place, it’s much harder for cities to transition property to another form and function.

What Cities Are Doing About Parking

In response, several cities in the U.S.—as far apart as San Francisco, CA, and Hartford, CT—did away with mandatory parking minimums, joining Buffalo, NY, and Minneapolis, MN. These cities can now plan more effectively without red tape in their way. This sets the stage for incoming self-driving technology that doesn’t necessitate leaving a car in a parking spot all day.

Car-Free Zones Benefit Nearby Business

One reason some assume car-free streets would do more harm than good is they restrict car-bound patrons’ access. Businesses that espouse this belief don’t push their weight around for car-free roads. The reality is that city restaurants and shops tend to benefit from car-less roads and more should advocate for these changes.

How Businesses Benefit

Though they lose money from those who would ordinarily drive in, stores in these transitioned corridors pick up other forms of patronage.

Among other reasons local businesses shouldn’t worry, according to this Fast Company write-up, a Toronto study illustrates how shops gained foot traffic from bicyclists and walkers. The idea is that, because the entire street was pedestrian-accessible and lacked cars parked in front that would ordinarily turn them away, more passersby stopped inside. Also, it showed that business owners erroneously assumed a much larger percentage of their business came via cars.

Car-free streets also don’t guarantee complete losses from drivers. Customers can simply park in nearby parking facilities and proceed a few streets over to their shop of choice.

Greenhouse Gases Decrease

Just as pavement pervades a city, so does smog for many of the world’s larger metropolises. One significant source of what constitutes smog (nitrogen oxides) is the automobile. Though, due to high emissions standards, many cars give off less than they did years ago, smog is still present as cars clog city limits during the morning and evening. Car-free streets are the future of cities because they cut emissions sharply.

What Cities Are Doing About Smog

Though some cities institute car-free streets in an effort to streamline transportation or protect vulnerable pedestrians, Madrid restricted it to mitigate long-term health problems due to pollution. As a result of their Madrid Central plan which pedestrianized nearly five square kilometers within Madrid, the city saw up to a 32 percent drop in traffic in certain areas. This translates to a sizable drop in car-borne emissions. This sets a bold template for what American cities can do to combat high emissions and progress towards sustainability.

Car-Free Next Steps

As urban areas move towards a relatively car-free future, the beautiful thing about this transition is that it initially requires only paint and traffic signs to institute, sometimes called a Quick Build. Though cars need proper replacement routes, car-free streets have all the necessary infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, cities even began experimenting with these simple steps as demand for the roadway went down. With these small changes, cities gain safety, space, and business while tackling emissions, allowing their rate of return to be quite high.

Pedestrian Waste Needs

That said, as a city planner or advocate, you need to think through what life will look like on these car-free stretches. With more people walking and biking, the amount of trash and recycling people need to dispose of increases. To accommodate this, these areas need plenty of outdoor trash bins and recycling receptacles so that paper, plastic, food waste, and more don’t end up roadside rather than in a dedicated spot.

The reason for this waste disparity between drivers and walkers and cyclists is the availability of a drivers’ car to hold a plastic bottle, used fast food products, and other things until they can dispose of them elsewhere. Meanwhile, walkers simply can’t carry their waste in the same way.

To ensure you preserve your city through a successful waste management strategy without risking trash-filled roads, get in touch with Trash Cans Depot. We’re an innovative waste management company that specifically supplies utilitarian and attractive trash and recycling bins.

Car-Free Streets Are the Future of Cities