Walking relaxed from store to store, stopping to get a coffee at a hipster cafe and no-rush chatting with a friend in the middle of a downtown boulevard. This is becoming the reality of almost every European city—from cosmopolitan metros like Paris to upcoming towns like the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Local governments are making a goal out of freeing major arteries from cars and the policies are breathing new life in and around these streets. Now, the trend is spreading to the U.S. and when we look at the benefits, it’s easy to see why.
Last winter, New York and San Francisco implemented surprising traffic limitation policies—restricting vehicle access on major avenues and prioritizing walking and biking. In both cases, the effects were positive, which led to other initiatives following suit. A few months later, these measures proved even more important. Traffic restrictions became an important way to keep residents safe as the number of COVID-19 cases increased.
On Oct. 1, 2019, cars were officially banned on New York City’s 14th Street—a major crosstown route connecting the East Side to the West Side. Drop offs, pickups and deliveries are allowed but within certain time and space limits. The pilot program will last a total of 18 months and so far has had great results, with increased safety and bus ridership. Residents are happy with shorter bus trips along the route and even the extra walking they need to do to find a taxi—initially seen as an offset—is now viewed as a (health) perk.
The initiative was inspired by the city of Toronto, Canada. In 2017, car access on Toronto’s bustling King Street was restricted after streetcars were repeatedly stuck in traffic. Within a year, streetcar ridership increased by 17 percent.
At the beginning of 2018, NYC’s Prospect Park also became car-free after years of debate. On the west coast San Francisco’s Better Market Street plan is also a success. At the beginning of the year, private vehicle access—ride-share cars included—on one of the city’s major arteries was banned. Residents were happy for the extra space for biking and riding scooters on the street the media referred to as “the spine” of the city. This is just step one of a major $600 million investment to revamp the route and add protected bike lanes, new streetscaping and sidewalks. Local authorities in San Francisco are already discussing the next street to have the same fate: Valencia Street.
Most were happy with the new car-free measure, but some feared that such a decision would lead to congestion on surrounding streets. Analysis on how the Market Street car ban impacted traffic on alternative routes nearby shows that the results are actually positive. Traffic data company INRIX found that the average speed on Howard, Folsom and Mission streets has not changed significantly. Cars traveling on Mission Street southbound during peak hours—9am and 5pm—were most impacted. The average speed dropped by 6 percent, from 9.7 to 9.1mph in the morning and from 8.2mph to 7.7mph in the evening. Average speed for those traveling on Folsom Street at 9am actually increased by 10 percent.
While such initiatives are not necessarily a trend yet in the U.S., it’s a step in the right direction to help alleviate society’s dependence on cars. t. While the benefits are, for the most part, obvious, there are also some downsides. Mobility expert David Zipper points out that the main issue is not a strategic one. “A street—especially a wide one—needs lots of people on it in order to feel inviting enough to attract pedestrians and shoppers. Narrower streets, such as those common in Europe, can be comfortable with less activity, but American cities spent a fortune widening lanes for autos during the 20th century.”
However, the architecture of these streets should not be regarded as an obstacle but as an advantage—more space to get creative and bring people together. One possibility would be bringing pop-up shops, bars or restaurants to the street. This is a great plan for long summer days (once the pandemic ends) and a good occasion to bring people out of their homes. Sports competitions for families are another possibility. These are just a couple of examples on how this space could be used to bring communities together.
Below, we listed a few of the most significant benefits of car-free streets in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Better Climate, Better Health
The beneficial impact on the environment is probably the most obvious. Less traffic means fewer emissions (link to How to Topple the Car Monopoly) and fewer emissions means fewer greenhouse gases. This is just one way to tackle global warming. Car-free streets are not only a good thing for the health of the planet, but also for the health of its inhabitants.
Naturally, no cars on the road leads to cleaner air. Remember those images that went viral with the L.A. skyline against a smog-free, clear blue sky as the COVID-19 lockdown came into effect and highways became empty? Similar images were shot in other major cities across the world, with levels of pollution generated by industrial activity and traffic plummeting for the first time in decades. This made many realize what a greener world would look like. However, most of us need more than an image to make a real change.
The number of deaths caused by pollution particles known as PM2.5 started increasing again in the U.S. over the last three years, after hitting the lowest point in almost three decades—45,500 in 2017 compared to 95,300 in 1990. In 2019, the number was up 5 percent compared to 2017. This is just one more reason to keep cars off the roads.
Speaking of health, less traffic does not only mean a cleaner air and fewer breathing problems for city dwellers. It also means less stress, anxiety and depression symptoms. Research has shown a direct connection between air quality and mental health. A report containing data from 16 countries, collected over the course of 40 years, shows that people exposed to air contaminated with PM2.5 for more than six months have increased chances to develop anxiety, depression and even consider suicide. A similar analysis coming from the UK revealed that exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a result of diesel cars, increases chances of common mental health problems by 39 percent.
The string of negative effects goes even further. Congestion alters drivers’ state of mind, which can often lead to more serious problems. According to a report published in 2017, extreme traffic increases the likelihood of domestic violence by 6 percent.
More Fluid Public Transit
Restricting private cars on King Street in Toronto led to a significant jump in public transport ridership, which inspired other cities to implement such measures. The main reasons for this were that for some this became the only option to get to a nearby area of the city and that rides became shorter since there were no other vehicles on the road. As the examples in New York and San Francisco showed, public transit rides became faster, which determined more people to hop on buses or streetcars. One 14th Street resident said that he takes the bus to take his kid to school because what used to be a 30-minute trip is now a 15-minute ride.
While closing traffic on major intersections is not a solution for most cities, there are always “halfway” alternatives, as Zipper points out. Allocating street lanes for bus rapid transit (like in Madison, Wisconsin) or banning cars from entertainment hotspots during weekends (like in Portland, Oregon) are the great examples of the less drastic measures some cities are undertaking.
Another possibility is building no-car communities like the upcoming Culdesac Tempe in Tempe, Arizona. The $140 million development will have 1,000 residents who can use light rail, scooters, bicycles and ride-sharing for local travel. Developers promise a seamless car-free lifestyle, with quality retail (shopping and entertainment) available within a 5-minute walk inside Culdesac.