To Save Cities, We May Need To Ditch The Car

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With restaurants opening today, Main Street saw an increase in foot traffic on June 10, 2020 in Farmingdale, New York. Restaurants on Long Island were permitted to open for outside service today as the region entered Phase II of New York State’s plan to return to normalcy after closings were mandated due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With restaurants opening today, Main Street saw an increase in foot traffic on June 10, 2020 in Farmingdale, New York. Restaurants on Long Island were permitted to open for outside service today as the region entered Phase II of New York State’s plan to return to normalcy after closings were mandated due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: Bruce Bennett (Getty Images)

Cities are struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most were already operating on razor-thin margins, or even in the red when the illness came through and blew a giant hole in already shaky budgets. But where some see challenges, others see opportunities. A coalition of mayors and urban leaders from all over the globe released a report last week on what they believe is the way forward for better, cleaner, and more vibrant cities. Not all that surprisingly, it involves redeveloping cities drastically to reduce the need for individual car ownership.

The report from the organization’s Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force spells out a vision very similar to the one enacted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who called cars ‘archaic’ in 2017. From Bloomberg:

An international coalition of cities believes that the only path forward for mayors is funding green stimulus plans focused on job creation. The newly released Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, released July 15 by C40 Cities, an international coalition of urban leaders focused on fighting climate change and promoting sustainable development, was developed by the organization’s Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. The far-ranging series of plans offers a green prescription for financial stabilization that emphasizes several familiar pillars of progressive urbanism — renewable energy investment, energy-efficient buildings, improved mass transit, and spending on new parks and green space. One core idea: Cities are the “engines of the recovery,” and investing in their resilience is the best way to avoid economic disaster.

One of its recommendations has a more novel ring to it. The agenda recommends that “all residents will live in ‘15-minute cities.’” That term echoes the transformative ambitions of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has doubled down on car-free transit and pedestrian infrastructure in the French capital. Hidalgo made the idea that Parisians should be able to meet their shopping, work, recreational and cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride a centerpiece of her recent reelection campaign. The C40 proposal suggests that following such a model would help global cities live up to the document’s promise of equitable access to jobs and city services for all, and rebuild areas economically hard-hit by the pandemic.

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The actual reality of creating 15-minute cities, however, will be especially tricky in the U.S., where long commutes, car culture and suburban spread are much more common. It would require a total lifestyle change for many Americans. While Europeans have similar average daily commute distances, they also have many more options for transportation. Non-U.S cities also tend to be much more integrated, where restaurants, bakeries, and stores all found within neighborhoods while it can be impossible to live in most American cities without a car.

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But as it is, there are simply too many cars on the road in the U.S. Congestion is currently a huge problem in almost any large city you visit. Traffic jams cost the U.S. economy $87 billion in 2018, according to CNBC. Considering the exorbitant costs involved in buying, insuring, and maintaining vehicles, American-style cities put its residents at an extreme disadvantage, and not just economically.

When taking precious time lost by every individual driver into account, our commuter culture seems even grimmer. In one of the most congested American cities, Boston, drivers lost 164 hours to traffic, the equivalent to an entire week, in just one year. The detrimental health effects of such harried and long commutes just due to the stress of sitting in stop-and-go driving are also well known as are the effects of the heavy air pollution caused by individual car ownership.

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Now that Americans have had a small taste of getting their time back due to increased rates of working from home during the pandemic, we may be more willing to change other aspects of how we live as well. According to a new study by Morning Consult a full 75 percent of Americans said they would work from home at least once a week if/when the pandemic is under control. Another 32 percent want to stay in their home offices full time. As Streetsblog noted, a 32 percent reduction in daily drivers could lead to as many as 48.1 million cars off the road every day.

So, more time back in our daily lives, less pollution, fewer headaches, more green spaces, and a return of the streets to the people who live there. I love cars, but there’s not much I don’t like about this vision, but then, I’m also no dummy. The vision of clean and sustainable cities is a far-removed one as it would require some very painful, politically inconvenient sticks as well as carrots to achieve. But with so many cities reaching critical points where major infrastructure investment is needed, maybe now is the perfect time to rethink everything.