For the last 70 years, cities around the world have been torn apart, retrofitted, and codified to accommodate 2-ton vehicles at the expense of all other modes of transportation. These deeply engrained patterns have dispersed people and businesses out to a sprawling landscape of dependency, diluted our places of vibrancy, and have left behind environmental devastation. In a silver lining to an otherwise devastating year, it only took a few months and a bit of political leniency to revert to a pre-car world.
Life as we know it came to halt in March of last year. As people sheltered in place to protect themselves from Covid-19, city streets became barren. For several weeks, they looked post-apocalyptic. Amidst the uncertainty, economies faltered. Businesses reliant on in-person interaction—and by extension those who owned them or were employed by them—feared for their survival. Half of all restaurants were forced to temporarily close, and industry insiders speculated even more could close permanently if relief and recovery weren’t expedient. As millions struggled to survive, others reveled in the downfall of our cities.
But cities are resilient. In the first few months of the pandemic, streets were not only devoid of people, but of cars, too. This led to a reduction of carbon emissions and increased air quality in notoriously smoggy cities like Los Angeles. Animals thrived in the cleaner conditions, and human activity picked up with bikers and pedestrians taking over space forfeited by cars. In some areas, the pandemic even enabled more social connection, as once-unacquainted neighbors became friends through sporadic walks and trips to the park — occurrences not previously possible in a world oriented around commuting to the office.
Parklets are a visible manifestation of people reclaiming streets
As restrictions made it impossible to gather inside, people got creative. Tens of thousands of parking spaces around the country were repurposed into parklets to allow for outdoor dining. Beyond offering a lifeline to food and beverage outlets who months before were staring down near certain closure, parklets have now become a valuable asset for restaurants and neighborhoods writ large. They’ve allowed restaurants to expand their square footage considerably, and more prominently showcase their business. Dining parklets have become the most visible manifestation of people reclaiming their streets. Vibrancy, sense of place and revenues have risen commensurately.
None of this data is surprising. Nor is it an ephemeral, pandemic-driven fad. Urbanists have been advocating for more people-oriented places for decades, and not just out of a romantic or blind devotion to a certain lifestyle preference. Leaning on empirical research and in-the field observations, the body of work on people-based places is extensive.
Jane Jacobs was one of the first observers to attack the sins of mid-century planning, which was predicated on designing cities around cars. In her seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities, she critiqued urban renewal policies and highway schemes that severed communities, and left homogenized developments isolated from their broader neighborhoods. Attacking the notion of cities as machines (which Modernist Le Corbusier idealized around automobiles that were thought to optimize efficiency), Jacobs offered a vision of a dynamic city at the street level, where a diverse cast of characters mixed together to create an intricate ballet. The secret to good places is their complexity, she reasoned. Where mixed-use, people-oriented places have this in spades, it’s absent in the uncompromisingly rigid world of cars and euclidean zoning.
What Copenhagen learned by optimizing streets for people
While American cities were busy tearing down their urban fabric and running highways through their neighborhoods, Copenhagen pedestrianized its main street in 1962 in an experiment to revitalize its most important civic spaces. Almost as soon as the Strøget was closed off to cars, Architect Jan Gehl began studying its impact on the city. To bolster the project, he received a grant in 1965 to spend six months observing Italian cities to learn best practices for creating public spaces in the built environment.
As most Italian towns and cities had yet to be inundated with cars, and had centuries of people-oriented urban fabric and development patterns, they provided the ideal backdrop for how to design better streets. In successive expansions of Copenhagen’s pedestrianized areas, Gehl refined his techniques, and documented the process in four independent research studies spanning from 1968 to 2005.
The results were stunning. While the 35% increase in nearby pedestrian volumes and the 20% increase in citywide pedestrian volumes were impressive, there was an almost unbelievable 400% increase in stopping and staying activities from 1968 to 1995. This wasn’t because there were four times as many people. There was simply so much more to do once the street had been freed of cars. As urban design elements like benches, outdoor cafe seating (81% increase from 1986 to 2016), street lamps and artistic pavers were added, people felt more comfortable occupying the space. With frequent programming interspersed within a dense mixed-use context, a virtuous cycle of people-first places has been spinning for more than 50 years. To borrow from Lars Gemzøe, an architect who has worked for Gehl, “The city centre had become the most important meeting place.”
This has had a remarkable impact not just for local business and the economic well-being of the city, but more profoundly on the quality of life for residents (which is among the highest in the world) through cleaner air and healthier daily patterns. Copenhagen has built on its foundation of pedestrian success to become one of the most bikeable cities in the world. Through a robust network of protected lanes and priority given to people on two wheels, bicycling now comprises 50% of all trips in Copenhagen. Where bicyclists are routinely killed or maimed in “developed” parts of the world, only to dismissively be told to wear a helmet and stay out of the way of those machines that are killing them in their designated lanes, 92% of Copenhagen cyclists reported not having even been in an accident in the last two years. By being able to safely walk and bike nearly everywhere, Copenhageners are among the most happy and healthy people on the planet. Yes, this happens year-round in a northern European city with frigid winters.
Word of Copenhagen’s city-led initiative spread. In 1974, Bogotá closed a few streets to cars at the behest of cyclists and pedestrians. 5,000 people took part in what has come to be known as the first Ciclovía. Going on 50 years strong, Ciclovía still happens every Sunday. But instead of the original seven blocks that were closed, the city now prohibits automobile traffic from 76 miles of streets. It’s wildly popular, with an average of 1.7 million people taking back their blocks each week. 400 cites globally now have some sort of Open Streets programs. Eliza Barclay explains the importance of these numbers:
Health researchers say these programs get people exercising more than they otherwise would. They also draw people from different neighborhoods and economic groups together, reduce air pollution, and help galvanize cities around “active transportation” initiatives like bike lanes.
An analysis of Ciclovía programs published in the Journal of Urban Public Health found Bogotá’s cost the city $6 per capita, and had a health cost-benefit ratio between 3.20 - 4.30 for every dollar invested. These are no-brainer investments for every municipality in the world.
Understanding the pathology of car-dependency
While the U.S. experimented with Open Streets for bicyclists and pedestrian malls like Strøget in the 60’s & 70's, success was limited. The pathology of car-dependency is so deeply ingrained in our society, so well funded through hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and so fervently protected by State DOTs that much of this work was stymied. It’s very difficult to create people-oriented places when several orders of magnitude (literally, 1,000x +) are spent on car infrastructure over walking and biking infrastructure. As recently as 1990, average annual federal funding was $5 million a year for walking and biking. Total construction on highways was somewhere north of $100 billion. From 1992–2012, a period where funding of biking and walking infrastructure dramatically ramped up, the total spend was $7.2 billion. This hardly registers as a blip on the radar of the annual spend for highway and road infrastructure dedicated for trucks and cars.
When comparing what Copenhagen or Bogotá (on Sundays) have done over the last 70 years to the States, one can easily feel defeated. We tore down our buildings and places that would’ve allowed for good urbanity. Our streets are too wide, they’re too car-oriented. It will require hundreds of billions of dollars to even scratch the surface of what we’ll need to do. We’ll never bridge the funding gap to make more bikeable and walkable places everywhere. While it’s true America took several (miles of) steps backwards while cities like Copenhagen moved forward, people-oriented places aren’t a zero-sum game. We can move forward with new priorities and follow in the footsteps of those who have blazed the trail before us. The good news is that we’re on our way.
In the early 2000s, grassroots movements for people-oriented places began to gain popular support. Non-profit organizations, local activist groups, books, public talks, and articles in the most widely read publications have all grown considerably in both scale and scope over the last few decades. Many of the most prominent voices in this movement have drawn influence from Gehl’s work, applying the lessons learned in Copenhagen to their respective cities.
During her tenure as New York’s Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan transformed the city’s streets. From 2007 to 2013, the city created 60 pedestrian plazas, 400 miles of bike lanes, launched the CitiBike program with 6,000 bikes (now 20,000 bikes and 100 million rides) and reclaimed 180 acres of former roadways for people. This was just the beginning.
Solutions to cultivate more walkable cities
Jeff Speck published Walkable City in 2012. In his advocacy for more pedestrian friendly places, Speck’s work has become one of the most widely read books on planning (it’s still in the top five best sellers, years after it was published), and has seeped into public consciousness in a significant way. Through his clear writing style, common sense examples, and needling of our status quo, (“widening a city’s streets in the name of safety is like distributing handguns to deter crime.”), Speck has brought the cause of people-oriented places to the mainstream.
Drawing inspiration from Ciclovía and Sadik-Khan’s work, Mike Lydon began experimenting with novel ways to create more walkable places at low costs. Frustrated by wanting to make an immediate impact and “a need to connect people to the process of city-making, which is very difficult to do through the conventional planning and design process alone,” Lydon published his first work (2009) in a series of guides that culminated in 2015’s Tactical Urbanism, co-authored by fellow Streets Plans principal Tony Garcia. Formally conceived in 2010, Tactical Urbanism is a planning discipline that focuses on low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment that are intended to create and improve people-oriented places.
Examples range from pop-up gardens on the grounds of vacant structures to activate the space, and painting crosswalks on dangerous streets to improve the safety of pedestrians, to parking spaces being converted to outdoor dining parklets. While many of these interventions faced opposition prior to their deployment, where they are allowed to be deployed, they are widely beloved just a few years on. I write where they are allowed to be deployed because in many places the fear of changing the status quo has led to obstinance through codification, and the removal of common sense interventions.
What city, other than one drunk on the false promises and lobbying dollars sold by nearly a century of car trade groups and DOTs, would order crosswalks to be removed that directly addressed the deaths and injuries wrought by dangerous roads those same cities chose to ignore? This opposition is not grounded in fact. It’s pathology.
And yet, despite the unfounded pushback, much of Lydon and Garcia’s work has been used as the foundation for cities around the world to resiliently face the pandemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio showed how simple it can be to legitimize the work of tactical urbanism, just months after his opposition to it. With little more than a metaphorical snap of his fingers, he created dozens of car-free streets and plazas, and enabled tens of thousands of parking spaces to be utilized as outdoor dining parklets. The streets have never been so vibrant.
The enormous costs of a car-dependent world
What’s the best way to sustain this strong momentum? Permanently open our streets up to people, and put cars in the backseat. This isn’t just a matter of economic development for small businesses, or getting more bikes on the street (though both of those things are good and necessary). In many respects, the presumptive change is existentially mandated.
The annual costs inflicted on people by a society built around cars are enormous:
Air pollution from US traffic: $50-$80 billion ($1 trillion globally)
Obesity from car-dependent lifestyles in US: $142 billion and hundreds of thousands of deaths
Traffic crashes in US: $180 Billion
Traffic deaths in US: 36,000
Traffic injuries in US: ~2.7 million
Traffic deaths globally: ~1.3 million
Congestion in US: $190 billion, resulting in 8.7 billion more hours driven (2019)
Loss of three healthy years of life due to Noise Pollution, and $79 billion in costs to society (EU)
Owning a car in US: $9,600
Walking, biking and driving on most streets is certainly dangerous and potentially undesirable, but even living near them has significant negative health impacts. These costs disproportionately impact marginalized groups, and not just from a public health perspective. If someone can’t afford a car in a region where most of the jobs require one to get to and from work, their opportunities for employment (and societal involvement) are limited.
What this usually means is those with the lowest incomes are forced into housing on or near the busiest roads, as it’s the least desirable and thus most affordable. This leads to concentrated poverty and generational inequities perpetuated by a lack of investment into healthier, more sustainable altrnatives. Continuing to develop around cars is choosing inequality. Eric Holthause elaborates:
Car-free households are more likely to be non-white and low-income, meaning that they bear a greater share of the health and safety burden. Cities built around cars siphon huge amounts of public funds to maintain roads and parking lots that marginalized people simply don’t use.
The costs above don’t even include the greatest threat of a car-dependent world: climate change. There is no path towards reducing our emissions if we don’t fundamentally alter the trajectory of our development patterns. Not even electric vehicles can save us. When new roads are built, they devastate natural environments, and destroy local ecosystems. Hundreds of millions of acres have been lost to development that is the direct result of regulations that force car-dependency. These patterns lead to heightened risks of flooding, stormwater runoff, and natural disasters. They emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and reduce of the amount of vegetation that can absorb the increased carbon. With every further vehicle mile travelled (VMT), this imbalance only gets worse.