Prioritizing Cities for People

Coronavirus Reinforces Notion That Places Without Cars Are More Pleasant

To minimize social contact and maximize daily exercise, many cities across the planet have experimented with cyclists and pedestrians taking over streets during the pandemic. | Credit: Courtesy

On average, Americans clock 13,000 miles driving their cars every year, mostly commuting to work. Annually, the average auto commuter spends more than a week on top of what would be an uncongested commute. In Los Angeles, the figure is three weeks spent idling in traffic. For every week, the time American commuters spend stuck in traffic collectively tallies to 2.5 million years.


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The coronavirus and sheltering in place have reinforced the notion that places without cars are more pleasant. Even before the virus, many cities, especially in Europe, were adopting policies to reduce car traffic, while prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists. The main policy approaches to decrease auto traffic, singly and in combination, have been:

  • Make streets multimodal: designing roads to be shared, where all modes intermingle, often without sidewalks. Such streets slow vehicle traffic and require everyone to watch out for others.
  • Implement limited-traffic zones (LTZ) and/or congestion pricing: LTZ specify when and what types of vehicles may enter a designated zone. For example, cars may be restricted to night hours, delivery trucks to before 10 a.m., and taxis only when serving the disabled. Congestion pricing is another way to thin vehicular loads. London has reduced its air pollution and emissions by a third through zone pricing. San Francisco recently banned cars on Market St. It is now the exclusive domain of buses, streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians. Even Uber and Lyft must use side roads.
  • Eliminate street parking: Limiting parking reduces car trips, especially when accompanied by increased public transit. Copenhagen has removed 2-3 percent of its street parking each year for more than a decade. This freed up public space for other uses. U.S. zoning codes often require parking, thus increasing congestion.
  • Boost transit options: Limiting car traffic only works in tandem with a healthy transit system. Smaller cities struggle to develop robust transit.

To minimize social contact and maximize daily exercise, many cities across the planet have experimented with cyclists and pedestrians taking over streets during the pandemic. Paris, as well as more than 100 other cities in France, has been leading these initiatives. The mayor of Paris created over 400 miles of cycleways for essential workers during the lockdown; some are express routes for e-bikes. These efforts have merely accelerated the mayor’s plan to remove 72 percent of on-street car parking and create bike lanes.

Many American cities are starting to adopt some of these traffic-reducing strategies but more timidly than the European trailblazers.

Bicycles came to the rescue during the 1973 oil embargo. They are offering new ways to organize our streets during this pandemic. If given priority, they could help mitigate another global crisis: climate change.

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