Car Free Days: Why Haven’t They Worked In America?
Since smog-sputtering and fast-moving automobiles first started to clog roadways, citizens around the world have grappled with how to take back their streets. Urban municipalities have pondered how best to balance safety with speed, air quality with convenience.
One answer that recently emerged: car free days. Twenty-four hours where pedestrians stroll car free boulevards, far from the normal noise and congestion of car traffic. Cities in France, Britain Iceland and even Columbia, have hosted car free days. American metropolitan areas, however, have been reluctant to keep off the streets for a full day.
Not surprising. Americans have harbored a long-term love affair with their cars. We created the drive-in movie theater and the drive-thru restaurant – allowing us to spend even more time in our cars. And while the former has more-or-less disappeared, the latter still thrives.
Urban sprawl has bloated the boundaries of American cities, often making public transit inconvenient to access. Ironically, the U.S. has one of the largest rail systems in the world, but it mostly carries cargo, not passengers.
Committed to Cars – Not a Cause
A few American cities have attempted to curtail driving by creating car free zones. Nothing, though, on a large scale. Part of the Art Deco district in Miami Beach is car free. More recently, so are Times Square and Herald Square in New York City.
Fire Island in New York and Mackinac Island in Michigan have long banned cars. Fire Island may be the most populous car-free area in the USA. Mackinac is home to the nation’s only carless highway, the M-185. It’s 8.3 miles of coastal road – not a gas station in sight.
Attempts to remove cars from roadways have been half-hearted. San Francisco’s “Spare the Air” program is voluntary. Radios and television stations ask Bay Area residents to refrain from using gas-powered equipment, including cars and lawn mowers on hot days when humid temperatures can trap noxious air pollutants near the ground. Few comply.
When Spare the Air first launched, the city offered residents free public transportation. But that incentive was revoked, and there hasn’t been a free transit day since 2009.
A more tepid experiment was conducted this past Earth Day in Manhattan when an area of downtown went car free … but only for five hours. Not exactly a car free day.
Prioritizing Citizens Over Cars
Reducing the number of cars on roadways is a global initiative. There have been some interesting attempts and case studies that have emerged.
In Madrid, smart meters charge “dirty” cars more money to park. For instance, diesel cars pay more than gasoline cars. Electric cars park for free. In March, the local government came down even harder on mobile air polluters. Within city limits, gasoline cars registered before 2000 and diesel-powered cars registered before 2006 will not be able to operate after 2025. Currently, 20 percent of all vehicles registered in Madrid would be prohibited.
In Paris, the city has tested odd-even driving days for cars, based on license plate numbers, to reduce air pollution. Implemented several times over the past decade, reports say police write out thousands of fines to Parisians who refuse to heed ignored the restriction. The City of Lights has also hosted two car free days since 2015.
In Shanghai, the city took back part of an 11-lane highway that ran on The Bund, its waterfront area. Seven lanes of traffic were pedestrianized, reducing vehicle traffic by 70 percent and opening the space up to attract more tourists.
Other cities are getting aggressive about curbing greenhouse gas emissions, as well. And car free days are part of the solution. Oslo said it will ban private cars from city street by 2019. The mayor of London has also announced plans to ban cars from certain city areas by 2020.
Can We Curb Cars?
Will America follow suit? Politically, many Americans don’t even buy into the notion of greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.
And Americans not only love their cars – they like them bigger. Thanks to a couple of years of falling gas prices, there’s been a surge in truck sales.
American automakers may be starting to take alternative fuel vehicles seriously, but that impact is minor. While Europe has a wide range of vehicles getting 50 mpg, the average American vehicle tops out at 30 mpg. The best SUVs on the market get around 20 mpg. We’re not even close.
While curbing fuel emissions is important, it may only be the fact that Americans don’t want to drive anymore that finally makes them leave their cars at home. Already, Millennials are driving less than other generations, citing car ownership as expensive and a hassle. A study from the University of Michigan found that only 60 percent of today’s 18-year-olds have a driver’s license, compared with 80 percent in the 1980s.
At the same time, autonomous technology is turning driving into just another rote task, best left to robots. Companies like ZipCar make fractional ownership a more viable option for city dwellers. And affordable ride-share services like Uber and Lyft get people to leave their cars at home for short-distance rides, especially when heading out for a night on the town.
Which is why America might be better off promoting car-sharing and ride-sharing services, rather than car-free initiatives. As hopeless addicts, we can’t completely give up the connection we have with our car. But we may be capable of having a more open relationship with it.
Are you ready to give up your car?
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Article Submitted 5/29/17