Looking Forward To The Green Light For Carless Cities
By: Katherine Denzin
October 12th, 2022
This article is part of our Summer 2022 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
The lack of flying cars in the year 2022 is surely a disappointment to anyone who watched classics like “The Jetsons” or “Back to the Future.” By now, almost a quarter way through the 21st century, cars are not only failing to fly on efficient airborne highways but are also causing major problems involving traffic, noise, inequality and the environment. Perhaps the futuristic vision of the 80’s is not the fate of human progress but rather a cityscape that actually tries to limit the influence of the automobile (terrestrial, airborne, autonomous or otherwise).
The concept of carless cities is more or less what the name implies: the idea of eliminating the space and real estate devoted to personal vehicles in modern American cities. Adjacent to this idea is making cities walkable, meaning most essential businesses and goods are within walking distance for most residents. In the past century, most American cities have developed a dependency on cars as transportation and points of culture in the form of built infrastructure and economic ties to the industry. The automobile was invented around 1885 by Karl Benz, but the car dependency didn’t develop until about half a century later.
After World War II, the car became central to the quintessential American life portrayed to the rest of the world as proof of capitalism’s glory.
“It’s the Federal Highway system that’s built during the Eisenhower administration that enables this,” said Micheal Stamm, a professor with a doctorate in history at Michigan State University, where he teaches about the development of cities, among other topics. “So you get all these people coming back from the war, and they’ve got access to low interest loans to buy homes, and then you’ve got the government building this massive highway system.”
This bolstered a post-war boom of cities designed around the car, with satellite suburbs creating commuters and mostly white neighborhoods, seeding the basis of modern socioeconomic and racial inequality.
The culture of cars developed along with their utility functions. Stamm points to the 1930s when General Motors surpassed Ford, largely due to their offering of multiple lines of cars as opposed to Ford’s one black Model T. The car evolved into more than just a method of transport; it became the subject of songs with southern California imagery sung by the Beach Boys, and a way to express yourself through the type of car you owned and customized.
“It becomes a very kind of masculine project to be good at working on your car, and it becomes something that people devote themselves to on the weekends, like customizing and suping up their automobiles,” Dr. Stamm said. The internal-combustion engine found in most automobiles is inherently a contained explosion, which took on a distinctly gendered outlook on gas cars over electric cars early in their development, further contributing to the rise of the fossil-fueled vehicle.
Historically, the majority of American cities, suburbs and rural areas alike depended on cars as the dominant form of transportation. There are numerous downfalls to car-dependent cities that have slowly become realized as cars’ glamor wore off, revealing the deteriorating environment, potholes and the frustrating moments when someone steals the last parking spot in a crowded lot during the holidays.
Traffic and noise are one main complaint related to the congregation of cars. Cities like Los Angeles are known for bumper to bumper lines of cars at rush hour and horrendous smog. Noises like traffic and unpleasant smells exhausted from cars cause stress and negatively affect the wellbeing of people living within the city, according to a study by researchers Antonio Zumelzu and Marie Geraldine Herrmann-Lunecke.
And the amount of space given to cars in cities is enormous. Superspace, a division of international architecture firm Woods Bagot, reported that in Los Angeles County, parking lots take up 101 square miles—four times the size of Manhattan. Cars take up unnecessary space when sitting parked and unused as well as when circling to find an empty parking spot.
Efforts to reduce traffic have likewise been largely unsuccessful and complicated. Increasing the number of lanes, a common effort to relieve traffic congestion, results in induced demand, an economic concept that means if the supply of something increases, then demand also increases. Wired reporter Adam Mann explained that as more lanes and roads are constructed, more people want to and will drive. On Park Avenue in Manhattan, for example, the beautiful green scapes and quaint sitting areas were slowly shaved away as the automobile took hold of the city throughout the 20th century. The site is described by Sergey Kadinskly for Forgotten New York, a website “calling attention to the artifacts of a long-gone New York”—much of which is gone thanks to urbanization.
Cars also foster an unequal environment. Historically, the establishment of highways displaced and sectioned off communities, often with high minority populations, segregating neighborhoods into haves and have-nots. Presently, households without a car are typically lower income, face fewer job opportunities and fewer hours compared to their car-owning counterparts, according to a study by author and professor Anne E. Brown for the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. Reliance on cars as primary transportation is discriminatory to those who cannot afford a vehicle, to those without a drivers license and to those who are disabled, among others.
As American infrastructure stands now, most cities do not have resilient public transportation to support residents without cars. Indeed, on Michigan State University’s campus, the reduction of CATA bus services in the spring 2022 semester revealed the importance of robust and reliable transportation systems. These disruptions also visibly increased the amount of traffic on campus, revealing how attractive alternative methods of transportation can be when executed properly, especially on a college campus. In broader society, lack of a personal vehicle or reliable public transit translates to a lack of opportunity in the workforce and a lack of socialization.
Not only are car-centric city models unequal, they are also terrible for the environment. As cities become more densely inhabited, a greater number of cars are needed to travel longer distances.
Wisdom Henry, a senior at Michigan State studying urban planning and history, said, “Too many cars are not only inefficient because many people drive in their cars alone [but also add] to the problem of increased carbon dioxide emission in the atmosphere.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 29% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions are a result of transportation, and it is the sector where emissions increased the most in the past 30 years.
Unfortunately, electric cars are not the best-of-both worlds solution many hoped they would become. For one, electric vehicles rely on materials like cobalt, a metal especially concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it has recently spurred ethical concerns over mining, including unsafe conditions and child labor. Charging electric vehicles is also only as green as the power source—many power grids still rely on fossil fuel and coal energy sources, making EVs’ claims of zero emissions sometimes untrue. Besides, increasing reliance on EVs does not eliminate any issues related to car dependency.
Eliminating or reducing cars in urban spaces and repurposing the space for public transportation and a diversity of businesses satisfies essential needs, especially for residents’ mental health and socialization.
“Densely populated cities and major information hubs can benefit from walkable cities because when more individuals are on the streets, it provides an opportunity for interactions with others, which breeds creativity and innovation,” said Henry. Creativity and innovation are what cities were known for; in a city, anything was possible because of the concentration of opportunity, resources and people. Increasing green spaces and widening sidewalks in downtowns would simultaneously reduce traffic-related noise and make cities a better place to live. These improvements are linked to improving mental health and fostering a sense of community and safety.
“I’m always happier when I don’t have a car,” said Stamm, who prefers to bike in the East Lansing area when possible. “It’s hard around here mostly because of the weather,” he said. “What’s more problematic than that is going grocery shopping.”
Eliminating or reducing cars would require large infrastructure changes related to public transportation and the proximity of goods to neighborhoods. But, reducing the number of cars would open space for more efficient bus lines, larger bike lanes and less parking, equating to more businesses. Big box stores like Meijer and Target have been experimenting with small scale urban stores, which would increase city dwellers’ access to fresh groceries and goods in a way that rivals present day suburbs.
Cities like Paris successfully prioritized walkability through concepts like the 15-minute city, the idea that every essential need is within a 15-minute walk. This creates little communities less reliant on private transportation in huge urban cities. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, ran her campaign on the idea of a “city of proximity,” and so far she has been relatively successful, evidenced by her reelection in 2020. Pockets of greenspace and long paths of bike lanes have been central to reducing the amount of traffic in central Paris.
For the environment, reducing personal vehicles in cities makes sense. “In terms of sustainability, to me, it’s a no brainer,” said Stamm. Especially during the early days of COVID-19, he said people noticed it was “quieter and … cleaner because people aren’t driving around.”
In 2020, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 6.4% because of lower travel rates during the pandemic, possibly a sign for a brighter future with the right policy restrictions. Transitioning personal vehicle users to instead use buses, bike lanes and subways will reduce emissions and the amount of car-related manufacturing outputs. Public transportation can also take advantage of breakthroughs in clean energy to further reduce atmospheric polluters.
The creation of walkable cities and the reduction of personal vehicles sounds like a utopian vision of the future of humankind that prioritizes community and the environment while still benefiting from the opportunities of high density cities. Although there are certainly promising aspects of reducing the amount of cars in cities, there are unknowns related to the impact on existing inequality and the feasibility of the plan politically.
Just as the model of car-centric model cities disadvantages people who cannot afford cars presently, eliminating cars in downtown areas could disadvantage people who must commute to work. Proximity to a workplace is an important factor. “In places where the weather is nice, a short walk or bike ride to work is often pleasant and accessible,” Stamm said, “but that means that you can afford to live within 10 miles of where you work, and there’s certain parts of the United States where that is really impossible for people who are not of significant means.”
Even the concept of a 15-minute-city raises some alarm bells because of existing socioeconomic differences by neighborhood. The idea of rehabilitating these areas to resemble more privileged communities certainly sounds like the definition of gentrification. Redevelopment of large, already socially divided cities on large scales to improve something like walkability could have unintended consequences on inequality if done without the right research or implementation.
The way the media has recently presented the idea of going carless comes from a privileged viewpoint. In “Car-less or car-free? Socioeconomic and mobility differences among zero-car households” published in the journal Transport Policy, Brown says the media’s “attentions have increasingly shifted from the constrained mobility outcomes among car-less travelers, to policies and environments aimed at ‘freeing’ people from their cars in pursuit of sustainability and congestion relief goals.”
Although the new conversations sparking about car-free lifestyles are beneficial, they ignore the privilege of being able to navigate daily life now without reliance on cars through rideshare services, social networks and robust communities. In her study of Californian methods of transportation, Brown found that 80% of zero-car households do not have a car for financial or accessibility reasons, while those who are car-free by choice usually have a higher income and are white. There is an accompanying conversation regarding access and privilege related to the delicate decision to limit personal vehicles.
Especially in Detroit, a city founded upon car production and known as the Motor City, there are concerns and questions about the city’s identity and functionality should cars be eliminated or reduced. Similar to Brown’s study of California, a University of Michigan report found that 63% of Detroiters own or share a personal vehicle, mostly those with higher income and higher educational achievement. Detroit rose to greatness and deteriorated throughout the 20th century with the automotive industry. As automotive plants moved from the central city to the suburbs and throughout the country, Detroit became a less-densely populated city with little public transport infrastructure and flagrant inequality issues.
In places like Detroit where identity converges with utility when it comes to cars, efforts to limit their use or turn efforts to public transportation will be more difficult than in places like New York, which feature a robust subway system. Even among carless residents of Detroit, reducing the cost of auto insurance was a preferable reform to increasing public transportation routes, according to the U of M study. Detroit is still reliant on the automobile industry, so they may be more hesitant to embrace the carless model.
In general, completely ridding cities of cars is impossible. “I do not believe that eliminating cars is a feasible goal for planners because cars are a necessary form of transportation when traveling over long distances,” said Henry. “Likewise, there will be a portion of the population that simply prefers traveling by car; however, planners need to introduce more options for people to travel, such as public transportation with additional routes and more pick-up times.” Although eliminating inequality-inducing, environment-polluting personal vehicles from cities sounds beneficial, cities are more likely to focus on improvements to existing infrastructure.
In addition to much-needed improvements to public transportation across America, there are smaller scale improvements possible that will vary by city. “I think the most interesting and promising initiatives are things that start locally. You know, things like bike lanes,” said Stamm. He compared cities to laboratories, saying the solutions to the problems created by cars are going to look different depending on location and will be heavily reliant on citizen input.
A carless utopian future is unlikely in most of America because of the scale of the improvements and buy-in from residents. Americans may not have to say adieu to their beloved vehicles yet, but cities can undergo improvements to promote a healthier, greener future for their citizens. Maybe the future of urban life relies not on technological advances like flying or autonomous cars but instead on community mindsets and a lessening of car dependency.
Katherine Denzin is a sophomore majoring in history and statistics. She works as the assistant editor-in-chief of The Red Cedar Log and is involved with a start-up publication about policy, Matters of Fact. When not writing, studying, or pursuing her latest fixation, she enjoys reading, re-watching movies and baking cookies or pretzels.