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The Era of Car-Clogged City Streets Is Over (Contributed)

As cities become denser, the old rationale of designing them around automobiles must give way to a new use of streets that includes walking and micro-mobile solutions. The result: greater efficiency, equity and safety.

11.11.19 GovTech Efficient City Art
The federal government spends more than $45 billion on automotive transportation annually. Add in state and local spending, and costs top $175 billion every year. At the same time, the public health costs of deaths connected to automobile-related crashes and emissions amount to an additional $900 billion. And that excludes the costs related to the 4.5 million people injured in automobile crashes every year.

All in all, the social costs of cars are more than $1 trillion every year for a transportation system struggling with increasing congestion, lengthening commute times, harmful emissions comprising the largest share of greenhouse gases of any sector in the United States and rising pedestrian fatalities from car crashes. We can spend this money better to make our cities more efficient, equitable, and safe. 

We didn’t get here by accident. Cities across the country have been designed for and around the use of private cars — the least efficient transportation mode in terms of the number of people that can be moved per hour. For individuals, cars seem to make a lot of sense. They can serve a lot of different trip types (going to do the shopping, picking up the kids, dropping by the grocery store, visiting the cafe, getting to work in the morning), they work in all sorts of weather, and thanks to plentiful parking, they’re practically “dockless”: you can park them almost anywhere including outside your own house in the public right of way, without paying anything. But, most of the time — 95 percent by many estimates — private cars sit idle.  

Our cities are getting more dense, and they are choking on cars. In 2018, average downtown last-mile speeds were below 20 mph across most major U.S. cities. These inefficiencies relate to the basic question of how we get around, and are lowering the quality of life for residents and businesses, especially in underserved communities. It is also a drag on one of the basic economic purposes of cities: connecting people to jobs. One of the keys to improving city productivity is expanding the number of jobs commutable within 30 and 45 minutes of where you live. Conversely, as our cities become harder to traverse, the harmful effects of spatial segregation become more pronounced. 

Every resident of a city should be afforded the right to get where they need to go safely and in the most efficient, convenient way possible. This means prioritizing modes of transportation that enable density, move the most people most efficiently, and do not contribute to harmful emissions. Reallocating street space to prioritize the most efficient modes, whether that’s increasing dedicated bus lanes, more protected bike lanes, or dedicated street parking for light electric vehicles such as electric bikes and scooters, will lead to improved mobility, lower stress, better health outcomes, more productivity and help to improve the environment. 

In anticipation of the expected explosion in urban populations — an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities around the world by 2050 — we have an obligation to better design streets for the most efficient use for the most amount of people. When it comes to efficiency, smaller, collective modes are the answer. Over half of all vehicle trips in the U.S. are under 3 miles, a distance much better suited for these forms of transportation. What matters is not how fast cars are moving, what matters is the person throughput and capacity of the transport system. 

Better designed cities are also more safe. Cars are the leading contributor to road deaths in the United States, killing 40,000 people a year, among them more than 6,000 cyclists and pedestrians. We should be redesigning our cities to prioritize transit, increase active and sustainable modes like micro-mobility solutions, and take cars off the road. Prioritizing alternative modes also means slowing maximum car speeds, and adding safer infrastructure for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. 

In transportation planning, it’s true that if you build it they will come: Creating more connected and protected micro-mobility lanes will attract even more riders, much as they have with bike riders. We have already seen jumps in bike ridership where protected bike lanes have been created, in cities like Seattle and Toronto. Similarly, the new 14th Street bus lane in New York City has been launched to immediate acclaim. Infrastructure clearly matters!

Residents can and should demand more from their cities, including more protected bike- and transit-only lanes, laws that allow for more micro-mobility solutions and policies that discourage private vehicle use. For too long, the “infrastructure” discussion has just been about cars, with rising social costs. But now, the revolution in electric battery technology, which dramatically lowers the cost of small vehicles, and the demand by residents of cities around the country for clean transportation options require a rethinking of how we prioritize space. The basic principle is clear: streets should be for people, not cars.

Ashwini Chhabra is the head of Public Affairs at Bird, the pioneer in shared micro-mobility. Prior to his current role, he oversaw policy development at Uber, with a focus on self-driving cars, and previously worked to shape transportation and mobility policy in the administration of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He spends his days thinking about how we can make our streets safer and more hospitable for more people. Ashwini holds a BA from Williams College and a JD from Yale Law School.