It seems like the major movements in the past years have all been related to the request for freedom. Free the Nipple, Break Free From Plastic, Freedom of speech.

Should we be surprised or should we finally admit that we are trapped in so many ways? What is more surprising is the fact that this desire for freedom has extended to areas which have previously made our lives easier. The most recent of them being freedom from cars by establishing car-free zones in major cities across the globe.

Have cars become a burden we need to be free from? Or has our passion for saving the environment outgrown our need for convenience?

Entering a car-free era

The car-free movement commenced a few years ago when major European cities started blocking off streets and downtown areas from vehicles. The reasons that inspired this decision are based on sustainability and environmental concerns. By joining the movement, city officials aim to reduce air pollution and improve safety among residents and visitors.

And if you think this is a step gone too far, check out some of the statistics on car pollution:

  • In the United States cars represent approximately 89 percent of the trips made by vehicles, accounting for the largest bulk of pollution.
  • The number of early deaths caused by air pollution in Europe has doubled, with vehicle emissions and fossil fuels being the main pollutants.
  • An Oxford University study shows that car dependency in Britain only costs over 6 billion pounds in health damages. Per year.

Despite the alarming numbers, we must admit that our vehicles’ fuel efficiency has improved significantly over the past 20 years, thus leading to lower emissions. Climate change legislation and emissions regulations have largely contributed to a better quality of air. In addition, many cities have introduced cycling stations and bike paths or have improved their public transit system.

Yet, despite these improvements, many people still chose their car over available alternatives. It seems like these steps were not significant enough to make people voluntarily change their driving habits. This is why we now see more and more cities slowly and purposefully going car-free.

European cities establish car-free zones

Below are some of the pioneer cities that set a path for others to follow.

  • Madrid, Spain – Ban on older cars. Madrid began restricting access to older than 2000 gas-powered models and diesel vehicles made prior to 2006 in its city center. According to the estimates, this decision will lead to nearly 20% fewer vehicles in the area and cut air pollution by 40%. For now, officials allow only cars with previously registered parking spots to enter the area. But by the end of 2020, older diesel and gas-powered cars won’t be allowed to circulate the city center.
  • Paris, France – One car-free Sunday a month. In a 2018 study, Paris was declared the city with the second-worst air quality among 13 European cities. And so the mayor Anne Hidalgo made it her personal mission to improve the air quality in the City of Lights. Not only has the classy city banned older vehicles from the city center, but it has also established a day free of cars. Parisians will enjoy the city center free of cars every first Sunday of the month from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to the car-free Champs-Élysées, a 3km (1.8m) section of the right bank of the Seine river, which was once a two-lane motorway, has been pedestrianized.
  • Ghent, Belgium – A circulation plan. The Belgian city established a new circulation plan in 2017. The historical area has been car-free for 20 years already. And the newly introduced plan expands this traffic-free area by diverting vehicle traffic away by a ring road. Only public transport and emergency vehicles can enter the car-free zones. Loading and unloading of cargo can take place within certain hours and only with a permit. Two years after accepting the plan, the city has drastically lowered the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air, according to Flanders Environment Agency. And while more people choose to go car-free, more people choose to avoid the city center as well. Locals say this leads to more empty shops and fewer middle-class people in the streets.

Oslo removed over 700 parking spots from its city center. Stockholm introduced a congestion charge for vehicles entering the city. London created Cycle Superhighways to increase the number of bikes and their safety on the roads.

This is the case in Europe – the continent where everything feels like it’s just around the corner. Beijing, Tokyo, and Mexico are also implementing similar policies.

But imagine the same scenario in the United States. We see Europe and Asia might be getting to like the car-free movement, but what we really want to know is this:

Are Americans ready to give up their cars?

Back in 2013, Census data showed that about 9 percent of U.S. households didn’t have access to a car. This figure has not changed much over the past years either. The 2016 research showed that three years later, this percentage remained the same.

On average, an American owns 1.8 cars. Some of the reasons for this go back to the historical image of the car as a status symbol and larger than in Europe distances between locations.

What is sad is that car dependency in the USA is significantly increasing the cost of living in some areas. Detroit, Miami, and Phoenix are the least affordable cities in the nation – not due to high housing rents but due to high transportation costs. And if you delve deeper into the infrastructure and transportation patterns in these cities, you will see that, voluntarily or not, people are stuck behind the wheel.


The hope is in the young generation

However, if we look at the national data in the past decades, we will see that even though the number of cars per capita is not significantly decreasing, the amount of driving is. Especially on the East Coast. States like New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have shown lower numbers of miles traveled per capita.

The last time people chose to drive less was during the Great Recession, when the economy was doing poorly or when the gasoline prices were rising in the mid-2000s. Naturally, when times were hard, people chose to cut on their travel and leisure expenses.

Yet, today we see a different situation. The economy is doing well, but people in metropolitan areas consciously choose to limit their car usage. The reason for this: Millennials and their decreasing desire for car ownership and strong passion to have a positive impact on the world.

Young people prefer to leave their parents’ car-dependent rural areas in favor of the transit-friendly urban neighborhoods. Surprisingly, millennials would not opt for Los Angeles or New York, but rather opt for places like Nashville, TN or Seattle, WA.

Yet, it is exactly in California and New York where you will see the first car-free zones in the USA.

Car-free zones in American Cities

New York made some really brave steps towards embracing the car-free movement. In October 2019, the city transformed one of its most congested streets into a busway.

According to the New York Times, 14th street is a major crosstown route that links the East and West Sides of Manhattan Passenger cars where 21,000 vehicles, including taxis and Ubers, pass by every single day.

Under the new rules, between the hours of 6 a.m and 10 p.m. every day, cars are only allowed to drop off passengers and load or unload cargo along the stretch of the street.

It is interesting that less than a quarter of Manhattan’s residents own cars. Yet, this number does not account for people who commute in the city by a taxi or share a ride. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have gained huge popularity in New York City in the past years, and people choose them over the bus or subway. Thus, even though people aren’t necessarily owning more cars, they’re still adding to the daily congestion.

San Francisco is also making a radical change. The city approved a $600-million plan to remove private vehicles from its busy Market Street. It will be renovated into space for streetcars, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians.

One in ten transit riders is on the street every single day. Despite that, the street hasn’t been rebuilt in over 45 years. The city plans to shrink the street in favor of a broader sidewalk and a bike lane (8 ft wide).

Bikes and electric scooters will have to share. Lyft and Uber will not be banned but will have separate loading areas. This will help reduce the number of accidents that affect pedestrians and cyclists in the busy area.

Car-freedom ahead

Just like any major transformation, the transition to car-free cities has a long way ahead before we see its effects on a major scale. For now, it seems like the car-free movement is bringing more lifestyle benefits than long-lasting air quality improvements.

Yet, simply banning cars from certain city areas is not a sustainable solution. People will still need to get to work and provide for themselves. And restricting their options will make it harder. Unless there are more alternatives to choose from. Affordable and attainable.

Shared mobility is one such option. The free buffer zones, new public transit stops, and the availability of e-scooters and bikes are the first steps towards such opportunities. Good planning and plenty of options will give citizens the flexibility they need to give up their vehicles more easily.

And when it comes to the reality of the United States? Preventing cars from central city areas will not solve America’s problem with cars. This is because the issue on the new continent is not so much the number of drivers in dense city areas. It is the number of miles they drive. The main factors for America’s dependency on cars relate to the big distances and the long trips they require. And that can hardly be changed.

The solution can only come from an urban planning system that no longer prioritizes cars over other modes of transportation. Maybe we should call Elon Musk and ask for a high-speed eco-friendly tunnel solution on this one?


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