America is often thought of as the land of the car. In 2020, the country had 287.3 million cars registered, against a total population of 332.2 million. That equates to roughly 865 cars per 1,000 people.
In addition to the problems traditionally associated with high levels of car ownership, such as air pollution, traffic jams and the societal costs of accidents, the supremacy of the car as the preferred form of transportation has also shaped the look and feel of America’s cities. Strip malls are designed around the car, with large tracts of land given over to parking lots, leaving little room for safe pedestrian routes to connect the different shops. In addition, the car was directly responsible for the rise in suburban living – whereas families used to live within walking distance of shops and markets, with the proliferation of automobiles from the 1950s onwards, families began to live further and further away from local amenities.
While this transition has not been so problematic for the more affluent middle and upper classes, lower income families continue to struggle. Research conducted by the University of Toronto shows that transport poverty combined with low socio-economic status together create a vicious cycle whereby poorer families are forced to live further away from amenities, public transport, and better-paying job opportunities, which in turn exacerbates their poverty. And while several (older) metropolises like New York, Washington and Chicago, have invested in rapid transit systems in an attempt to provide more transportation options for their residents, the majority of Americans remain reliant on car ownership to get around.
But, since the impact of the Covid pandemic – which say many city centres empty out – several European countries are having a rethink about what role cities play in our lives, and whether there is a different track that we can take. For instance, Sweden is demonstrating that even though cars provide a convenient form of transportation for many of us, it may be time to rethink our compulsion to design cities around the car. Several Swedish cities have started projects to reclaim spaces previously devoted to vehicles by converting parts of roads or parking areas into social spaces with benches and greenery. It is hoped that by discouraging car use in downtown areas and instead providing more space for people to sit and socialise closer to their apartments or offices, cities can become not only healthier, but more intimate.
Meanwhile, several British cities such as London, Bristol and Manchester, have announced plans for so-called low-traffic neighbourhoods by promoting cycling or walking instead of car journeys. In addition, it is hoped that plans to green up and pedestrianize town centres will also translate into more trade for local businesses, which have struggled in recent years due to the growth of e-commerce.
So, what can US cities learn from Europe?
For one, US cities could think about pedestrianizing Main Street. With a few notable exceptions such as Third Street Promenade in LA and Lincoln Road in Miami, the prioritisation of foot traffic over vehicle traffic has not gained traction. But cities in other countries that have pedestrianised their main streets have found that footfall has increased, shops have flourished, and the areas quickly became pleasurable destinations for both locals and tourists alike.
In addition, many US city centres are in fact business districts, which are dominated by skyscraper office buildings that sit empty on weekends. One strategy, especially with the rise of homeworking in the wake of Covid, would be to convert office buildings (or at least parts of them). One common solution is to transform office blocks into low-cost apartments. But other options could be to provide multi-use facilities with shops, cafes, kids’ play centres, libraries and even schools or universities.
Finally, US cities could make their downtowns more accessible by investing in a tramway or streetcar line to connect nearby districts and decrease reliance on cars. This has been successfully done in cities such as Portland, OR and Calgary, AB in Canada. In order to incentivise ridership, city councillors could think about making use of the line free in the downtown core, as well as creating strategically located park-and-ride car parks with free parking.