Right now the world is at a turning point when it comes to cars.
As the pandemic rages on in the US, public transportation is shuttered and car traffic has plummeted. But in places where the lockdown has eased, like China, car use is actually up – even higher than in May 2019. China is even considering easing environmental regulations to help boost its carmakers and strengthen its economy.
Globally speaking, owning a car is a luxury. People in Honduras, Pakistan, and Nepal own an average of less than one car per 50 households, and even in bike-friendly countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, car ownership is about one car for every two households. In the US, just 10% of households do not own a car. People around the world are more likely to report owning a bicycle, instead.
Cars are expensive, deadly, and take up a huge amount of space. By some estimates, roads and parking lots take up more than half of urban areas. Just think of what we could do with all that space if we got back to basics and loudly repeated this basic truth: streets should be for moving people, not cars.
Here’s the good news on climate this week
Since the global coronavirus lockdown began, car use has plummeted worldwide. In the car-centric United States, usage has plunged by more than 70%, back to levels last seen in the 1990s. People are beginning to see what their streets look like, car-free.
Taking back cities from cars has been a cause for urban activists for decades, but in an era of social distancing, the movement has become urgent as a counterbalance to isolation and to closures of public infrastructure, like parks and buses. We know that a liveable future will mean one with fewer cars, but it’s still an open question if cities will see it the same way, or double down on the past.
The modern open streets movement – ciclovía – got its start in Bogotá, Colombia, in the 1970s to counteract the global spread of an alliance between car companies and the fossil fuel industry that gave birth to monstrous highway systems in the US and Europe in the 1950s and 60s. Now, amid the pandemic, the movement to ban cars from key streets is rapidly spreading around the world, from New York to Mumbai.
Open streets activists have argued that eliminating street parking, parking lots, and closing main roads to motor vehicles would boost pedestrian traffic to shops and make cities safer and more pleasant. In the middle of this pandemic, that’s exactly what needs to happen.
The open streets movement is part of the climate movement, because motorised road vehicle transportation is responsible for about 80% of the rise in global emissions over the past 50 years. In many ways, the climate problem is primarily one of figuring out how to move ourselves from place to place using the least amount of fossil fuels possible.
Getting rid of cars is also a huge justice problem. Air pollution from motor vehicles is one of the leading causes of death in the world, killing hundreds of thousands of people per year and placing a $1 trillion burden on the world’s health systems. Car-free households are more likely to be non-white and low-income, meaning that they bear a greater share of the health and safety burden. Cities built around cars siphon huge amounts of public funds to maintain roads and parking lots that marginalised people simply don’t use. In the US, just 1.8% of federal transportation funds are currently devoted to biking and walking.
But the open streets movement is just beginning. Once the lockdown is over, there need to be vigorous campaigns to make pedestrian-focused streets the norm, not the exception. Bike commuting, not socially-isolated recreation, will drive the adoption of bike-friendly cities. Cities can’t make this transition simply by adding bike lanes, they have to reinvent themselves for a car-free era. And that’s where the hope lies: with some effort, on the other side of this pandemic, our cities could become radically bike friendly, right away.
P.S. OK, let’s see if you can handle this wheely funny bike joke (let me know if you need a brake from all the jokes, btw): Why can’t a bike stand up on its own?