Brooks Rainwater is the Senior Executive and Director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.
When asked what they like most about a city they have visited, almost no one answers: “The cars whizzing by on the streets.” Cultural attractions, the people we meet, walking through the city and gazing at plazas, buildings, and places—these are the things that make a city unique.
What if there was a way to get more of what we all like and less of the noise and congestion we don’t? Many cities are working towards that goal, by closing major streets to traffic and opening them up to people.
Cities have limited space, and how it is allocated is tremendously important for people. The denser a place, the dearer each square foot is. Yet all over the world, cities were retrofitted to accommodate cars, giving them an outsized portion of urban space and limiting the area in which people could walk, sit at cafes, or play games with friends.
Many cities in America are newer than those in other parts of the world; most were born before cars but expanded tremendously afterwards. This wasn’t the case in Europe, where centuries of settlement made it difficult for the continent to fully succumb to the automobile. In the postwar era, European cities could have followed America’s lead in designing around cars. Most, however, made very different choices.
A key moment in this history took place in 1953, when the Dutch city of Rotterdam made a major thoroughfare, Lijnbaan St, a purpose-built pedestrian street that was completely car-free. The goal was to create a modern city center that would thrive—and thrive it did—by closing space to vehicles and opening more room to people.
At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts. But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones. Rotterdam and its local businesses ended up seeing great success after this policy change, and this showed early on the efficacy of closing streets to traffic and opening them to people.
Many other cities in Europe followed suit, and this—coupled with heavy and sustained investment in public transit, bicycle infrastructure, and more—created a very different urban experience for generations of city dwellers. Fast-forward to now, where places like Amsterdam are seeking to ban all gas-powered cars from its downtown by 2030, and you can see the effect of longstanding policy choices on how we experience a city.
In the U.S., we have seen a rapid rise in biking, and now e-scooters, in our cities. With this, there is increasingly a feeling that the geometry of space shouldn’t favor one very large mode of transportation over others that need room to grow and flourish. The use of shared bikes and scooters has grown tremendously in just a short period of time—more than double the number of trips between 2017 and 2018—with 84 million shared micromobility journeys taking place last year. In 2019 this number has only continued to grow, reinforcing the need for greater space for mobility choices.
Today, we see a growing movement in cities throughout the world to stem the usage of cars and close streets to unmitigated traffic. The two most prominent examples in the U.S. are New York City, with the closing of 14th Street, and San Francisco, which will soon close Market Street to cars.
With less than a quarter of Manhattan residents owning cars, New York City seems like a prime place to give people more options to get around. This is just what the city has done by closing 14th Street and making it a dedicated busway. What was once one of New York’s most congested streets is now a spot that is friendlier for pedestrians and bicyclists, with markedly increased bus speeds. While some motorists have complained about what they perceive as a disruption, data shows that the streets to which traffic has been diverted are not more congested. And people feel like their needs are being centered, with former parking spaces turning into urban green spaces.
The numbers reinforce the success of this experiment in New York City as bus trips have accelerated—sometimes so fast drivers have to stop to let the schedule catch up—from an average of 15.1 minutes to travel before the shift to 10.6 minutes afterwards. This 30 percent decrease in travel time demonstrates how people can move faster through cities if purpose is aligned to policy.
Heading out west, San Francisco’s government has voted to close Market Street to cars. Market Street is one of the main thoroughfares in the city’s downtown and in many ways epitomizes the inequalities running rampant in the city by the bay, with Twitter and other tech giants sharing space with homeless people sleeping rough on sidewalks.
By seeking to transform the boulevard, the city will build a better, safer place for the 500,000 pedestrians that use the street daily. San Francisco officials plan to reduce the size of the street, widen sidewalks, and add an eight-foot-wide bike lane for bikes and e-scooters. With streetcars and buses still breezing down the center, people will have more choices to get where they need to go. Advocates and city officials alike don’t see the plans for Market Street in isolation, but as the beginning of a broader movement to close more streets to traffic and open them to people.
While these two examples in New York and San Francisco are the most prominent street closures, they are by no means the only instances of city leaders taking back space from cars and giving it to people. There are thriving pedestrian zones in Denver, Santa Monica, Madison, Charlottesville, and Chicago, to name a few. The asphalt art initiative is sparking opportunities to reclaim streets for people, with cities like Oakland and Asheville leading the way in creating murals on streets. These kinds of changes could effectively transform the ground beneath us so that it is centered around recreation, not racing.
And it’s a global movement. To our north, Toronto’s King Street pilot is a model, in Europe, Barcelona’s superblocks are laying new ground, and in Asia, Tokyo’s approach to on-street parking is exemplary. Not to mention in the southern hemisphere, where Curitiba, Brazil, has seen long-standing success with its dedicated busways that are a model widely replicated around the world.
All of this energy, both new and long-standing, reflects the priorities that people are placing on building better cities. Cars have their place in cities, but the place of people in cities needs to be given a more central role, and we can and should reduce the primacy of vehicles. It all comes down to geometry. Since, there is only so much space in cities, let’s make sure it’s for people.