Increased city accessibility by cars is always accompanied by declines in service of public transportation. The declines in transit passengers are always greater than increases in private automobile passengers.
-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
Since returning to the U.S. from my time abroad, I've struggled a bit to reintegrate. Once I settled pressing matters such as finding housing and a proper almond milk latte, I turned my attention to my new surroundings, to my new city. I crisscrossed Portland on foot and by public transit, reacquainting myself with a culture I tried my best to avoid this past year and a half: car culture.
Welcome back to America, I told myself. Dust off your greenbacks, grab your Walmart rewards card, and enjoy “all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage” (Henry Miller), because you have returned to the land where car is king. Where drivers have little respect for the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, where transit lines only go so far, where free parking is seen as a blessing, not a curse; America, where a strip of paint on a busy road makes a place "bike-friendly". And it turns out that Oregon’s largest city and the United States’ self-proclaimed luminary of urban planning and cycling is… just another American city overrun by cars.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently analyzed the vulnerability of pedestrians using roads, concluding that they account for “22 percent of 1.25 million global road deaths* per year, the number one killer of people aged between 15 and 29.” In other words, 275,000 pedestrians die each year at the hands of drivers and their cars, a tragedy akin to wiping out the entire population of Orlando, Florida, or Melbourne, Australia, twice. And let’s not forget pollution-related fatalities: in the European Union alone, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates 400,000 premature deaths a year from air pollution, with the main source of particulates being domestic heating and road transport (I shudder to imagine China's figure). Considering those two shocking figures alone, and especially when paired with the proven benefits of creating car-free spaces and/or reducing vehicular traffic, I find it beyond frustrating that American planners and society refuse to knock the car from its pedestal.
The time has come for urban planners, city officials, and citizens of car-clogged cities to face the issue and respond boldly, at least if we want to create urban communities worth living in and keep climate change at bay. Now's not the time for incremental change or bright, shiny objects like autonomous cars and electric vehicles, but creative, holistic thinking. One place we can all learn from is Germany, a country obsessed with efficiency and public transit that recently proposed making public transport free to reduce road traffic. If Germany is able to execute this plan and provide sufficient and reliable public transit at no cost to road users, then people are more likely to choose public transportation over cars because it's the better option. If this project is successful, it could lead to a reduced demand for parking, more space for people (let's turn all surface parking into parks and cafes!), greater social interactions, reduced obesity, more time to enjoy a book; the possibilities are endless. Let's hope that Germany passes this proposal, because plans like this are exactly what our cities -- and countries -- need to prioritize people and reduce our dependency on vehicles.
There is no time to waste, no efforts to squander; let's reclaim our urban spaces.
*There are more global road-related deaths a year (1.3 million is another estimate by WHO) than HIV/AIDS at 1.1 million. Astounding.