Ban Cars

CC BY 2.0. Where are all the cars?/ Lloyd Alter

It's time we just came out and said it. They kill more people than guns. They do not belong in our cities.

After every mass shooting in the USA, there are calls to ban guns, and after a recent one, there was a rash of tweets like this:

Now one could point out that if guns were treated like cars, then all gun owners would be tested and licensed and all guns would be designed not to kill people, but that is another story for another website. In fact, perhaps it is time to ban cars, at least in our cities. Jessie Singer of Transportation Alternatives responded to the recent New York truck attack, writing in BuzzFeed:

A gun lobbyist would typically step in right about now to ask whether those who demand gun control after mass shootings also want to ban cars after events like this week. To which I say: Hell yes. Cars don’t belong on the streets of big cities, and we should do everything in our power to get rid of them.

Singer reminds us of the ridiculous toll we are paying in lives:

More than 40,000 Americans were killed by cars in 2016 — the equivalent of a fully-loaded Boeing 747 falling out of the sky once every three days. It’s more than the 33,000 annual gun deaths, and more than the 20,000-plus people killed by synthetic opioids that year. Half of those automobile fatalities occurred in urban areas; about 6,000 of them were pedestrians.

I have been half-hearted about this, suggesting first that we should ban SUVs and, after the New York attack, pickup trucks. But it's time to stop being wishy-washy and recognize that we have to go further. Private cars simply do not belong in cities and should be banned.

Copenhagen without cars

Copenhagen without cars/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Alissa Walker raised this a few years ago in Gizmodo, noting that it could be done in much of the world right now:

Banning cars is as simple as it sounds: It’s restricting private automobiles from entering a geographic area. You might have already seen how this works in a pedestrian-prioritized historical district, which is common in bigger cities. So we start the ban there, in the biggest cities: Where about half the world’s population lives now, where car ownership is already low, and where existing housing density and transit infrastructure allow people to easily live without automobiles.

Walker acknowledges that we cannot just ban cars, but that we need to provide alternatives.

It’s not just about banning cars. Cities also have to help their citizens live without a car. This means they must approve taller buildings, get rid of parking minimums, and expand public transit options. Build rail instead of roads. Turn gas stations into bike kiosks. Convert parking lots to sidewalks. Provide a fleet of low-speed zero-emission vehicles (like golf carts!) to make deliveries and help residents get around. And introduce better technology solutions to help everyone navigate the city more efficiently.

King street

King Street, Toronto, 1:45 PM, 16 November 2017/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The investment needed to expand public transit actually isn't nearly as big as one would think, either. The recent Toronto experience has shown that if you don't have cars clogging the roads, then you can run lots of streetcars and buses. Walker also notes as I have that just electrifying our cars doesn't solve our problems; the air will be cleaner, but as I have written, "it doesn't change sprawl, congestion, parking or safety of pedestrians and cyclists. It doesn't change the fact that, in a crowded city, putting a single person in a big metal box is just silly."

Others believe that self-driving autonomous cars will save us, but one of the best threads I have seen on Twitter (and a great use of 280 characters) suggests otherwise. I suspect that we will just get a lot of empty cars running around while their owners pop into Starbucks. Jessie Singer doesn't think they will solve the problem either:

Fenced street in London

Fenced street in London/ Katherine Martinko/CC BY 2.0

Self-driving cars have the potential to prevent anyone from being killed by a car ever again. Of course, that requires a city of only autonomous vehicles, and manufacturers who care about the vehicular death toll. If manufacturers don’t program driverless cars to protect pedestrians, then we will be corralled to the sidewalk like so many sheep, blamed for our deaths should we be so bold as to venture near the roar of traffic. That does not sound like an idyllic urban future.

Vienna without cars

Vienna without cars/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are personal benefits to banning cars as well. It seems that every week there is another study showing how walking is so good for you, that a little of it every day saves and extends lives. According to the EPA (at least until the car manufacturers see this page), car trips under a mile total 10 billion miles per year; those are mostly urban and suburban trips. If people walked instead of driving trips under a mile, it would save half a billion dollars in fuel costs, 2 million tons of CO2 emissions, and be like taking 400,000 cars off the road.

One study found that eliminating car trips under five miles round-trip in the urban areas of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin would result in almost $5 billion in health benefits associated with improved air quality. This same study estimated that replacing half of these car trips with bike trips could save almost $4 billion in avoided deaths and reduced health care costs by increasing physical activity.

Terrorism experts talk about cars having been "weaponized", but for people who walk or bike, cars have always been instruments of terror. They have always been bad for the health of the people around them, and we are learning how bad they are for the people in them.

It's time. Ban cars.