Suppose you woke up tomorrow and your car was gone? Your neighbors’ cars and pickup trucks were missing too. There were no taxis, only commercial trucks and delivery vehicles too busy to carry passengers. Boom, you were caught with your feet and an old bike as transportation. What would you do?

I bet you would call into work and say you couldn’t make it. You would cancel all appointments and walk your kids to school. Soon you would be taking the bus or train, working from home regularly, and walking or riding your bike for shorter trips. Delivery trucks would replenish your kitchen pantry. Over time, you would become physically fit, your wallet would be a little thicker with cash, and you would know people that share your routes. Your spatial knowledge of your neighborhood and landscapes on regular transit routes would deepen. As a bonus, since transportation emits 27% of greenhouse gases,[1] cities would immediately experience an impressive leap in sustainability.

Cars are so deeply embedded that it’s truly a challenge to imagine car-free lives. Despite environmental, health, and urban development problems, every year we become more dependent on them. In 1968, nearly one out of every two American children walked or biked to school; now only one child in eight does.[2] Vehicle miles rose one and a half times for a population that was only 40% larger. The number of cars globally is skyrocketing from the current 700 million to over a billion cars by 2025. Yet, every hour in a car increases a likelihood of obesity by 6%.[3] Petrol carries the two-edged sword of adding greenhouse gases and depleting oil supplies. In the United States, over 30,000 people die annually on the roads.[4] Still we continue to add thousands of highway miles and low density developments.

While I’m suggesting a highly improbable scenario, somewhere deep in the crevices of every theory or debate about cities lurks the issue of cars. Urban-suburban debates originate in cars. Walkable versus driveable streets, cars. Sustainable development, again, cars. High density, compact, sprawl, and smart cities all deal with automobile dependency. Even big-box retail, single use zoning, and public spaces completely depend upon cars. In sum, every single proposal for improving the quality of life in cities originates in a position on automobiles. Consequently, a thought experiment of car-free cities reveals the depth of our physical, emotional, and economic dependencies.

In the twenty-first century, we have greater knowledge of consequences. The ongoing debate: should cities be car-free or do we simply need better cars? If we choose to make better cars, we still have congestion, safety, greenfield development, and an unsustainable need for increasingly complex highways while inner cities remain blighted crime districts. The city fabric will stretch thin, leaving gaping holes of poverty and marginalized groups. In the United States, lines are drawn in the pavement. People deserve cars, say the free-market enthusiasts. Cars doom our cities to unsustainable energy consumption, say the progressives. One person’s freedom chariot is another’s four-wheeled monster.

That debate - cars or no cars - is bogus. We must move beyond transportation and global warming (both frozen in petrified ideologies) to improved lifestyles, better opportunities and choices, and ultimately economic advantages. How can we balance work and personal responsibilities? What makes a beautiful city that attracts newcomers? How do we create vibrant neighborhoods and lively streets?

Twentieth century cities were shaped by cars. What twenty-first century cities do we and future generations deserve? We can only open the possibilities through our imagination and commitment to sustainable development and healthy lifestyles.

  1. “Driving Trends.” April 5, 2009.
  2. National Center for Safer Routes. “U.S. travel data show decline in walking and bicycling to school.” April 8, 2010.
  3. Frank, L.D., Andresen, M.A., and Schmid, T.L. “Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Aug 2004 27(2): 87-96
  4. U.S. Department of Transportation. “Early estimate of motor vehicle fatalities.” March 2010
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