Car-free cities about social engineering, not public demand

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The trend of banning cars from urban centers has been gaining popularity, all the right people are telling us. It is imperative that we “re-master-plan existing cities to encourage people to walk instead of using a car or Uber,” because, well, “car-free cities offer a multitude of benefits for both individuals and the environment.”

Scientific American insists that car-free cities are the future, because the data from facial analysis caught by surveillance cameras proves that “people do not like looking at cars.”

Or maybe the trend is just another planning movement led by elitists who believe their vision of a city is the only one that matters and they should be free to force it on everyone else.

Wired has assured its readers that “​​People Hate the Idea of Car-Free Cities – Until They Live in One.” But the only evidence presented by the reporter are “​​government surveys of the UK’s recently implemented” low-traffic neighborhoods, which “indicated that support from residents for such schemes increases over time.”

The writer claims that “no one I spoke to for this piece could name a recent sizable pedestrianization or traffic-reduction scheme that had been reversed once it had been given time to have an effect.” He touts the word of an author and “leading figure in the movement to end urban car use” who said “if you go back a year or two” after restricting or banning automobiles, “people will just say: well, this is the best thing we ever did.”

Read Kerry Jackson’s Free Cities Center article about electric vehicles.

Read Randal O’Toole’s article in the Free Cities Center about declining transit ridership.

Apparently these are the enlightened folk, unlike the louts of Oslo, Norway, who in 2017 “branded” a proposed a car-free city center “as a ‘Berlin Wall against motorists.’” Or the hooligans of London who, after the city introduced low-traffic neighborhoods, were responsible for some particularly nasty backlash that included graffiti and accusations that the anti-car activists were guilty of “social cleansing.”

The drift toward policies to make urban cores free of cars is justified by its proponents because these policies are, they say, in the best interests of our environment and ourselves. Now there can be no question that locally banning automobiles will reduce emissions of combusted fossil fuels, which can be responsible for respiratory ailments “and other health issues for city residents.”

But is there more to the story?

The Bolt, a tech company that claims to be “​​passionate about solving problems,” is willing to “take on challenges others deem impossible,” and solicits others to “join us to make cities for people, not cars,” doesn’t seem to think so. It says that “cleaning up urban air” is “a welcome benefit to lower car usage in cities. … This is exactly what’s happened in London: the city’s efforts to curb traffic have led to a 94% reduction in the number of residents living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen oxide.”

Yet it turns out that packing humans into rolling steel cans also carries health risks. Research shows that before elected and unelected public officials tried to trap us in our homes due to a viral outbreak in 2020, transit riders were nearly six times more likely to suffer from acute respiratory diseases than those who didn’t take the bus or subway or any other form of transportation where people are sardined together, says transportation analyst Randal O’Toole. “The safest way to travel during an epidemic is in your own private automobile,” he adds.

Personal automobiles are also handy when other crises arise and people need to avoid becoming statistics. Imagine trying to flee from an urban setting during an emergency and the only option is public transit. It would be the plot of an Irwin Allen disaster movie come to life. What if the only way out of a shattered Manhattan were the trains that go through the tunnels to New Jersey, and those that chug over or under the East River?

California’s war on cars has already claimed a number of victims. Though they were not in an urban setting, several lost their lives trying to outrun the 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They were squeezed into a two-lane road because the city of Paradise had “put its only four-lane street on a road diet, removing two of the lanes,” says O’Toole. Many of the 80 who died in that fire – at least five – lost their lives, he said, while “stuck in traffic.”

Despite activists’ never-in-doubt assertions, experiments in going car-less don’t have an unblemished record. Quite the opposite, actually. For instance, after Chicago chased cars off of its famed State Street more than 40 years ago, and turned it into a pedestrian mall, “just about everything went wrong,” says Governing magazine.

Sidewalks that had been widened to 40 feet to create a pedestrian-friendly experience “ended up mostly empty and desolate,” and parking became frighteningly scarce. The retail environment didn’t improve nor did it “get an upscale transfusion.”

The Chicago Tribune reported that the mall had a “sinister feel,” with buses resembling “a herd of elephants,” said one architect, as they rumbled through the “wide, empty spaces” of the street. It wasn’t until cars returned and the sidewalks narrowed to about half their previous width that “retail commerce revived and a more affluent cohort of shoppers began to rediscover downtown,” says Governing.

While car-free pedestrian malls can in some cases succeed – the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, opened in the mid-1960s, comes to mind, but at one time it was considered a flop and a blight on the city – “pedestrian mall failure has been the norm in the United States,” according to Real Assets Adviser. Governing reports “the most thorough studies of the mall phenomenon have concluded that of the more than 200 of these creatures brought into existence,” only about 10% remained by the beginning of our current century.

Imagine those “creatures” expanded over an entire urban center.

If the market demands car-free cities, then we will, whether we like it or not, accept them for what they are. Some private developments attract buyers with their car-free design. That’s a fine private approach, but the car-free cities campaign is fronted by people who are so sure that their opinions are the correct ones that they’re willing to impose them by force. So it feels like an exercise in social engineering – which it almost certainly is.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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