Three Ways to Make your City Less Car-Centric


If you’re a city planner or municipal bureaucrat, you may despair that your beloved city’s logjam traffic will never dwindle.  You may fear your only recourse is to hold your nose and plan that highway lane expansion project.  But wait!  Every city can reduce its citizens’ dependence upon privately-owned vehicles, and under your progressive watch, yours can, too.  Rather than sending out an RFP for a bike share or hiking the local sales tax on new vehicle sales (although that’s not a bad place to aim!), we suggest you pluck these relatively low-hanging fruit first:

Solution 1:  Ensure zoning laws are friendly to mixed-use
In many cities, zoning laws are hostile to adding commercial into primarily residential areas.  Although the NIMBYs will come out and swear that new pool hall will only cause trouble in the neighborhood (kidding), neighbors already living in mostly residential areas should welcome the idea of businesses opening on their block.  Foot traffic, some noise, and artificial lighting will all increase, yes, but this is because there’ll be more people in the neighborhood regularly, contributing to safety.  After commuting to and from work, Americans are most likely to use their personal vehicles for errands:  shopping, appointments, and if they’re parents, shuttling children to their own obligations.  Shifting neighborhoods to be mixed-use bring the groceries, pharmacies, dentists, daycare centers, and dry cleaners to where the people live, rather than forcing the people to leave their immediate neighborhoods to tend to their needs.  This will result in fewer vehicles miles traveled (VMT) which can only result in fewer accidents by probability. Additionally, the increased sociability of the neighborhood will improve the well-being of all, but especially the elderly or disabled.

Solution 2:  Ensure parking is priced with your goals in mind
Plentiful, easy-access, and/or cheap parking in commercial areas encourages driving.  Once you’ve nudged those zoning laws into a more conducive place and you have several “downtowns” starting to take shape, don’t rush to build a $10/day public parking garage.  Chances are good that many of the businesses will be patronized by mostly local traffic, so consider instead updating your parking meters on-street and ensure you’re charging sufficiently for short time spans to keep turnover high.  People will walk to their errands, but only if…

Solution 3:  Maintain your sidewalks
…sidewalks are accessible.  Sidewalk maintenance surely has a place in every city’s budget, but consider these images from the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, Texas:

All these sidewalks are within a five-minute walk of multiple businesses (dry cleaner, a couple coffeeshops, barbershop, and many more), and there’s a small college campus (with a bike sharing hub) two blocks away from these images.  There’s also a bus route along Alabama Avenue, where half of these images were taken.  Pedestrians DO traverse these sidewalks, but only the able-bodied kind, and even those have difficulty.  My preschool aged son trips about every 50 feet, and anyone utilizing ambulation assistance (wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, strollers, etc) would have a difficult if not impossible time.

Consider how your city measures up:  do you think its policies encourage or discourage personal vehicle driving?

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