[This article has been published in Spanish in Planeta Futuro - El País, on the occasion of the Car-Free Day]
Most of us take moving around for granted. We readily assume that governments will plan and build so that we can get to work, take our kids to school, and have access to shopping and recreation activities.
Many cities are no longer designed for humans but for cars, with people being relegated to the margins
Indeed mobility is at the heart of most cities, the highways, streets and passageways literally serving as the veins and arteries that sustain city life as we know it. But what if this mobility turns out to be bad for us? What if the fundamentals of the modern mobility model that prioritize individual motorized transport - based on time and distance travelled, getting from point A to point B quickly- ends up producing a toxic combination that chokes the city´s heart with pollution, traffic and stress?
Photo by Picseli on Unsplash. Creative Commons.
Human beings were designed to walk, and for much of our history, our settlements were built on a scale that made them largely walkable. Population shifts, industrialization and urban growth have transformed this landscape, creating new demands on how we move. People suddenly needed to go not only farther, but also go farther faster. Since necessity is the mother of invention, new, faster modes of transport were created, and planning responded by not only accommodating, but by making car-based transport a priority in urban design. The disproportionate allocation of public space for motorized vehicle use might suggest that many cities are no longer designed for humans but for cars, with people being relegated to the margins.
The trends in urban population and density means that using individual cars for routine trips within a city no longer makes sense
Planning for cars of course is needed, however, as both populations and the number of vehicles grow, anyone familiar with rush hour in most cities can see that the end result is not improved mobility. Evidence about the relatively short distance of most car trips within cities, the very small amount of time cars are actually used versus being parked and the high cost of private vehicles, makes our reliance on and prioritization of car-based mobility in cities seem even more paradoxical. Simply put, the trends in urban population and density means that using individual cars for routine trips within a city no longer makes sense.
Photo by Sanetwo Tnmc on Unsplash. Creative Commons.
Individual car-based mobility is not only bad for cities, it is bad for us. According to WHO statistics from 2015, traffic accidents are the only non disease to be ranked within the top 10 causes of global mortality. Beyond injuries and death due to accidents, cars are a direct and main source of pollution. Air pollution affects not only our respiratory system, but our cardiovascular and neurological and even reproductive functions as well. Noise pollution is less well known, but a recent study showed that noise´s contribution to poor health outcomes can be as important as air pollution. The magnitude of this problem requires some serious rethinking of the way we move about. Fortunately, we already have many of the key strategies at hand, and they have a proven track record.
Traffic accidents are the only non disease to be ranked within the top 10 causes of global mortality
Transport infrastructure that focuses on moving people and goods from one place to another is a very narrow way to think about mobility, and limits not only our options for getting around, but the potential benefits. What if we could broaden this vision, and cities could design for mobility that could also help people be happier and healthier as they moved around? Mobility could provide opportunities for social interaction, routine exercise, and closer contact with their surroundings - all factors that are linked to increased happiness and wellbeing. For example, this research study shows that people that bike and walk to work are more likely to enjoy their trips than those who drive. Lifestyles that include regular exercise, make people feel happier and healthier, so why wouldn’t we want cities that are designed to help us move around in a safe an active way?
On car-free days in Cochabamba, Bolivia, air pollution falls by 60-70%. The event has become so popular, that it has now been expanded nationwide. People benefit from better air quality, but also exercise, social activities, and something as vital as the chance to discover and connect with their city’s neighborhoods. In Barcelona, Spain, during metro strikes, air pollution caused by NO increases by up to 48%, as car trips replaced those of public transport. Indeed, efficient and accessible public transport is another demonstrated way to reduce traffic congestion and move large amounts of people, while usually including some physical activity. In addition to these strategies, innovations in electric bicycles and car and bicycle sharing schemes are opening new possibilities for combining the advantages of motorized vehicles with those of collective and active transport. Although careful attention to should paid to their implementation to maximize the benefits and minimize risks.
It is time to decide whether we want to be building places and spaces that are for us or for our car
At the heart of the matter is that more of us will be living in cities than any time in previous history. It is time to decide whether we want to be building places and spaces that are for us or for our cars.
Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative