To Create a Truly Great City, We Have to Ban the Car
New York City is at the forefront of breaking car dominance in America. But internationally, it’s bringing up the rear.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has always billed himself as a progressive. Back in February, in his State of the City address, he boldly announced that he’d transform this town of $1-million studio apartments and $18 coffees into “the fairest big city in the world.” But here’s the thing:
You can’t have a truly fair city unless you start beating back all the cars.
“Nonsense!” you might say. “Denying me the unfettered use of my Freedom Machine is the very antithesis of fairness!” Well, sure, it may seem unfair to you and your SUV—especially when you’re looking for a parking space. But letting people in private vehicles run roughshod over the city causes crushing traffic jams, delays public transit, pollutes the air, creates noise, wastes public resources, and takes up an obscene amount of space in a city that doesn’t have enough of it. Oh, and there’s also all the people these automobiles kill.
To de Blasio’s credit, under his administration the city has continued to add bike lanes, even defying certain cyclist-hating community boards when necessary. The city has also been experimenting with dockless bike share, as well as with dedicated car-share parking spots. By American standards, we’ve done a lot to provide and promote alternatives to car ownership. In fact, you could even go so far as to say that in this country, we’re on the very forefront of enacting bold car-free policy.
So does that mean we’re doing an excellent job when it comes to cutting back on cars? Sadly, no. We’re great at a lot of stuff here in New York (making bagels and complaining about stuff both come to mind), but having the most progressive transit policy in the U.S. is like having the best bagels in Topeka: the competition is not exactly cutthroat. Then there’s climate change. Shit’s getting real out there and cars are a large part of the problem:
Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil as people around the world not only buy more cars but also drive them farther than in the past—more than offsetting any gains from the spread of electric vehicles.
Indeed, when you see what other cities in other countries are up to, you see that New York City doesn’t even come close to real bike-centric progress. Here are just a few examples:
In Manhattan, cars with Jersey plates choke the streets and throngs of pedestrians are so starved for sidewalk space they spill over into the bike lanes. In Paris (where car trips have dropped by nearly half since 1990), Mayor Anne Hildago is hacking away at car dominance by pedestrianizing swaths of the city, banning cars on the first Sunday of every month, and announcing plans to rid the entire city of gasoline-powered cars by 2030. So how would Parisiens get around in this socialist Hemi-free hellscape if she gets her way? Why, on bikes, scooters—and free public transit, of course.
Over 60 percent of Copenhageners commute by bike. In New York, the fancy new protected bike lane you’re riding on will eventually just stop abruptly, leaving you to slug it out with truck traffic. In Copenhagen, they’ve got bike highways connecting the suburbs to the city. Mayor Frank Jensen wants to ban diesel cars from entering the city by 2019; Denmark is moving to eventually phase out the sale of fossil fuel cars entirely. They’ve even got footrests for cyclists in Copenhagen, for chrissakes! Here, the closest you’ll get to that kind of amenity is perching yourself on the running board of a Cadillac Escalade at a red light.
Madrid (and Beyond)
Madrid cut traffic by over 30 percent in some parts of the city by setting tough new vehicle emissions standards. Elsewhere in Spain, Seville turned itself into a cycling city in four years—you know, by deciding to do it. And the city of Pontreveda has virtually banned cars entirely after realizing the following:
“How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” asks César Mosquera, the city’s head of infrastructures. “How can it be that private property—the car—occupies the public space?”
Meanwhile, in America we call not being able to use public outdoor space “freedom.”
New Yorkers suffer from a bad case of exceptionalism; “This isn’t [insert lesser city here]!,” we cry whenever someone proposes a new idea. “That shit ain’t gonna fly in this town.” And yes, some of these other cities are somewhat diminutive compared to our mighty metropolis of over eight million people. But you can’t say that about London, a fellow global power that’s equally huge in population and cultural and commercial clout. Sure, they’ve got their car-addled road ragers just like we do, but they’ve also got cycling superhighways, motor-vehicle-congestion pricing, and soon, an ultra-low emission zone. Here in New York, the best we’ve come up with so far is “Gridlock Alert Days,” which is basically a handful of days a year we politely ask people not to drive.
In New York City, space is at a premium, and this is some of the most expensive real estate in the country—yet we give away much of our curb space for private vehicle storage. This glut of cars has a seriously negative impact on our quality of life. Yet if I owned fifteen cars I could park them all out on the street for free, and while some might say I was simply exercising my rights as an American, what it really makes me is an asshole. But in Tokyo (another gigantic global power city), you can’t even buy a car without showing proof that you’ve secured a parking space for it—and you can’t fake it either, because overnight parking is illegal.
So basically, our international peers have had it up to their unshaven armpits with cars, and they’re doing something about it. Meanwhile, back in New York City, our mayor wouldn’t even move the needle on the International Progressive-O-Meter. “I just don’t like the idea, personally,” he recently said of e-bikes and e-scooters. He’s also resisted congestion pricing on the basis that it’s a “regressive tax” on low-income New Yorkers, even though it’s the wealthy who are driving into the proposed congestion pricing zone and even though it would help fund the transit system on which lower income New Yorkers (and really all New Yorkers) depend.
As for climate change, de Blasio, eager to show the world that he was ready to help lead the fight, kicked off 2018 by announcing that the city would sue the big oil companies—a case that has since been dismissed. So much for that. He also continues to travel from Manhattan to Brooklyn via SUV motorcade in order to work out on a stationary bicycle.
For better or for worse, some may think New York City is an aberration in this land of pickup trucks and firearms, but it doesn’t get much more American than that.