Updated: Oct 23, 2021
By Hamilton Steimer
American communities are reliant on cars for almost every activity. With almost 280 million registered vehicles in the country, cars have broadened our traveling options, influenced where we can live, and shaped our communities. Although cars have produced numerous benefits, their growing use contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. With emissions from the electric power sector falling, the transportation sector represents the next frontier for America in the fight against climate change, as it now contributes to 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions.
There is a growing trend of progressive cities exploring how they can reduce their emissions, particularly from the transportation sector, while producing co-benefits such as air quality improvements, economic stimulus, and revitalized communities. In the past, poor transportation and urban planning policies have encouraged urban sprawl and have seemingly locked in cars as a core part of our way of life. Some cities are trying to change this narrative, taking back their cities from cars while promoting a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. If America wants to be a climate leader, it is time we reconsider our reliance on cars.
Zack Accuardi, a transportation technical strategist with the Natural Resource Defense Council, recently wrote about Saint Paul’s two new pieces of legislation that will transform the city’s urban landscape and shift the city towards low-carbon transportation options. Joining the growing list of progressive cities actively planning for a greener future, Saint Paul eliminated off-street parking minimums and introduced a new zoning ordinance that prioritizes sustainable transportation options in new development projects. Together, these actions will discourage single-occupancy vehicles, promote mass transit options, and encourage urban densification.
The parking minimum ban and new zoning ordinance came out of a comprehensive study by the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, which was supported by the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. Driving accounts for 31% of emissions in Saint Paul, and parking minimums enables more driving by making it more convenient and pushing destinations further apart. Saint Paul’s policy changes will help the city achieve its emissions reduction goals within its 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which was passed last year.
Parking minimums impact urban development because developers are typically required to provide more parking spaces than residential units, which increases development costs and encourages urban sprawl. As cities and neighborhoods become bigger and more spread out, enabled in thanks to cars providing quick modes of transport, streets become less safe, natural habitat is lost, and areas are no longer walkable. 36% of Saint Paul’s land area is dedicated to moving or storing vehicles, and all these roads and parking lots contribute to the urban heat island effect.
By eliminating parking minimums and updating the city’s zoning ordinance, Saint Paul may achieve what Mr. Accuardi calls a “virtuous cycle” of reducing demand for cars and encouraging new infrastructure development not oriented around cars. Without parking minimums, drivers are less incentivized to drive as parking spots are not guaranteed. Eliminated parking minimums also promote affordable housing since developers no longer have to build costly parking spaces that raise rents and can instead build additional housing units. The updated zoning ordinance, which requires developers to invest in amenities that promote walking, biking, and public transit for residents, will increase access to transit options that are healthier and more sustainable without negatively impacting residents’ wallets or their way of life.
While the long-term impacts of these new policy changes remain to be seen, equitable implementation of this strategy will hopefully produce a Saint Paul that is more sustainable, affordable, and connected.
Other leading cities around the world
Amsterdam - Investing in Cycling
Characterized by mild weather and relatively flat terrain, the Netherlands is perfect for cycling and actually has more bikes than people. Amsterdam is one of the cycling capitals of the world and has almost a million bikes within the city. Although cycling has long been popular, Amsterdam chose to prioritize the growth of cycling over cars in the 1970s due to public pressure in response to the high number of traffic casualties. Seen as safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly, cycling has remained immensely popular ever since, and the city has invested in accommodating the growing bike ridership.
Amsterdam has nearly 320 miles of dedicated bike lanes within the city, and it continues to add new bike infrastructure and bike-friendly policies. The city is still making paths wider, smoother, and more recognizable, and it is adding new routes and connecting paths to eliminate bottlenecks. Amsterdam has also prioritized bikes and trams within the historic city center with cars prohibited in some areas and reduced car speeds in others. Bikes have become so popular, that the city has creatively constructed underground bike parking garages in which riders can store their bikes.
Although Amsterdam’s investment in bike infrastructure is nothing new, it demonstrates to the world the best practices in creating a safe cycling environment, and it serves as a model for others looking to accelerate cycling and more sustainable transportation methods.
Paris - Transforming into a 15-Minute City
In her 2020 re-election campaign, Anne Hidalgo, the current mayor of Paris, proposed transforming the city into the “ville du quart d’heure” – the quarter-hour city. Her fascination with making Paris into a 15-minute city came from Paris-based professor Dr. Carlos Moreno who has championed transforming cities into urban landscapes in which people can meet their needs and desires within 15 minutes of their homes.
This framework is centered on the principles of proximity, diversity, density, and ubiquity, and aims to have cities fulfill six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying. As further explained in the Public Square online journal, cities like Paris which were built prior to the proliferation of cars are structured more densely and better able to become a 15-minute city. If successfully implemented, 15-minute cities will become more socioeconomically equitable (people don’t need a car to meet their needs), more sustainable (fewer emissions from cars and transit), and healthier (more walking and cycling).
Mayor Hidalgo is already taking action with plans in place to close off parts of the city to cars, creating additional bike lanes and converting parking spaces into green spaces. If her vision is successful, other cities around the world can make note of best practices and attempt their own implementation of this new urbanization concept.
New York City - Establishing Congestion Charges
Joining notable cities like London and Stockholm, New York City plans to soon implement its congestion surcharge system within the city to reduce traffic congestion and produce environmental benefits. Under this system, vehicles entering south under Manhattan’s 60th Street would be subject to a surcharge on top of existing tolls, potentially adding $10-15 to trip costs depending on who is driving and when and where the trip takes place.
The Metropolitan Transity Authority hopes the new congestion charge system will raise at least $1 billion annually which must be directed towards improving exiting mass transit infrastructure and adding new transit options. Under the program, 80% of revenues will be directed to NYC subways which are in much need of repair.
Unfortunately, the program, which was expected to begin this year, is delayed until at least 2023 due to a required environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In the meantime, the city should learn from the mistakes of other cities, like London exempting rideshare programs and taxis, and consider how to ensure its congestion charge system achieves its goals in raising funds for mass transit, reducing traffic congestion, and producing environmental benefits.
Getting rid of cars will not be easy
Many cities in the US and abroad are considering strategies to reduce traffic congestion and redefine their urban landscape. Their strategies will improve air quality and reduce emissions if implemented properly, and they will hopefully transform communities into healthier and more enjoyable places to live.
Unfortunately, many of our cities and communities have developed around our dependence on cars for almost everything. American cities and suburbs, unlike those in Europe, grew in coordination with the growth of car ownership during the 20th century. However, we now need to switch to a new paradigm, one in which cars are not as integral to our everyday way of life, especially if we hope to achieve our climate goals. Reversing the tide will prove challenging, but if policy makers can communicate benefits and reduce negative side-effects, they can certainly achieve success.