A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. A Condensed Version Of This Op-Ed Was Originally Published April 30, 2018 in The Progressive.
For fans of innovation and disruption, the urban transportation scene in the U.S. has been a treat to watch in recent years. Wave after wave of new, smartphone-enabled mobility advances have spread across the country: carsharing and bikesharing, Uber and Lyft, Google Maps and Waze, and now dockless bikes and scooters.
These developments have not exactly rocked the foundation of our car culture: Car ownership is still trending upward, and most Americans still drive to work alone. But among some – especially among millennials, who will soon surpass baby boomers to become the largest American generation – there’s clearly an appetite for change.
And there’s every reason to expect changes to keep coming. One I’m especially looking forward to is the ascendance of electric bikes, which have the potential to significantly expand the reach and appeal of American bike-sharing systems.
But the impact of all these changes will be limited until we fix a fundamental problem: Our streets, roads, and highways are deadly. About forty thousand Americans die on them every year; that’s comparable to a jetliner carrying 150 people crashing every single weekday. Many more are horribly, painfully injured.
Sadly, the danger of our current system prevents many from getting out of their cars and trying other ways of moving around. Surveys suggest that some 40 to 60 percent of adults in U.S. cities are interested in biking, for example, but are too concerned about their safety to ride regularly.
The innovation we really need, then, is something that gets at that fundamental problem of danger. If we could just make our streets safer, we’d not only be saving lives; we’d also be inviting legions of drivers to get out of their cars and get on their feet or whatever else we can offer, from bikes to scooters, skateboards, roller skates, or hoverboards.
Here’s what we need to acknowledge: We already know exactly how to achieve that innovation, and it won’t require some new gizmo. We know it based on the well-documented experience of many cities that have significantly reduced deaths and injuries from car crashes. We just need to design and manage our streets in such a way that humans aren’t constantly exposed to the daily misjudgments of people driving cars.
The Netherlands is a useful example. In the 1970s, a popular movement against traffic deaths resulted in a national commitment to safer urban design. By 2011 traffic deaths in the Netherlands had dropped 81 percent. Other countries have achieved similar results, but the U.S. has yet to follow suit. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded, “By simply matching the road safety changes in a number of other unremarkable countries, the United States could prevent 20,000 traffic deaths per year.”
Safer street infrastructure doesn’t just prevent deaths; it also encourages more people to experience their streets on two wheels instead of four. In Seville, cycling increased 11-fold when the city installed a network of separated bike lanes in the early 2000s. London has also been investing in separated bike lanes, and as a result bikes now outnumber cars there during the morning rush hour.
Closer to home, New York City has made huge safety advances by adapting its streets to provide better protection against the misjudgments of drivers. Under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s Transportation Commissioner from 2007 to 2013, New York installed over 60 new plazas and over 35 miles of protected bike lanes. The number of daily cyclists boomed, growing 68 percent in just the four years from 2010 to 2014. And notably, the streets became safer for all users: traffic fatalities dropped to the lowest numbers ever recorded.
Reducing the fear of death will not, by itself, fill our streets with pedestrians and bicyclists. Walkability expert Jeff Speck has pointed out that it’s not enough for a walk to be safe; to be favored over other options, it also needs to be useful, comfortable, and interesting. The same is true of biking, scooting, or skating. Experiencing the world outside of a car can be great, but not if it requires going long distances through sunbaked parking lots to get anywhere.
The corridors that now carry much of our car traffic are seldom comfortable or interesting places, and both the customers and the destinations they serve are often spread out over long stretches. To make our corridors inviting for all, we need to allow greater concentrations of homes and business within human-scale distances. And just as importantly, we also need to provide pleasant pathways along the corridors. That requires shade, greenery, and buildings that are oriented toward people instead of cars. It also requires limiting the speed of car traffic to levels associated with traditional streets, rather than modern highways.
Allowing abundant housing close to businesses, and providing humane connections throughout, would markedly reduce the size of our collective carbon footprint. It would also allow us all to live more healthfully, and more happily: As journalist Charles Montgomery has noted, studies show that people using active transportation report feeling more joy, and less stress, rage, and fear, than people using other modes.
This approach would also allow seniors and people with disabilities to live more independently. The same pathways that accommodate bikes and stand-up scooters can also accommodate wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
As long as our streets remain dangerous and unappealing, advances like dockless bikes and scooters will remain peculiarities enjoyed by a hardy few. But if we rethink our streets and land use, we can create conditions that will draw vast numbers of people out to move from place to place without cars. That will not only ease traffic; it will do wonders for our own health, and for the health of the planet.
May is National Bike Month. To celebrate, Island Press is giving one lucky person a trip for two to Washington, DC in September to participate in the annual 50 States & 13 Colonies bike ride! Enter the sweepstakes below and visit islandpress.org/bike for more info!