By Laura de Boer
What makes a city great to live in? Is it the size? The people? Or the number of pubs, clubs, and bars there are for partying? While these things are undoubtedly important, they are not what makes a city truly stand out. Surprisingly, what really turns a place to live into one where you never want to leave is infrastructure. The way we are connected to the world around us does not exist through sheer coincidence, but it is thought out and designed to serve a particular purpose. In this article, Laura de Boer (cohort 2021/2023, Uppsala/Olomouc) will provide some concrete examples (no pun intended) of how road design influences our day-to-day life and to lead you on the path (pun very much intended) to urban planning enthusiasm. Through a concise history of 20th century urban planning in both North America and Europe, this article will provide insight into how they dealt with the rise of the car as the preferred mode of transportation for many. Therefore, think of this article as a simple introduction into understanding the role of urban planning in the structuring of society. But before we do that, let’s take a look at what the term ‘urban planning’ actually entails.
According to the Mcgill School of Urban Planning, urban planning can be described as: “a technical and political process concerned with the welfare of people, control of the use of land, design of the urban environment including transportation and communication networks, and protection and enhancement of the natural environment”. In other words, planners have to deal with a lot of different elements as they go on to shape our cities. Their job is more than simply designing roads or assigning the location for a shopping mall, they must consider how these things might affect the economic development of an area or how it changes the way people live their lives. And not unimportant, urban planners must also take the natural environment into account. Something that might sound contradictory for a profession which can involve dealing with a lot of motorised traffic and asphalt. But, as we shall see in this article, there are a lot of different ways cities can be designed and there are a lot of different priorities urban planners (and not to mention the local politicians that fund them) can make. So, what happens when private vehicles – in this article often simply referred to as ‘cars’- take priority over everything else?
How urban planning causes car-dependency in North America
For some of the most atrocious instances of urban infrastructure, we need to travel to North America and examine their adoration for car-dependent suburbia. The suburbs of America have a long history that is to some extent tied to racial segregation. In his book Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth T. Jackson describes how the New Deal of the 1930s promoted race segregation through redlining (the act of colour-coding neighbourhoods to the disadvantage of ethnic minorities) which led to white flight (the gradual migration of white middle-class families out of the cities and into the suburbs). In addition, during the post-war era the idea of the American Dream became affiliated with life in the suburbs. The 1950s and 60s were a period of large economic growth in which the average American household could afford much more than the generations before them. Success and prosperity became measured by the location of your house, the greenness of your lawn and, most importantly for our story about infrastructure, the size of your car.
American suburbs built since the 1960s are not built for people. They are built for cars. It became a top priority that cars could be driven from one place to the next with as little hold-up as possible. Highways were sometimes even purposefully built to cut through Black neighbourhoods in an attempt to destroy the community in the name of progress and development. The result of suburban development was that cities sprawled over a much larger area. In addition, through the process of zoning, residential areas of the suburbs became entirely detached from commercial areas. The nearest shopping centre might be several miles away and impossible to get to any other way than by car. If you would dare to walk to the store you would find that footpaths are few and far between. Public transport is almost non-existent due to the heavy subsidizing of car traffic that makes it impossible to compete with. And cycling might as well be a death sentence. American suburbs became a hostile – and ultimately a very dangerous – environment for anybody who was not protected by a petrol-driven steel box on wheels.
It was urban planning that has ultimately caused this. By prioritizing car traffic above anything else urban planners created the suburban monstrosity. Of course, some people might very much enjoy living in the suburbs. If it is your dream to live in a large house with a yard that has plenty of room for your three kids, two dogs, and seven cats, then go for it. The main problem that I want to address here is that while suburbia can seem like an attractive alternative to living in the noisy and busy inner city, it forces you to live in a certain way. Because if you don’t have a car, you become stranded at your house with nowhere else to go. Suburbia is a desolate wasteland hidden behind a façade of idyllic family life.
The European Case
So, American-style urban planning has created a paradise for cars, where drivers can live out their heart’s desire of moving interrupted from point A to point B (as long as you discount the traffic lights, intersections, and all the other cars that continuously block your way). But things are done a little bit differently on this side of the Atlantic.
European cities are generally much less car-dependent than their American counterparts. This has partially to do with the fact that level of car-ownership in the US was significantly higher than in Europe during large parts of the previous century, giving the Americans a head start when it comes to building car-oriented cities and suburbs. But this only tells part of the story. Major American cities also predate the car but are still filled to the brim with hatchbacks, SUVs, and pickups. While European cities on the other hand, have had plenty of time to become more car-friendly if they had wanted to.
During the previous century, it was believed that Europeans would leave the downtown areas in droves similar to what happened in America. Therefore, facilitating car access would be crucial for the continued economic and commercial well-being of the city. For this reason, several plans had been drawn up by urban planners in an attempt to consider how European cities could be redesigned for the modern era. One example of this is Plan Voisin (1925) for central Paris, which included large traffic arteries and a regular, linear grid similar to that of American cities. Another instance is Plan Jokinen (1967), which opted for building a six-lane highway through the centre of Amsterdam. Not only would a canal have to be filled in, but certain working-class neighbourhoods also had to be destroyed, similar to what happened to black neighbourhoods in the US.
These plans luckily never happened, and Paris and Amsterdam have been saved from this car-infested nightmare, thanks to a variety of protests from citizens in the case of Amsterdam. But they demonstrate that car-centrality is not a sole American concept. In fact, contemporary Europe may not be as free from the car as you might expect. In London, 35 per cent of daily travel is done by car, and in Berlin, where car travel is the most popular form of transportation, this number is up to 37%. These numbers indicate that even in dense urban areas, people continue to use their car as long as it remains a viable option. Although public transport is much better in London and Berlin than in many cities in the US.
Furthermore, car use has been on the rise across Europe, especially in suburban and rural areas. Although it is important to note that there are large differences across countries, with Slovenia being the EU member state with the highest percentage of private car usage. But Europe has never gone as far as the US in planning their entire cities around cars, which has proven advantageous now that we know all the negative effects cars have on our safety, health, and environment.
How cars harm you
The car is an unsafe mode of transportation for anybody who is not driving it. And the more you build your city to accommodate cars, the more dangerous they become. This is what we can see in North America, where roads are long and straight with as few obstacles on the sides as possible. This type of road design promotes unsafe behaviour as it is aimed at making you drive faster, and speed is the most important factor that influences the severity of a traffic accident. But it is not the driver that is the most at risk; they are protected by airbags, seatbelts, and two tons of steel, the pedestrians and cyclists are the ones in danger. This creates even more incentive to use the car as your primary mode of transportation.
But roads can be designed in such a way that they create a safe environment for all users. Examples of this can be found in the UK, Sweden, and -most notably- the Netherlands. Apart from being the world’s most bicycle-friendly country, the Dutch have also developed the concept of ‘self-explaining roads’. These roads do not promote fast driving, they are aimed at making the driver more aware of their surroundings. This can be done by placing obstacles or by narrowing the road so that the driver subconsciously drives slower.
Of course, personal vehicles can still do more harm than cyclists or pedestrians simply by their speed and mass, even on safer roads. Therefore, banning cars from city centres altogether is not such a bad idea. In fact, after eradicating almost all cars from the city, Oslo reported zero pedestrian or cyclist deaths in 2019. This gives off a clear sign to the rest of the world. Prioritizing cars increases traffic fatality, whereas banning cars creates a safe environment for all.
However, there are less obvious ways in which cars can harm you. Research has shown that vehicle emissions degrade the air quality surrounding large roads. People who live close to these roads face higher health risks, due to longer exposure to air pollution. The fumes emitted from combustion engines are toxic and cause damage to our lungs and hearts.
Moreover, you may not realise it, but cars are also very large noise polluters. Everybody who lives in the city or near a road knows the continuous and monotone acoustics that accompanies vehicles. Maybe you are even hearing it right now without realizing it because we have become so used to it. But just because car noises are so normal, does not mean that they have become any less harmful. Long-term exposure to too much noise can cause higher blood pressure, anxiety, or memory loss. And according to the European Environment Agency, environmental noise is estimated to cause 12.000 premature deaths in the European territory.
Lastly, we should address the elephant in the room when it comes to car emissions: the environment. Because air and noise pollution does not only harm us as individuals, it is commonly known that it also harms our planet. In both the US and the EU, transportation is responsible for 30 per cent of all CO2 emissions. Therefore, incentivizing people to take alternative modes of transportation will have a drastic effect on the amount of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.
Of course, electric cars are a thing, and they are becoming more affordable with each passing year. I am certainly not against the idea electric cars, but I do not think that they are the only solution we should be going for. Because even though they might be better for the environment, electric cars are still more dangerous than cyclists, their tires still create noise, and they can still congest the roads and streets of cities. We need to think how our cities can become more liveable and pleasant environments for everyone, and the best way to do this is to rethink the role cars play in our lives. So, let’s design cities for people, not for cars.
Planning the cities of the future
What makes a city great? Well, a great city is one where you do not need a car the moment you set a foot out of your front door. A great city is one where you should not be afraid of crossing the street whenever you walk or cycle through the centre. A great city is not polluted by car emissions or engine noises. A city is great when it is not built to prioritize cars over the well-being of people.
So how do we achieve this? To start off, we need to rethink the role cars play in our everyday lives. I, like many others, got my driver’s license because it gave me a degree of freedom, the ability to go anywhere quickly and efficiently. This is the great appeal of cars and one that we cannot simply replace with traditional alternatives like public transportation or cycling. But for many who live in the city, owning a car can be completely unnecessary if you don’t need it for everyday commuting. It is time for us to realize that one less car on the road can make a difference as it will help make the city a more liveable space for everybody. And in the off-chance that you actually need a car for something, I recommend checking out what car-sharing services there are in your city. They are generally cheaper than owning a car that you rarely use, and often offer electric options.
But more important than our own relationship with the car, we also should rethink what place it has in our cities themselves. Through urban planning, it is possible to repel cars from the inner cities, or at least to discourage people from using them. Oslo is already on the right track by limiting cars in the inner-city, and Amsterdam has a variety of plans to make parts of the city car-free. And through creating infrastructure in which pedestrians and cyclists are given priority over vehicles we can improve our cities and general living environment. It is time to accept that the car does not belong in our cities or suburbs and that our life is better without it.
If you came this far…
If you managed to read this entire article about urban planning and are somehow still not bored, I can offer some recommendations so you can watch/read more about city design, infrastructure, and car use. The inspiration for this article (and many of the ideas) came from Not Just Bikes on YouTube. It does an amazing job of explaining what defines good city design in an entertaining way.
In addition, City Beautiful on YouTube is great if you want to know more about city design from an American point of view. If you prefer to read up on this topic rather than watch people on the internet, you might be interested in Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in our Lives by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett. If you are more interested in the financial side of things, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity by Charles L. Marohn gives insight into how car-centrality is making American cities go broke.