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Want Fewer Cars in Cities? Take Baby Steps.

Automobiles hurt the quality of urban life, but radical change is politically difficult.

New York City introduced a carshare pilot in several neighborhoods to encourage residents to give up their cars.
Cars and cities don’t mix. But relinquishing car ownership has proven hard for some. I witnessed this firsthand while staying recently in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, an urban version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood where sidewalks are teeming with parents pushing strollers and kids riding scooters or walking home from one of the many nearby public schools. 

Yet the neighborhood is overwhelmingly designed for cars. On-street parking and traffic lanes consume much of the space. Cars dominate other supposedly pedestrian-oriented parts of New York City, too, from the Holland Tunnel backlogs that spill into Lower Manhattan to the high-speed roads cutting through Midtown. 

Of course, this problem is hardly new. In 1961, the Goodman brothers -- Percival, an architect and urban theorist, and Paul, a writer and sociologist -- wrote an essay calling for a ban on all privately owned cars in New York City. Many of the auto-related externalities they described still exist; in fact, the city has made little progress on the issue. They called for improving public transit, but that and many of the suggested fixes since, such as congestion pricing or raising bridge tolls or parking fees, have proven politically difficult. 

Assuming that remains the case, reducing New York City’s car dependency will depend on more incremental, localized measures. This includes encouraging behavioral shifts for those who live in the city’s residential neighborhoods and fuel the problem by owning cars. 

Part of Park Slope’s appeal is that residents don’t, theoretically, need to own a car. It has good transit connections and incredible retail offerings within walking distance. Still, 48 percent of residents there and in nearby neighborhoods own cars, which is why parking consumes so much space. This keeps rights-of-way from being used for other things that would make the neighborhood safer and more pleasant. 

Imagine, for example, if parking spaces were removed and the sidewalks widened. Park Slope residents would have shorter intersection crossings, more room to push their strollers and bigger de facto “front yards” for their kids to play in. If on-street parking were removed from main retail thoroughfares like Seventh Avenue, that would create drop-off space for delivery trucks and mitigate the scourge of double-parking that leads to horns blaring and traffic backups. Or, instead of parking, medians could be added that feature landscaping, public art or midway standing points for crossing pedestrians. 

In fact, there are many improvements to Park Slope’s streets that every resident could enjoy if a minority of them weren’t granted free, 24/7 car storage. Mayor Bill de Blasio faced this challenge head-on last June when his administration introduced a carshare pilot in Park Slope and other neighborhoods. He removed 100 on-street parking spots to make room for vehicles from carshare companies such as Zipcar. His hope is that Park Slope residents will forgo car ownership -- which in New York City is arguably more burdensome than convenient -- if they’re near a network of on-demand rentals. 

Ridesharing could also help reduce car ownership. Therein lies the irony of the city’s car situation: The growth of sharing industries may put more vehicles on the street. Ultimately, though, relinquishing car ownership is something people will need to accept at an individual level if they want more livable neighborhoods.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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