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Alternative Culture Articles

September 17, 2000

Car Free!
by Royce Carlson

September 21 is World Car-Free Day. Why? Itís not because gas prices are high. Itís because the automobile has taken over the world. Cities are designed for cars, not people, and air pollution is increasing in nearly all major cities around the world. What would it be like if there were less cars, roads and parking lots?

Thatís what World Car-Free Day is about. It gives us a chance to see how quiet it can be and how clean the air could be and how much safer the world would be for pedestrians and cyclists. Itís a day to live without your car and think about how we can change things to make our cities more people-friendly.

Just how bad has it gotten? Well, for one thing, statistics show that in the U.S. more people have been killed in auto accidents than in all the wars combined.

About 42,000 people die in the U.S. each year from car crashes and an additional 30,000 Americans die from air pollution-related illnesses. Another problem is the amount of space taken up by roads and parking lots. In Los Angeles, over 65% of the land is covered by them. Very little is left for trees, parks, or nature of any kind which is also bad for the air since trees help to keep our air clean.

Cities have sprawled to enormous size, not because of population growth, but because of cars. People in America want big lots in rural areas farther and farther from the centers of cities. Some of the reasons they want these lots are because they want to get away from the noise, traffic congestion, and air pollution of city centers. Itís cars that create the problem and they are using cars to try to get away from the problem. That obviously wonít work.

In addition, the addiction to accumulating stuff means people want bigger houses on bigger lots with bigger garages to put bigger cars in. Cars are being driven more than ever before. In the 50ís and 60ís about 60% of children walked or bicycled to school. In 1998 that number had dwindled to 10%. There are more cars registered in the U.S. than there are licensed drivers. Average fuel economy has decreased during the last 12 years from a peak of about 26 mpg in 1988 to 23.8 mpg in 1999. The U.S. government has done nothing to ensure that auto manufacturers improve fuel economy in several years. With fuel prices rising there is increasing pressure on government to remove pollution control regulations thereby guaranteeing that pollution will increase.

What is to be done about it? The oil and auto industries want us to believe that the whole solution lies in the production of more efficient cars. The larger problem is cars themselves. Regardless of how efficient they get they still take up a lot of space, serve to isolate people from each other and the environment and use up resources. Yes, increases in efficiency and possible alternative fuels will help our pollution situation but it is only part of the problem. Attention needs to be given to rethinking the way we live and re-designing cities for people more than for cars.

Some ideas for improving street design include:

    • Limited neighborhood size that includes schools, parks and small commercial districts.
    • Sidewalks and curbs on both sides of streets.
    • Street furniture such as benches, trash cans, planters, kiosks and mini-parks.
    • Well marked bike lanes and bike racks.
    • Resolution of design conflicts in favor of non-vehicular users.

The ideas above are only a few that, if applied, would promote walking or cycling instead of driving. More ideas are included in a book called "Street Design Guidelines for Healthy Neighborhoods" from the Center for Livable Communities.

We need to begin now to think in a different way about our transportation problems. The upcoming World Car-free Day is a chance to try walking or cycling for a change and to think about how we can live a more earth and people friendly existence. So donít get in your car on September 21 and enjoy the slower pace and feel, smell, and touch the world around you instead of whizzing by it in your car.

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Thanks!

Royce Carlson