Greg Shill: Americans shouldn’t have to drive, but the law insists on it
In part because of these planning choices, every year since World War II more than 30,000 people have died on American roads. In a grim irony, last year’s plunge in traffic congestion turned streets into deadly speedways, causing 42,000 people to lose their life in a motor-vehicle crash—the highest level in 13 years and the largest one-year increase in nearly a century.
Especially in cities, the most effective way to prevent these dangers is through roadway redesigns that reduce car speeding and promote other ways of getting around. Instead, local governments and tech companies alike are counting on smarter cars to miraculously reduce traffic congestion and roadside casualties. For some time, 2020 had been hyped as the year of driverless cars, expected to usher in a new era of safe, robotically enabled mobility. But that promise remains an elusive fantasy in 2021, and Americans can’t pin our hopes on smarter cars to reverse the problems caused by their internal-combustion ancestors. When the pandemic finally eases, many cities will be left with battered transit systems, a renewed influx of traditional cars, and the same roadways—an outcome that few, if any, U.S. cities are doing enough to forestall.
Derek Thompson: Superstar cities are in trouble
The Biden administration can help to some degree, and it is saying the right things. “You should not have to own a car to prosper in this country,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted last month, “no matter what kind of community you’re living in.” President Joe Biden recently unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would double federal spending on public transportation systems in cities, to $85 billion, and devote another $20 billion to improving roadway safety. It also includes $20 billion to undo the damage highways have inflicted on cities, particularly in Black neighborhoods.
Biden and Buttigieg can do another major service for cities: fix the federal government’s arcane, outdated, absurdly car-centric yet hugely influential street-design manual, which state and local transportation planners use to make a host of decisions—how wide roadway lanes should be, how bike lanes should be marked, where to install crosswalks and traffic signals. Currently under revision, the guide (with the aptly cumbersome name “Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices”) focuses far more on maintaining car traffic flow than on facilitating transit or assisting pedestrians and cyclists, and it is silent on the kind of mixed-use streets that emerged during the pandemic.
Making pandemic-era bike lanes and outdoor-dining areas permanent fixtures should not require a global calamity, but cities outside the United States have taken far better advantage of the opportunity than their American counterparts. Having converted the Rue de Rivoli into a car-free corridor during the height of the pandemic, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo this year announced a $300 million plan to remake the fabled Champs-Élysées into an “extraordinary garden” of pedestrian-focused space, and reclaim half of the city’s 140,000 parking spaces.
To serve their residents well, U.S. cities can’t just return to the pre-pandemic norm. They need to come back more resilient, more sustainable, more economically connected, and more equitable. Reclaiming city streets from the domination of cars is never easy, but it will never be easier than it is right now.