By Darrell Owens — It's time to stop playing games with city governments who lack the willpower to make their streets safer and employ tactical approaches instead.
Americans are increasingly abandoning the church but if there’s one religion they cling onto it is the automobile. 29% of national emissions—the relative majority—come from the transportation sector. Of the 1.9 billion metric tons of annual transportation emissions, 58% of them come from cars. Cars rival gun homicides and suicides combined having killed 38,000 people just in the last year alone through traffic accidents. A leading cause of children deaths in the U.S. is a car crash and a leading cause of non-natural death for anyone under the age of 54 is also a traffic accident.
So why don’t American politicians do something? Because they’re cowards. Because they only listen to the loudest voters who email them incessantly about parking. They don’t view the transit rider or the cyclist as a true voter. Many of them haven’t even heard from a non-driving voter. Elected officials think there’s nothing that can be done about traffic violence and pollution beyond performative signs and electric cars.
This has not been the case in Paris. The mayor Anne Hidalgo has been radically removing cars from Paris’s main city center, converting streets for bikes only, pedestrianizing roads and turning boulevards into parks. Initially when the program was first proposed many scoffed at her like they do in the U.S. But now Paris’s anti-car program has been a huge success with broad popular support among Parisians enjoying their healthy city.
“Okay,” you may say. “This is America, we all drive here.”
At the start of the pandemic lockdown, Warren Logan, a city policy director on mobility in Oakland, decided to just shut several streets down to car traffic. No meetings. No consultants. No “phases”. He just went for it and it too became widely popular. It had a few growing pains of course. Academics and culture pundits were predictably quick to lash out against the lack of a so-called “community process” as they always do. Many motorists were irritated by not being able to exert their God-given right to drive on a piece of paved land. But the actual “Slow Streets” as they were called became immensely popular among neighbors.
When I walked on a Slow Street, I saw things I thought I’d never see in a city with a traffic violence problem as bad as Oakland’s. 15 elementary aged children riding on bicycles; seniors doing a morning walk in the middle of the street; disabled folks in wheelchairs strolling alongside parents pushing strollers. Many cities followed Oakland and shut down neighborhood streets. San Francisco went as far as shutting down a highway, which activists are now fighting to keep shut down.
We didn’t have to wait for density or competitive alternatives because most American cities were not built as car-centric places. Our cities were turned into car-centric places and they can be reverted. But they will NOT be reverted under the current planning regime of process. Cars are a lucrative transportation that through state policy was given total dominion over entire cities and they will not be dismantled through incrementalism from the planning department.
The reality is that the good intentioned refrain of “I would take transit if it were good” or “I would ride a bike if the infrastructure was safer” is not an invitation for carrots over sticks. We cannot afford to run empty buses every 5 minutes hoping a driver is seduced, or build more bike lanes if that same driver is complaining it’ll take away their parking space.
You’re going to have to fight to make driving more inconvenient than riding a bike or taking transit. Planners must make driving harder by adding walls, barriers, taking away lanes and prohibiting entire streets to cars. Politicians have framed physical obstacles like these and bumper-to-bumper traffic as making driving more dangerous because motorists fear collisions, but it’s their fear that actually makes driving safer.
That is why despite driving having declined by 13% in 2020 as shelter in place reduced commuting, traffic deaths increased by 7% over the previous year. Because when drivers weren’t slowed down in traffic and instead operated under the illusion that the streets were clear, they sped up, got reckless and killed people or themselves.
Next, not a single additional parking space should be built in your city. Drivers getting frustrated with the lack of parking is precisely why they often opt for transit. For example, in 2018 the Bay Area ranked #2 behind New York City in commuters who don’t drive, including 60% of San Francisco workers and residents. Why? Not just because transit is decent but because parking is really hard. Driving into downtown San Francisco carries a big risk. Not only are you stuck in soul crushing traffic on a single bridge, but once you get to San Francisco, parking is hard to find and expensive. If you don’t park perfectly the vigilant meter maids will quickly ticket your car. Parking enforcement, unlike the uselessness and abusiveness of traffic enforcement, is a highly valuable tool in dislodging people into sustainable transportation.
But elected officials as mentioned earlier are cowards, so this is where you come in. When development is proposed with any amount of parking, file lawsuits on environmental grounds. Use tactical urbanism as well. Organize with your neighbors to shut down your streets on weekends, as a starter. Just do it, don’t ask for permits. Once it’s done and you’ve ignored the initial blowback from motorists who mostly don’t live in your neighborhood anyways, your neighbors will love it. Residents will defend it and that’s what your city council will have to see in order to make it permanent. Chris Hayes recently admitted this on MSNBC shortly after buying an electric bicycle: “You take cars away from any street and it becomes a party.”
It’s time for tactical urbanism to become widespread. Take matters into your own hands. Sick of cars rampaging down your street? Block the street off on Sunday and call it a block party every week. Then use that as a beachhead to shut down your street on even more days.
You see a bus stop without a bench? Go to Home Depot and put down a bench.
You see a dangerous, unprotected bike lane? Get something like a bollard or planter box, the heavier the better, and put in barriers yourself.
Someone gets killed on a dangerous street and the city council does nothing? Screw it, block the whole street off with heavy barriers or protest with a banner tied up on both sides of the intersection.
Form broad coalitions, starting with your neighbors and friends, especially those who can finance it. Above all, keep the focus on cars and not motorists. Vehicular violence is a systemic problem, not an individual driver behavior problem. People don’t choose to drive because it’s a better option, they choose to drive because all other alternatives are insufficient or non-existent. That’s not an individual’s personal preference. So we cannot exclusively try to seduce people out of their cars, rather you must make the car an untenable form of transportation.
I commend the work of climate activists shutting down streets and I give major applause to the work of activists in San Francisco fighting to keep the Great Highway for the people. We have a lot of work to do to reverse decades of fossil fuel and car domination so don’t wait.