Since at least the mid-twentieth century, the paradigm of the city has been based on the idea of many cars driving on the streets. With a marketing push, the latter was a synonym for individual freedom and an important social card. How many salespeople and representatives were judged on the type of car they showed up in? Thus, the vehicle became part of the North American and European identity. Moreover, it has inspired other countries such as China, which, as its middle class grew, began to see large fleets on the roads. With the pollution that accompanied the multiplication of machines burning fossil fuels...
Because here's the thing, despite the symbol of freedom, the car has a huge ecological impact. Annually, millions of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere with the climatic repercussions that we can already experience. To continue with this vision leads us straight to the catastrophe. Then came covid-19.
A paradigm shift
Suddenly, the pandemic forced people to confine themselves to avoid the spread of the virus. Many cities became, for a few weeks and months, ghostly places. Travel by car was rare. Nevertheless, people had to walk and socialize in safety. The outdoors was ideal, as it was easier to be distant and still be able to communicate. Health crises, moreover, as this UQAM article reminds us, have often been the spark plugs for changes in urban planning.
In fact, experts do believe that the coronavirus that emerged in 2019 could lead to more walkable cities.Metropolises have indeed begun adding exclusion zones in downtowns and elsewhere where cars no longer belong. A way to allow citizens to get out of their homes, exercise, frequent local shops and reduce air pollution. Especially since health experts noted that covid-19 hit those living in areas with poor air quality much harder.
It should not be assumed that only the pandemic led to this type of initiative. Already cities around the world had begun to set aside areas solely for pedestrians and cyclists. In Asia, Europe, South and North America and Africa, urban areas are busy temporarily or permanently banning cars. The idea is to designa "quarter-hour" city. That is, urban planning would work more to ensure that citizens can easily access services for their basic needs within 15 minutes of their homes, whether on foot or by bike. Anne Hidalgo has been pushing this idea in Paris since 2014. Melbourne and Detroit have also been thinking about 20-minute cities. These transformations are possible and, more importantly, inevitable.
The achievable utopia
Engineers at the University College London looked at the viability of the city in 2021 continuing the car-centric approach. The mathematical models all showed that this would not be possible. Both the economic and human costs would prove impossible to sustain. A calculation that did not even take into account the environmental side. In short, cities will have no choice but to become more and more pedestrianized to subsist.
Thus, this utopian vision of the car-free city would be feasible. It would be the city's future approach that relies on proximity, physical activity, community, and so on. As much health services, as markets or school environments would be quickly accessible for all citizens on foot, by bike or by public transportation. Except thatwhile the enthusiasm is there among many observers, there are still pockets of resistance.
Already, using one's car is a habit that is not easy to break. One would have to fight decades of a paradigm advocating individual freedom, social status, etc. Even the media participate in the propagation of this ideology. For example, in Montreal, just look at the Quebec media coverage which focuses more on the negative aspects of pedestrian environments than on the successes. And if the project seems easier to implement in an urban agglomeration, it can be much more complicated in a suburb where the car is essential to get to the various services that are far away and concentrated in the shopping centers. Nonetheless, many believe that here too, they would be enough with urban planning changes promoting walking and other means than the car to get around.
In fact, smaller cities are beginning to exclude cars from their downtowns. A vehicle-free future in daily life is conceivable and even desirable so that quality of life improves. This means thinking about a transition that makes room for shared spaces, green environments, bike lanes, and walkable streets. It's not easy, but with a little political will and urban planning education among citizens, this utopia could become a reality.
Illustration: Free-Photos from Pixabay
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