Seville, Spain: walking around town, meandering through the ancient winding streets, I’ve seen only a few cars.
The only signs of the strange oil-burning metal carriages were the ones creeping carefully through the narrow cobblestone roads, or a taxi sitting innocently along a tourist-filled plaza.
Unbeknownst to me, this was part of the plan.
The city of Seville (a major southern Spanish town of nearly a million) has been working to make the city center less car-oriented and more pedestrian-friendly, and the results are showing. Over 50 miles of bike lanes have been recently added, many thoroughfares are now pedestrian only, an electric tram-line glides alone on major car-free boulevards, and vehicle traffic is discouraged by moving parking lots outside the core and limiting local driving time within the center to 45 minutes (with cameras watching and waiting to fine you).
I was wonderfully lost in this pedestrian nirvana until one day my afternoon jog took me a few blocks further than usual, outside the protected center, and suddenly I was hit by it. Cars barreling along, the sounds of combustion engines bouncing off concrete, a change in the temperature and taste of the air. The spell was broken.
A recent study by ARUP took an in-depth look at the various effects of car vs. pedestrian urban planning. The report, across many areas, shows compelling results with even relatively mild changes to driving habits and city priorities.
During a recent car-free day in Paris, certain parts of the city saw smog levels reduced by as much as 40 percent.
Urban microclimates were shown to change drastically with only a moderate reduction in car usage as paved roads contribute heavily to urban heat-island effects, making cities much hotter. Conversely, sidewalks and mixed-use roads leave more availability for trees and other natural cooling structures, which can cool temperatures by anywhere from 10 to 35 degrees.
These negative effects of living in a car-inundated world are well-documented. And so with emissions from cars and trucks still accounting for 27 percent of greenhouse gases in the US, some simple adjustments to our concepts of urban living could go a long way.
Yet it’s not only the environment that benefits from cities going green. A report by the American Lung Association of California estimates that “health costs (attributed to passenger vehicles) added up to $24 billion in 2015 ... responsible for an estimated 220,000 work-loss days, more than 109,000 asthma exacerbations, hundreds of thousands of other respiratory health impacts, and 2,580 premature deaths.” And these figures are from only 10 states, not the whole country.
A life and culture built around the automobile, although as American as apple pie, slowly kills by convenience. The ARUP study noted that physical activity dropped 32 percent in the last four decades in the U.S., and 45 percent in less than two decades in China (time periods that saw wide adoption of cars in everyday life).
And the benefits and consequences reach deeper than just health or the environment. A citizen with a daily one-hour car commute must earn 40 percent more salary to reach the same happiness level as a neighbor who walks to work. The ARUP paper reports that changing a traffic-filled commute to pedestrian transportation yields the same positive feedback as falling in love. And a simple 8.6 minute walk per day makes you 33 percent more likely to report better mental health.
Add to this the economic pluses. Pedestrian neighborhoods are better for business, with walkers spending as much as 65 percent more than drivers, and municipal investments in biking and walking providing estimated returns of $11.80 for every $1 invested. Also pedestrianizing a street has been shown to make home values go up $82 a square foot. Not bad!
So why aren’t there more car-friendly cities? Cultures need to change. Old European cities have some sort of edge over American towns as they were built before the car-revolution, but regardless of location, the will has to be there.
Take Barcelona for example. Consistently failing European standards for air quality and noise pollution, the city decided to try something. A trial of creating “superblocks”: grids of 9 blocks closed off to all but slow local traffic and public transit, with through-traffic pushed to surrounding major arteries. See this informative video by VOX. I just spent a month in Barcelona and can attest to the results. The smaller local downtown streets were noticeably void of cars, and whatever traffic was slow and careful, as most intersections did not have traffic lights. The result was a vibrant inner-city life where people walked most places and children were free to roam the streets of their neighborhood.
Some other municipalities are following suit, albeit slowly. “Woonerfs” a unique type of street that gets used as a shared public space for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists, and slow-moving cars – is a Dutch invention that has been adopted in over 6000 areas in the Netherlands and is being tested out around the globe. London, Seattle, and even Chicago have tried them out.