We need distance from the car virus, too

Illustration showning the space on streets surrendered to cars
Image: Karl Jilg / Swedish Road Administration

At the dawn of the motor vehicle era, more than a century ago, it was quickly recognised that cars would require a vast amount of space. This would be a huge problem restricting the usefulness of cars in cities.

To the detriment of society, the auto lobby corrupted decision-makers to allow cars to rule the road. This is despite losing all the arguments around efficiency, safety and even fairness.

As a result, our cities became car-cities — reconfigured to suit all the demands of the car. Anything that stood in the way was swept aside.

The cars’ thirst for space was unquenchable.

Inside cities, whole neighbourhoods were razed so roads could be widened.

On the edges, cities expanded to multiples of their former sizes. Now underground, new space is created in the form of vast tunnel systems constructed at eye-watering cost.

The result has been to relegate human-powered transport to thin strips — footpaths mostly — rendering them dangerous and only marginally useful. The lion’s share of the costs of this arrangement are borne by everyone, even if we are not the ones in the actual cars.

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, urban dwellers, who make up more than half the Earth’s inhabitants, needing both physical activity and physical distance, walk these thin strips, pressing virus-friendly beg buttons every few hundred metres to wait for cars that never pass.

The only passing is that of pedestrians, past parallel rows of parked cars astride the empty boulevards.

Walking single file in these environments is better than nothing, but it provides little of the rejuvenation we need from the green outdoors.

The parks are few and far between. So, people flock to beaches and scenic coastal paths, some of which are now closed due to the unsafe swelling of crowds.

It never crosses anyone’s mind to demolish waterfront homes to widen these congested routes.

But, out of necessity, some cities are closing streets to cars to allow people to move safely.

This monopoly on space must be broken up.

The climate crisis and the fragile post-COVID19 economic circumstances will demand it. We can no longer afford to move long distances on wide black tarmac, powered by carbon.

We should use this opportunity to say goodbye to the automobile era. The power to change is in our legs, in electric mass transit and our collective will.

[Andrew Chuter is a public transport activist. This piece was first published at his conscious entity blog.]

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