Banning Cars Doesn’t Solve Everything

Taking the time to rethink cities around non-automobile modes of transport is an important task for the future of mobility and the environment. However, just banning cars* doesn’t go far enough to create truly equitable outcomes for all residents or undo the harm caused by poor urban planning and unjust government policies that targeted non-white communities. To do that, we need to rethink the structure of local government and community engagement to ensure continuous outreach and feedback from all stakeholders, not just the privileged few who can show up at every single meeting. 

*For this article, “banning cars” is defined as severely decreasing public spaces provided for driving single occupancy vehicles and storing cars (aka parking). It also means greatly reducing the need for private vehicle ownership by providing alternatives such as bikes, transit, micromobility, shuttles, etc. It would not “ban cars” outright since that is basically impossible at a city-wide level.

Let’s start by saying that cars and car centric development have been good and terrible during the history of the US. Because of cars, people (almost entirely White) were able to access and buy cheap housing, thus building themselves out of the great depression. Cars enabled the White middle class to form and brought mobility and economic prosperity to all who were allowed to participate. 

For the non white middle class, cars still provided mobility to those who could afford them. However, freeways were often erected on top of “undesirable” areas populated by Jewish people, Indigeneous people, Black People, and immigrants from all over the world. Look no further than the 10 Freeway or the East LA Interchange for examples in Los Angeles. The people who weren’t displaced directly from freeways were disconnected from the rest of the community and exposed to higher amounts of air and noise pollution. 

Today most of these residents have cars now, but many lack public recreation space. Cities dedicate an excess amount of limited public space to travel lanes and on-street parking at the expense of other uses which would reduce the need for automobiles. These include bike lanes, bus lanes, streetcars, and well maintained sidewalks with street trees. In our current public spaces, 40,000 people a year die from automobile collisions in the US and countless more are severely injured. Affording a car is not cheap either, with many Americans going into debt over car payments, insurance payments, gas, parking, fees, and maintenance. 

And of course, the traffic. More time spent in traffic means less time spent with your family and friends. It limits access to jobs and other resources across the county and further contributes to greenhouse gasses due to idling vehicles. Our policies to address this issue, usually widening roads, leads to more land acquisition and more inequity. The result of which often causes more traffic through induced demand instead of the reduction that gets promised by politicians (and works every single time!).   

Cars suck, and it’s ok to hate them and promote alternatives. But if you take the time to completely reimagine a city that is car-free, why not include other topics in this revolutionary vision? Undo the history of redlining and racially restrictive covenants so people can own their own property and close the racial wealth gap. Figure out a process for removing and cleaning toxic oil well sites which will improve our air quality. Create systems that help the elderly age in place and with dignity. End homelessness and fight against economic displacement. Come up with creative funding mechanisms to build and maintain infrastructure, like sidewalks. Improve environments so women and children feel safe walking, biking, or taking transit alone. Invent better systems of policing and/or transformative justice to ensure safety without criminalizing people based on their skin color. We can’t just ban cars and call it a day. 

Ban cars is a catchy phrase that makes for a great rallying cry. This is especially true in community settings where people, who benefited from years of racist and sexist policies, complain about new bus routes “ruining the character of our neighborhood,” or “bringing in poor people and increasing crime in our community,” or “ruining my property values.” Fortunately for them, they often don’t pay the true value of their property taxes thanks to Prop 13… but I digress.  

Fixing the broken status quo of cities and urban planning will depend on a holistic approach that centers on the experience of diverse groups of people rather than an outdated process for technical studies and public engagement which deal with topics in their own individual vacuum. In other words, if you want to be visionary and the best you can say is ban cars, it’s time to do more work. 

Let’s start by making existing places accessible to people without cars.

There’s a special irony in telling people who have been transit dependent in the US that we should ban cars. And yet, these riders understand the pitfalls of transit service more than anyone who writes about alternatives to single occupancy vehicles. For decades, we (the collective planning community) have ignored the mobility lifeline for low income and/or non-White people in favor of the preferred transportation mode of the upper and middle class White community. 

The disinvestment in transit, especially in buses, means long waiting times, little shelter at bus stops, and ridiculous travel times to go short distances. It’s no wonder that many transit-dependent riders save any money they can towards buying a car. They would rather own a depreciating asset that greatly improves their mobility than spend hours waiting and transferring between our existing bus and rail services.

Transit dependent riders haven’t experienced the “mobility freedom” that was gifted to the White middle class during the 1940s and 50s. At the time, cars were the latest and greatest thing… for White people. And almost exclusively White urban planners used this favorite mode of transport to promote White flight, build the freeway system, and plan communities from a top-down approach that centered the needs of White residents. 

Defunding and dismantling transit service? Also part of centering the needs of White people. Who needs transit when you could drive there? I don’t want to pay for this waste of government money!

In Los Angeles in the 80s, policies in place such as the Fair Housing Act and CEQA (hate it or love it) limited the ability for planners and developers to do many of the activities that occurred in the 40s and 50s. This is also when the region began realizing that traffic is unavoidable, so the people ignoring transit for the last three decades had to seriously consider transit systems as a means to fix the traffic problem. 

Meanwhile, the defunded transit service was still serving Black and Brown riders in Los Angeles. Rather than improving it, the planners focused their attention on a rail network. Funds were taken away from bus service to start these new rail lines, which were intended to fix traffic to downtown office jobs. Downtown office jobs that many of the people using buses didn’t have. This led to the creation of the Bus Riders Union, which fought for better bus service that, even today, continues to carry more riders than our rail system.  

Today the mode preference is for anything but cars, which means areas with great transit access will be valued higher than areas without great transit access. If you don’t believe that would happen, take a trip on the Expo Line (sorry, E Line) to Culver City Station. Surrounding the station is one of the best examples of transit oriented development (TOD) in LA County. Yet, as great it will be to have a mixed-use community including HBO, a brewery, a yoga studio, apartments, and hotel rooms, it won’t be transit dependent riders living or working here. And with 1,500 parking spaces provided, the people who do live or work here will likely be bringing their car*. 

*Yes, this is too much parking for a TOD. No, even if it had zero parking, these issues would still exist.  

This isn’t to express hate towards this particular development or Culver City. Rather, I use this example to raise an important question about new urbanism, urban planning, and banning cars: Where will transit dependent riders be able to live and/or move in the car-free future? If they can’t afford to live in the place with good transit, they’ll move to cheaper and less transit accessible areas. Thus, they miss out on all the amenities which benefit people who still own cars, can afford congestion fees, and will complain about their tax dollars being wasted.  

But what about New York? After all, this topic came up because of proposing to ban cars in Manhattan. 

Manhattan is definitely in a better position to “ban cars” than Los Angeles, but it doesn’t mean they don’t experience the same economic issues as any other city. Areas with better transit access are more expensive than those with less transit access. Manhattan is a major jobs center with people commuting from all over the tri-state area, but many lower and middle income residents are priced out of living in this borough. Instead, they live in more car-dependent areas outside the urban center. Ensuring better bus and rail service to these communities is a must, and taking lanes away from cars can be part of that solution. But we also need to identify mechanisms to give these residents ownership over their communities prior to getting priced out. 

Additionally, New York has an accessibility problem which is much worse than LA’s transit system. The downside of a really old subway system is that ADA accessibility standards weren’t invented yet. So retrofitting stations to meet the needs of all disabled people is an absolute priority. Funds from congestion pricing could pay for this type of retrofitting, but what is a disabled person to do for 25 years before the improvements actually get finished? What mechanism do we have to help that disabled person while making the structural improvements desperately needed?

The Interconnected Experience

Now, I don’t think the ban cars crowd is against most of the points I’ve made so far. But, exclusion of these topics from the transportation conversation leaves out the interconnected relationships between people’s lived experiences and the city. By failing to address these topics, we’re excluding participation from people who may support banning cars, but have other, more pressing issues. This, I believe, is a symptom of an outdated local government structure which “divides and conquers” cities into highly technical specializations and then tries to put the puzzle pieces back together. 

Let’s take the triangle of planning, transportation, and public works. If I have a problem with a pothole, I report it to public works and they will eventually fix it. But, if I want a mid-block crosswalk, all three departments, plus the council member’s office and the neighborhood council, are now involved and the process takes multiple years to approve, fund, and install.

So if I want to undo 100+ years of systemic and de jure oppression, what department is going to handle that? Will it get passed around the City endlessly until they make a “Department of Racial Equity?” That department will probably get sued immediately and, if it survives, they’ll write a report which gets ignored by the other departments because it isn’t their “specialization.”  

The reason some people only care about banning cars is because we have a department that only cares about transportation. The reason some people only care about housing is because there is a department that mainly sets and changes zoning regulations. These departments perform tasks in the vacuum of their job description then try to make it fit in with the work of other departments. 

We don’t have to organize cities this way. In fact, it might be better to keep specializations, but organize individuals from each department into community teams. In LA, this would look like having a team of planners, engineers, school principals, firemen, social workers, a council member, and other civic staff members for each of the 35 community plans in the city (Note: community plans, council districts, and city departments may also need restructuring before implementing this idea). Neighborhood level engagement provides a space to have bigger structural conversations. It ensures an ongoing conversation between the city and community, rather than hosting several meetings about each individual project with the same five privileged people and their lawyers showing up.

City-wide departments would continue to exist and ensure continuity and fairness between community plans. They would also work on regional issues, such as coordination with neighboring cities or setting guidelines for community plans to follow. But, in general, a neighborhood level team of city staff would better capture and address the lived experience of residents in that locality. Thus, public outreach efforts are streamlined, more comprehensive, and better at identifying and addressing community needs.

Why is this relevant to banning cars?

Banning cars is about reimagining an unjust and inefficient transportation system and creating a cleaner, more affordable system of mobility. But cars are just a single fish in the greater ocean of biodiversity that is our cities. We can’t just ban cars outright, which I know most people aren’t seriously proposing, without considering mobility as a whole. Mode is important, especially considering our climate goals, but the mobility of disadvantaged communities can’t be put off until later. 

Community advocates and the ban cars crowd can work together, so I propose we set a baseline of improvements for cities to implement before more aggressive forms of banning cars (like car free zones, congestion pricing, etc.). This doesn’t mean there needs to be an additional traffic study, CEQA review, new city departments, etc. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever implement car-free ideas. The baseline would be a set of conditions to meet based on an assessment of mobility alternatives, accessibility, neighborhood ownership, neighborhood resources, housing, jobs, homelessness, community input, and other variables that ensure the people we want to help actually receive it.  

What would the assessment look like? Here are just a few potential questions:

  • Is there adequate sidewalk infrastructure in this community? How is it being maintained/funded? Is it accessible for all users? Is there shade and good lighting? 
  • What are the community needs in this neighborhood? How can people access jobs, grocery stores, schools, parks, libraries, religious institutions, childcare, and other community services? Are there adequate community spaces to meet and have events? 
  •  What are the regional goals for the future of this community? How will they accommodate more jobs and housing for all income levels? Who will those jobs and housing opportunities go to? How will this change the existing neighborhood? Will those changes cause harm to the existing community?
  • What opportunities for property ownership does this community have? Will they financially benefit from better improvements or will those benefits go elsewhere? 
  • What the relationship between the existing community and city services such as the police? What are mechanisms which would further improve this relationship and ensure the safety for all residents and visitors?
  • How is public engagement in this community? Have their voices been ignored? What organizational structures already exist within the community that need to be included/amplified? 
  • What’s the existing transit in the area like? Is it reliable, comfortable, safe, and convenient? Is it for commuting downtown or can I meet all of my needs by using it? Where can one regularly go within 20-30 minutes of leaving their home?
  • What bike infrastructure is available? Would I let my kids use it? Does it provide adequate connections to places people want or need to go?

From here we can establish a strategy forward to provide resources and create an environment where people don’t want to own cars, rather than impose restrictions on those who feel they need one. We can’t form this strategy when we separate conversations about land use from transportation and isolate the lived experience from top-down city and regional planning.  

These are just some of the tasks that need to be addressed by the urbanist community. Ban cars, but why stop there? Why just ban cars when we can collaborate to create an anti-racist, affordable, accessible, and car-free city? It’s time to dream big and, most importantly, dream together to create a sustainable and inclusive vision of tomorrow’s cities.


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