Car-free zones could be the future of cities + the story of two city transit upgrades

San Francisco and New York City are limiting cars on certain streets to prioritize other modes of transit.By Terry Nguyenterry.  Oct 28, 2019, 8:30am EDT

Future cities won’t be without cars. There will just be less of them.

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urbanist writer Jane Jacobs posed a prescient concern. She forecasted one of two possible outcomes for our urban future: “erosion of cities by automobiles, or attrition of automobiles by cities.”

To put it simply, Jacobs declared that if cars (and the highways and streets they run on) were left unchecked, the nature of the city would be gradually stripped away. She predicted that sprawl would make streets unwalkable, detaching neighborhoods and public spaces from one another. It sounded all doom and gloom, unless cities could impede that growth by limiting cars and reduce their influence on the streets.

The problem isn’t cars themselves, she argued, but the cumulative effect of an urban planning system that prioritizes cars over other modes of transportation. “The point of cities is multiplicity of choice,” Jacobs wrote. “It is impossible to take advantage of multiplicity of choice without being able to get around easily.”

Cities across the US and the world are experimenting with the “attrition of automobiles” by closing certain streets and areas to cars. San Francisco recently approved a $600-million plan to remove private vehicles from its busy Market Street, which will be renovated into space for street cars, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians. (Taxis will share the curbside lane with buses and commercial delivery vehicles, but Uber and Lyft cars are not allowed on the street.)“THE POINT OF CITIES IS MULTIPLICITY OF CHOICE”

In October, New York City turned a one-mile stretch of 14th Street into a busway, banning all cars except some trucks and emergency vehicles. European cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Oslo have established car-free zones in downtown centers, and these initiatives can prompt backlash but are often strongly supported by residents.

Citizens enjoy having a variety of options to fulfill their transportation needs, and cities are realizing that. In the past, before vehicles like electric scooters or city bikes were widely available, people were limited to cars, buses, or the subway. With more diverse transit options, cities are forced to plan for improved safety and access, to build streets that accommodate all types of transportation. And that means scaling back on what they’ve built themselves around for decades: the car.

The micro-mobility revolution has encouraged cities to reassess their transportation needs

The idea of a car-reduced city isn’t entirely new; cities have looked to close streets to vehicular traffic and create pedestrian corridors for decades. But what is new is the surge in micro-mobility options afforded to people, which have pushed cities to reassess how to organize their streets. The impending threat of climate change has also added pressure on local officials to cut back on carbon emissions. (Transportation is one of the top producers of carbon emissions for the US.)

These small, often electric vehicles — shareable bicycles, scooters, and mopeds — have popped up on city streets in recent years. Dockless scooters appear in cities overnight seemingly without warning, from companies like Spin, Bird, Lime, and Skip; ride-sharing giants Uber and Lyft also invested in dockless bikes.

Electric scooters on the roadside in Berlin.
Micro-mobility vehicles like electric scooters are changing how people travel short distances in cities.

Their sudden arrival has caused confusion and even anger (mainly with the scooters) among residents and the local politicians tasked with regulating them. Some cities have required their swift removal, while others have more openly embraced scooters and started crafting laws for their usage. And whether scooters are actually environmentally sound is questionable.

But one thing is certain: Residents find these vehicles convenient, and they influence how people travel short distances — closing the gap left by cars, buses, and trains as a more direct means of transportation. Certain areas in cities, particularly low-income communities, are located far from transit hubs or lack direct bus or subway routes. Micro-mobility is a cheap, accessible option that could benefit communities previously overlooked by urban planners.

“Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities,” wrote Vox’s Umair Irfan.

That’s a philosophical approach some cities are taking, but it’s also being played out like a turf war, says Uwe Brandes, director of the Global Cities Initiative at Georgetown University: “How much territory in the public realm should be allocated to individual modes?”

In other words, how much should we be prioritizing cars when so many other alternatives are available and being widely used? The “multiplicity of choice” in cities, as Jacobs described, has suddenly gotten more complicated. While many of these new mobility options take up much less room than cars, they’re fighting to co-exist on streets that are designed for cars.HOW MUCH SHOULD WE BE PRIORITIZING CARS WHEN SO MANY OTHER ALTERNATIVES ARE AVAILABLE AND BEING WIDELY USED?

Then there are other questions, like whether sidewalks should be expanded to make way for charging stations. Should there be more street space dedicated for electric vehicles? Should there be separate pedestrian corridors, keeping everything with wheels lumped together on the road?

These are questions cities are tasked with figuring out, Brandes says. The problem is that there’s really no perfect model for a city to follow; each has to rely on its own infrastructure capacity and land use densities to determine what’s best for its streets, he explains.

Most streets in the US aren’t designed for pedestrians or cyclists. That’s a safety hazard.

Smart street planning and regulations to enforce safe driving are also crucial for safety. In recent years, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have risen in the US, even as the total number of traffic deaths decreased. About 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed on average each day in 2018 — the highest since 1990, according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Factors like distracted driving and speeding contribute to an increase in fatalities, and according to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, few states have strict safety laws to prevent accidents.

A trolley on San Francisco’s Market Street.
A trolley on San Francisco’s Market Street. The initiative will reduce street space for expanded sidewalks and bike lanes.

American streets are also dangerous by design; they’re typically in sprawling metro areas with fast multi-lane highways that aren’t pedestrian-friendly. Cities have adopted “vision zero” initiatives to reduce traffic deaths by installing crosswalks, bike lanes, and slowing down road speeds, but it still isn’t safe.

San Francisco’s project aims to turn one of its busiest, most chaotic streets into a multi-use space for all residents — no matter how they choose to commute. Market Street’s infrastructure hasn’t been rebuilt in 45 years, but one in 10 San Francisco transit riders are on the street every day, alongside thousands of bicycle commuters and drivers.

Most traffic collisions that occur on Market Street annually affect pedestrians or bicyclists, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

The city plans to shrink the street in favor of a widened sidewalk and eight-feet-wide bike lane, which will be shared by bikes and electric scooters. Streetcars and a few bus lines will still run through its center, while buses, taxis, and commercial delivery vehicles will operate on both sides of the smaller road.

The plan passed the San Francisco’s transportation agency board with no opposition, although bureaucratic delays have pushed it back by nearly a decade, the Examiner reported. It even received endorsements from Lyft and Uber, whose drivers won’t be banned from the road but will have separate loading areas. The first stage of construction on Market Street will start in 2020.

“Closing Market Street to cars has been discussed on and off for decades,” says Elizabeth Deakin, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. “I can remember that it was first brought up in the 1970s.”

Change can happen slowly, as citizens and public officials warm up to ideas that once seemed far from the mainstream. CityLab pointed out how advocacy groups have led the years-long push for safer streets in San Francisco, and other cities’ car-free zones have prompted officials to act.

Car-free zones can reduce congestion — under the right circumstances

With its $600-million price tag, San Francisco’s plan is a radical version of what many cities are experimenting with, like New York. The 14th Street busway plan was initially intended to mitigate the shutdown of the L train in Manhattan (a train line that connects two New York boroughs for around 250,000 daily riders) by improving bus routes on the major crosstown path. The city originally planned to shut down the line for a 15-month repair period, and run 80 buses every hour to accommodate riders; that plan was not implemented.

Although the L train is still in service, the busway plan was approved in late September, after it was stalled twice in court by residents and business owners. Unlike San Francisco, the busway is off-limits to virtually all cars for roughly a mile stretch, including taxis and ride-sharing vehicles.

Photo of L Train station
New York’s 14th Street busway plan was intended to mitigate its L train shutdown.

Less than a quarter of Manhattan’s residents own cars, but that statistic doesn’t account for people who commute into the city by car, or those who hail cars to get around. Ride-sharing services have prompted a surge of car usage, and New Yorkers are increasingly relying on Lyft or Uber rather than the subway or bus. So while people aren’t necessarily owning more cars, they’re still adding to the daily congestion.

Furthermore, “New York is a place where we have no alleys on our major streets, so everything — from deliveries to customers — are coming in or out from the front,” says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.

That puts an immense burden on city streets, he explains, especially for a crowded artery like 14th Street. Trucks and large delivery vehicles also contribute to the growing congestion problem by driving in residential areas.

Instead of falling into a cycle of induced demand — building more roads and highways, which tends to bring more traffic — banning cars from certain areas is a “fairly reversible policy,” Deakin adds. It just requires regulation, which isn’t expensive, and the policy can be tweaked if a city wants to change its car restrictions.

According to local officials, 14th Street turned out to be a “miracle.” Recent data by the research firm INRIX has shown that traffic levels in nearby areas have hardly changed, although the long-term effects of the project haven’t been determined yet. (As Jacobs observed, when streets are closed for pedestrian use, traffic is typically diverted into other areas. That rearrangement of traffic wouldn’t have solved the larger issue, which is to reduce car use overall.)

The experiment’s successful short-term effects — increasing bus speeds and not causing side-street congestion — have prompted local officials to encourage adding car-free zones to other major streets.

Car-free zones can fail if they don’t generate enough foot traffic in the area. The city of Buffalo, New York, planned to create a pedestrian mall in the 1980s by closing its Main Street to cars and building a light-rail system that would run through its center. That plan failed, Brandes says, because not enough people were drawn to the area to keep businesses alive.

Those same business concerns were echoed by some Manhattan business owners on 14th Street, who believe it’s a major artery that brings customers to their front doors by car. Compared to Buffalo, though, pedestrian activity in Manhattan is much more lively.

Future cities won’t be without cars. There likely just won’t be as many.

The plan for cities like San Francisco or New York isn’t to get rid of cars, it’s to wean the focus from them towards more inclusive spaces. “The car is not the enemy of urban life,” Moss says. “We have to think about having multiple ways of moving people.”

In Barcelona, portions of the city are configured into walkable, mixed-use public spaces called “superblocks.” As Vox’s David Roberts reported, there’s a plan to expand superblocks to most of the city, a concept that has yet to be achieved by an existing major city. In theory, it’s similar to what Jacobs envisioned, which is reducing the prevalence of cars, the amount of space they occupy, and demand for their services.“WE HAVE TO THINK ABOUT HAVING MULTIPLE WAYS OF MOVING PEOPLE”

While no American cities have such a sweeping transportation reform plan in place as Barcelona’s, car-free streets are a start. And as new micro-mobility options become available in more metropolitan areas, that encourages cities to push the envelope of what they’re comfortable experimenting with.

Still, the longer cities wait to act, the longer citizens will be stuck in a cycle of seemingly endless traffic congestion.

“If we continue with the status quo, we can’t produce sustainable communities,” Brandes says. “This is the first generation of experiments, and it’s exciting to see us embrace the sharing economy.”


A New $6 Billion Subway? Great, as Long as Rents Don’t Rise

East Harlem residents welcome a plan to extend the Second Avenue Subway, but they’re worried it might change the neighborhood.

A new subway line in East Harlem would provide better access to public transit, but also raises fears that increased development would make the neighborhood less affordable.
A new subway line in East Harlem would provide better access to public transit, but also raises fears that increased development would make the neighborhood less affordable.Credit…Daniel Rodrigues for The New York Times
Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

  • Oct. 28, 2019
    • 54

Maribel Burgos barely has time to change into her uniform before she has to clock in at the McDonald’s in Lower Manhattan where she works, even though she gives herself 90 minutes to commute from her home in East Harlem.

After walking several blocks to reach the nearest subway line, Ms. Burgos often has to deal with trains that are too crowded to board or hobbled by delays.

“Something always happens,” Ms. Burgos said.

Now, East Harlem may get an infrastructure boost that has been a rarity in New York City in recent decades — new subway service.

The Second Avenue Subway, which runs through the Upper East Side of Manhattan, will finally be extended north to East Harlem, and three new stations will be built as part of a sprawling $54 billion spending plan to modernize the region’s transportation network, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced last month.

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For East Harlem, the news has been a long time coming — a subway along Second Avenue in the neighborhood was first proposed nearly a century ago.

Many people who live and work in the area said they would welcome the new service, though some raised concerns that it could accelerate development in the largely Latino and black neighborhood where gentrification has already taken hold.

“We’re always worried about that,” said Robert Rodriguez, a state assemblyman who represents the neighborhood. Still, he added, “I don’t think that’s a reason to not provide essential amenities.’’

The neighborhood now relies on the Lexington Avenue subway, which can be a long walk for some residents and where trains can be so packed that riders sometimes have to let a train go by before they can get on.

“There are working people that rely on public transportation to get around and we don’t have a fail-safe if anything happens” with the Lexington Avenue line, Mr. Rodriguez said. “There is no backup. There is no other line for East Siders.”

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The stations are not expected to open until 2029 and come with a hefty price tag — the overall cost of the extension is about $6 billion. It will likely require major financing from several sources, including the federal, state and New York City governments— none of which has been secured yet.

But transportation officials are “determined to make good on the longstanding commitment to the people of East and Central Harlem to provide mass transit and access to jobs, education and opportunity,” said Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the M.T.A., which operates the subway.

Even President Trump unexpectedly weighed in with his support though it is unclear if that will result in tangible financial backing.

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Looking forward to helping New York City and Governor @andrewcuomo complete the long anticipated, and partially built, Second Avenue Subway. Would be extended to East 125th Street in Harlem. Long in the making, they now have the team that can get it done!44.6K9:24 AM – Aug 24, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy13.5K people are talking about this

The Upper East Side portion of the subway line took 10 years to become reality from the time construction began in 2007.

Xianix Barrera, a flamenco dancer who lives in East Harlem, recalled babysitting a 10-year-old girl on the Upper East Side when stations were being built there. “When she graduated college is when they finished,” she said.

East Harlem is already undergoing a significant transformation as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rezoning plan, which is opening neighborhoods across the city to developers in an effort to address the city’s shortage of low-cost housing.

Pushing the Second Avenue Subway into the area will likely accelerate the development that is already taking place in the neighborhood and will make East Harlem more appealing to developers and new residents, said Grant Long, senior economist at Street Easy, an online database of residential property listings.

“Rezoning is happening with the Second Avenue Subway expansion in mind,” he said.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway opened at the beginning of 2017.
The first phase of the Second Avenue subway opened at the beginning of 2017.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway at 72nd, 86th and 96th Streets has already brought changes to parts of the Upper East Side that were already a blend of relatively well-off and more middle-income residents.

Many mom-and-pop shops closed when the subway stations opened in 2017, leaving in their wake more chain stores and luxury high-rises. The median residential rent in buildings surrounding Second Avenue rose by 27 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to Street Easy.

Tamika Mapp, a county committeewoman in East Harlem, worries that extending the Second Avenue subway will produce similar changes.

“It’s a double-edged sword, because sure, there’s reliable transport, but my neighbors may not be able to afford rent anymore,” Ms. Mapp said.

Opening up more subway service does change the travel patterns in neighborhoods. On the Upper East Side the number of people riding taxis dropped by 20 percent after the subway line opened, said Sarah Kaufman, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at New York University.

“For the population of East Harlem that doesn’t have great access to transit right now, it will be a great advantage because they will have a much more affordable way to get around,” she said.

The M.T.A. said building the subway into East Harlem would require moving some utilities under Second Avenue — water, sewage and electrical lines — away from the construction zone. It would also involve excavating for the new tunnel and stations, and constructing station entrances.

The agency said it would probably need to buy up to 39 properties to accommodate the new stations and ancillary facilities, which would involve displacing 170 residents and up to 505 employees. Some of the properties include four-story residential apartments with stores on the ground floor, according to the M.T.A.

But plans for the acquisition, including the use of eminent domain and where residents would be moved to if they are displaced, have not been finalized, agency officials said.

When the first part of the Second Avenue Subway was built, many businesses complained that construction equipment blocked access to their storefronts and led to financial hardships.

To mollify concerns in East Harlem, the M.T.A. has invested in a brightly lit information center on 125th Street where detailed explanations of the phases of construction, in English and Spanish, are offered on video screens on the walls or on iPads.

Visitors can even try their hand steering a subway train on simulator.

Santos Negron, a community activist and a lifelong resident of East Harlem, said a new subway line would not only make life more convenient but could make the neighborhood safer.

“It saves me a lot of walking,’’ he said. “I take 10 minutes to get home, but when it’s late at night, those 10 minutes seem longer.”

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura was previously based in London, where she covered an eclectic beat ranging from politics to social issues spanning Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Born and raised in Paris, she speaks Japanese, French, Spanish and Portuguese. @kimidefreytas • FacebookA version of this article appears in print on Oct. 28, 2019, Section A, Page 21 of the New York edition with the headline: Gentrification Concerns Shade Favor of Harlem Subway Extension. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

How the Twin City Lines bus strike transformed transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul

By Steven Dornfeld | 10/25/2019

historical photo of twin city lines bus
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyTwin City Lines bus on West Seventh and Washington Streets, St. Paul, 1954.

In 1969, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 called a strike against Twin City Lines (TCL), the metropolitan area’s largest privately owned bus company. Most union members and patrons probably didn’t realize it at the time, but that strike would prove to be a critical turning point for Twin Cities public transit. It would provide the opportunity for public acquisition of the company and dramatic service improvements.

In the late 1960s, TCL was on a downward slide. It was the victim of an aging fleet, increasing fares, and declining ridership. The strike came at the start of the 1969 Christmas shopping season, when the two downtowns still were centers of retailing. As the twenty-five-day strike dragged on, Governor Harold LeVander came under increasing pressure from downtown retailers to intervene.

For years, the forces had been building for public ownership of the bus company. Its owners recognized that there were more lucrative investments than transit. Union leaders thought a public body would be easier to negotiate with than TCL’s owners. Downtown retailers and employers were desperate for a reliable transit system to serve their employees and customers. And then, Congress provided an additional incentive. In 1964, it passed legislation authorizing $375 million in grants for mass transportation.

Disenchantment with the region’s bus service had been building for years. After multiple failures, transit advocates in 1967 secured legislation creating a nine-member Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC). The legislation granted the commission broad powers to acquire and improve existing transit facilities. But the measure may have had an additional supporter behind the scenes—the owners of Minnesota Enterprises Inc. (MEI), the bus company’s corporate parent. They had lost interest in running the struggling bus company. And who else would buy it other than a public entity?

While the MTC attempted negotiations with MEI, the agency returned to the legislature in 1969 seeking authority to acquire the bus company through “quick-take” condemnation. This process would allow the agency to take control of the bus system as soon as a court-appointed panel set the price, even if the owners appealed that amount in the courts. While MEI likely opposed the idea, the condemnation provision was enacted into law.

While pursuing condemnation powers, the MTC also opposed the company’s request from the state Public Service Commission (PSC) for a 5-cent increase in TCL’s 25-cent bus fare. The company had proposed the increase in December 1968. The MTC argued that the bus company already was making a “reasonable profit.” They also argued that TCL was diverting transit revenues to its corporate parent and negatively affecting its financial results.

After twenty-seven days of hearings, the PSC granted the nickel fare increase on October 31, 1969. But the commission also criticized the company’s accounting and financial practices.

Meanwhile, the bus company and its union had been pressing up against an October 31 deadline—the expiration of their contract. The union sought an immediate salary increase of 51 cents an hour, raising the pay of drivers to four dollars an hour and mechanics to $4.16 an hour. The parties failed to reach agreement, and the union went on strike November 17.

On December 11, LeVander summoned the parties to “find out why the strike has not been settled…” During a marathon meeting, David Durenberger, LeVander’s top aide, shuttled back and forth between the company, union, and MTC. Late in the night, the company agreed to an 11-cent hourly raise. The MTC agreed to condemn TCL and to provide another 29-cent raise upon acquisition.

The MTC quickly used its condemnation powers to acquire the company and took possession on September 18, 1970. Thanks to the work of the its staff and consultants, the MTC already had in hand a thirteen-point improvement plan. It also had a federal commitment of $9.7 million to help fund the acquisition and the first-phase improvements. The first buses rolled out of their garages at 5 a.m., sporting new decals with a large white “T” (for transit) encircled in red.

The most significant feature of the MTC’s improvement plan was the purchase of ninety-three new, air-conditioned buses a year for five years. The purchases reduced the average age of the fleet from fourteen years to six years and afforded riders much-improved service.

Editor’s note: This article contains text adapted from “1969 Bus Strike: Twin Cities Mass Transit Turning Point” (Minnesota History 66, no. 7 (Fall 2019): 274–284), used here with the permission of both the publisher and the author.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.