America's big cities have blocked off streets to cars during the pandemic. It should stay that way.

  • The COVID-19 crisis left big cities nearly empty of vehicles, as working from home became a requirement.
  • This is reminiscent of the big cities of the past, where pedestrians dominated the bulk of the land.
  • Vehicle-dominated cities should be a thing of the past for many reasons, not to mention the environment.
  • Gabe Klein is the co-founder of Cityfi and Kay Cheng is an urban designer.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Prior to the pandemic, it was difficult for any American city dweller to imagine cars ceding their reign over our streets.

We've given over space to vehicles in crowded urban centers for decades. But our cities didn't always look this way. Take a trip through New York City in this MOMA film, cut together from archival footage from 1911. 

In nearly every frame of the old film, it is pedestrians that dominate the city, rather than vehicles. Fifth Avenue is a promenade with pedestrian space spanning the width of two car lanes. Sidewalks are wide, some with huge plant beds. "Parking" in this era did not have anything to do with cars — parking referred to the park space allocated alongside the roadway.

Madison Avenue looks like the reverse image of the traffic-jammed thoroughfare of today, with a narrow lane for vehicles and pedestrians meandering from the broad sidewalks onto the roadway, rather than being forced to the controlled crosswalks of today. 

During the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, when you walked or biked through New York City, the experience was unlike any version of the city that has come before. Streets were nearly empty of cars and trucks. The air was clearer, the roar of traffic suddenly quieter. 

Now, walk through the city and you'll bump into some of the miles of streets that have been closed to vehicles as part of the city's "Open Streets" program. The city is on its way to closing 100 miles of streets to traffic, to give residents space to be outside while complying with social distancing requirements. Diners, pedestrians, bikers, skateboarders, scooters and roller skaters are slowly emerging from their confinement to reclaim what was lost to the automobile for a century.

Of course, traffic is also coming back too, as lockdowns ease and some businesses reopen. Used car sales are suddenly soaring to levels not seen before the pandemic. Even so, the pause gave urban residents a taste of what could be.

As the need for socially distanced transportation continues to tick upward as businesses reopen, we need to seize the moment and create a critical mass of active mobility options and the infrastructure needed to support a shift in urban transportation. By doing so, we will create safer, cleaner, and more enjoyable cities for the future. If we fail to act, we may lose all of the ground — and streets — we have gained.

Moving away from car-centric cities

Many cities across the US have made a start. When Denver issued its stay-at-home order in mid-March, the city moved quickly to devote a number of city streets as shared or open streets, limiting the amount of cars or banning them altogether. The city has now expanded its open streets program to transform a popular dining and shopping street into a pedestrian plaza for open-air dining.

In San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer piloted a "slow streets" program. Closing select city streets gave locals a more cost-effective means of getting to work or doing errands, in a time where many are crunched for cash.

The city of Boston is working on a broad strategy that will change some street-parking areas into pedestrian zones, close some streets, and create new popup bike lanes. Milwaukee is phasing in temporary closures of streets throughout the city and surrounding counties for bicycle and pedestrian use.

In dealing with the upheavals that COVID-19 has brought to our cities, people are inadvertently discovering what advocates have been saying for years: that fewer cars improves quality of life and is a boon to the neighborhood.

In one community survey in Denver, a whopping 91% of respondents said that they wanted shared and open streets to continue in some way after the pandemic. Local bike shops can attest to this interest in active mobility — bikes across the country have sold out of stores and customer demand doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

Creating a car-lite city

Until transit and active mobility claim the majority of the street space, a completely car-free city may not yet be possible. Car-lite, on the other hand, is entirely within reach.

The city of Pittsburgh, for example, is seeking to reduce single-occupancy vehicle usage with a transportation model that takes into account the different circumstances of car-less citizens – a single mother taking her kids to school has different needs than a shift worker coming home from work at 3:00am. 

The solution proposed jointly by the city and the Pittsburgh Micromobility Collective envisions a private-public partnership that creates "mobility hubs" at transit stops. One unified app would provide transit route planning and payment services for each hub's bicycle share stations, Spin e-scooter rentals, Zipcar vehicles, Waze carpool pickup spots and e-bike shares. Early pilot projects are rolling out this year.

Still, political will and follow through is often a problem. Some private companies in the sustainable transportation industry are having a difficult time with mass adoption and profitability, largely due to the subsidy the government provides the private automobile through road maintenance and public infrastructure. 

Beyond that, when financial support and political will does come through to support changes to streets — whether for restaurants, in mixed use zones, or on neighborhood streets — cities must make sure there is a plan to scale to all neighborhoods.

If infrastructure improvements and open streets in the time of COVID-19 primarily occur in wealthier communities, leaving many poorer neighborhoods that are home to essential workers without the same options, existing disparities could be exacerbated. Poor air quality, unsafe streets and lack of recreational space leave these citizens with underlying health issues disproportionate to the general city population. 

We've always adapted to new ways of getting where we need to be. Long before the dominance of the automobile, Broad Street in New York was a manmade canal, with boats the vehicle of choice. In the early 19th century, the horsecar – a tram pulled by horse – took over.

For nearly 100 years, a team of cowboys riding on horseback corralled people along 10th Avenue, ushering them out of the path of barreling freight trains. Later, streets moved skyward, as elevated trains crisscrossed the city. Eventually, most of them came down. 

The dynasty of the car has been long and storied, but we've changed. Through all the tragedy this pandemic has wrought, we have discovered new ways of living. We have experienced the freedom of the open road. Let's not go back to vehicle-dominated cities that don't fit our human scale. There is a place for cars in our lives — but that place may no longer be in our urban centers.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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