It’s Time to Prioritize Moving People Over Cars

Streets that invite people to walk, bike, scoot, and take reliable public transit are good for our health and climate.

START WITH A STROLL DOWN A NARROW STREET lined with cafe tables and businesses, a street that offers people a chance to meet their neighbors. That’s what I hear most often from people at public meetings to reconsider the policies and designs that improve our streets. Attendees tout how enjoyable it was to arrive at these narrow thoroughfares: reading on a train, listening to a podcast on a bus, cruising down a protected bike lane. The one thing that’s not mentioned? Cars.

Look around your city streets, and you’ll see a public health crisis. For decades regional planners prioritized wide lanes and abundant parking to welcome drivers. And when they built it, the drivers did come, resulting in dangerous conditions for everyone trying to use those streets and ballooning greenhouse gas emissions resulting in chronic diseases.

Another future is possible. Streets that invite people to walk, bike, scoot, and take reliable, high-frequency public transit help reduce congestion. They decrease harmful emissions. And they build welcoming spaces that thrive on easier, healthier interactions between community members.

In the United States, transportation accounts for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions — and these polluters are mostly cars. While reducing driving is one of our strongest strategies to combat the climate crisis, this must be coupled with community-ideated alternatives. This isn’t about banning cars; it’s about walkable streets, networks of connected and accessible bike lanes, and public transit that puts riders first.

In the United States, transportation accounts for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions — and these polluters are mostly cars.

It’s also about acknowledging our past. Cities in this country were built on the basis of White supremacy. What’s often dubbed “prioritizing cars,” was, more accurately, prioritizing White flight and segregated suburbs. Predominantly Black, people of color, and low-income residents had their homes and neighborhoods bulldozed to make way for transportation that enabled White people to buy government-subsidized homes and build generational wealth within their picket fences, with an easy drive to work in nearby urban areas. This concentrated highway pollution, and BIPOC nationwide are exposed disproportionately to more emissions from cars and other pollutants, which aligns with increased disease and lower life expectancy.

Local city governments are usually the decision-makers and implementers when it comes to creating the infrastructure that enables more transit, biking, and walking. If we’re going to shift the narrative, which is often the first step to changing the world we see around us, we need to name both how we got here — to being a nation that prioritizes cars over people — and where we should be going.

In California — where TransForm, the nonprofit I work with, focuses its urban advocacy efforts — transportation funding has predominantly supported road construction and maintenance, which often benefits Whiter, wealthier residents first. But, provided there’s political will, we do have the budget and massive surplus to expand funding to cities and programs that combat climate change, support residents in clean transportation options like transit and walking, and thereby support racial equity.

RECENTLY, AT AN EVENT IN EAST OAKLAND, CA, a historically under-resourced community, TransForm ran community engagement around what improving access to affordable shared bikes and scooters would mean for event attendees. “Better access to groceries, my family, and community events,” one attendee said. “I’d drive my car less and enjoy my neighborhood,” said another.

​Public transit is a lifeline for low-income people, people with disabilities, many essential workers, and those without cars or licenses. Photo courtesy of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

At least 45 percent of trips across the US are three miles or less, making bikes and scooters, particularly electric ones, a comfortable and clean alternative to cars. Photo by Elvert Barnes.

Cities can curtail the number of cars on the streets and transform parking spaces into “parklets,” which better use street parking for recreation, relaxation, and improved public health. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Department of Transporation.

After decades of government disinvestment in low-income communities, it’s important, however, that when new infrastructure shows up, residents don’t feel blindsided. When urban planners try to engage with communities like East Oakland, which is predominantly Black, Latinx, and low income, it’s only fair residents enter the space feeling skeptical or betrayed for the harm the government has inflicted on them with racist highways and disinvestment in the past. It’s not uncommon for the infrastructure that supports bikes and scooters, like protected lanes and car-free streets, to be coupled with gentrification, which further harms existing residents and ignores their most pressing needs like getting to work on time and paying rent.

At least 45 percent of trips across the US are three miles or less, making bikes and scooters, particularly electric ones, a comfortable and clean alternative to cars. Research shows that increased access to bikeshare in low-income neighborhoods is a promising strategy to increase job access. For longer trips, users often use shared bikes and scooters to connect to transit.

When public transit declines, low-income and BIPOC residents are the first to feel the impact.

Governments must fund equity initiatives to collaborate with marginalized populations so cities can make effective and inclusive programming around low- and zero-emission transportation. This includes engagement events with local communities on how they would realize improved access to shared bikes and scooters, as well as where the bike lanes and infrastructure would be located and how it would look and feel.

Inclusive bike and scooter programming consists of three parts: community engagement and partnerships with local groups for educational programming; affordable access to the bikes and scooters; and a network of lanes and streets that are comfortable for new and experienced riders.

IN CALIFORNIA AND ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, we are facing a transit operator shortage, resulting in delayed and reduced transit service.

When public transit declines, low-income and BIPOC residents are the first to feel the impact. Public transit is a lifeline for low-income people, people with disabilities, many essential workers, and those without cars or licenses.

Increased funding for transit service needs to address improving transit operators’ salaries and jobs, subsidizing fares for those who can’t afford them, and creating a network of frequent and reliable connections to get people where they need to go.

As global warming brings more severe weather, such as extreme heat and rain, infrastructure like bus shelters become more important. Neglecting to provide a proper place to sit and protection from the elements for bus riders disproportionately neglects historically marginalized residents. Prioritizing roads for cars over bus lanes, which are a proven solution to speed up travel time for transit, again furthers the racism central to the origins of the built environment.

Funding for service and infrastructure to support increased transit ridership, affordable fares, and living wages for operators will be well worth it. Concurrently, we also need to reduce parking spaces in cities, including in new construction and development.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, there are enough parking spaces to wrap around Earth 2.3 times. When you’re cruising around looking for a spot, more parking can seem like a good thing, but it’s not. Parking enables and encourages driving. What’s more, parking lots take up precious space that we could use for other things that improve public health like housing or parks.

Cities have historically required parking spaces with every new construction project to account for the people that need to arrive there by car. But we already have enough parking. Now it’s time to get creative with how to use these spaces. Those who need to drive should have priority access to existing parking spaces, and those who don’t need to drive should have comfortable, affordable access to alternatives.

These are our strongest strategies to curb greenhouse gas emissions, reduce fatalities from cars which, too, disproportionately impact BIPOC communities, and improve access to opportunities for low-income residents.

Doing the right thing by our communities is good for all of us. Another vision is possible if we recognize and reject the dangerous, racist thinking that fueled the development of car-first cities and streets. Showing up to public meetings to voice these inclusive and clean policies makes a difference. Inviting, safe streets boost spending in local businesses, while transforming channels for high-speed emission-belchers into places where we can take a stroll, come together, and enjoy getting around our communities.

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