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What Is Car-Centric Planning?

3 minute read

'Car-centric planning' refers to urban planning that privileges the private automobile as a primary transportation mode, often to the exclusion of people who walk, bike, or use public transit.

Empty Road

Samer / Flickr

It may be difficult to imagine now, but American cities have not always been accompanied by sprawling suburbs clustered around multi-lane freeways designed to move as many cars as quickly as possible between two points. But today, outside of some small, historic walkable downtowns, car-centric planning—policies and programs that benefit drivers and vehicular traffic at the expense of other users of public and private space—has come to define most U.S. metropolises. 

Some examples of car-centric planning projects that don't take into consideration the needs of other mode shares are: neighborhoods designed without sidewalks, wide multi-lane roads with fast speed limits and limited or non-existent pedestrian infrastructure, vast surface parking lots, and curbside space dedicated to private car parking. Car-centric planning also takes shape through land use policies such as separated uses that require driving between homes and businesses and induce automobile dependence or a lack of reliable and effective public transit. 

In many cases, transportation planning efforts focus on factors such as traffic flow and signal prioritization that make it easier to move as many cars as possible through a given area quickly and efficiently. Streets become something to move through rather than exist in. These attributes are easier to quantify and measure than more qualitative aspects of road design such as pedestrian safety and walkability. Some experts caution that the wide availability of data related to cars and the lack of pedestrian-oriented data begets further car-centric policies. Pedestrian advocates point to auto-focused, speed-motivated infrastructure as a major cause of pedestrian and traffic deaths, calling on policymakers to implement 'Vision Zero' goals to eliminate pedestrian fatalities and make streets safe for all. 

Opponents of car-centric planning point to its detrimental economic, environmental, and social effects, calling for policies that look at transportation infrastructure through a more holistic lens and design streets with all people and modes of transport in mind. Auto-centric policies drive up carbon emissions and contribute to climate change, raise household expenses by requiring car ownership as a necessary step to participating in the economy, hinder the effectiveness of public transit, and perpetuate dangerous conditions for pedestrians and other non-drivers. In many cases, densely populated urban neighborhoods have been negatively impacted by road projects that have sliced through communities and eliminated pedestrian access to crucial amenities. In most U.S. cities, these communities are disproportionately made up of people of color and low-income residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the dangers of auto-centric planning as transit agencies struggled to maintain operations for transit-dependent households who found it increasingly difficult to access basic needs, continuing to reduce service as the pandemic entered its third year.

A report from Third Way Energy and Smart Growth USA argues that even rural communities with low density can benefit from a shift in thinking when it comes to transportation planning and road design. While driving more in rural areas may seem unavoidable, more than one million rural residents don't own cars. Experts say policymakers can make the investments needed to accommodate a 'car-light' lifestyle in all communities by improving public transit systems, encouraging density and mixed-use zoning, and building safe, accessible pedestrian and bike infrastructure. As major employers increasingly consolidate their operations and cities continue to sprawl, providing transit options for workers in far-flung areas becomes more important, particularly considering the high cost of car ownership for low-income workers forced into automobile dependence.

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