Cities Are Suddenly a Little Less Car-Centric

(Opinion) After devoting more than a century of planning and engineering effort to the movement and storage of cars above all other considerations, U.S. cities have suddenly, temporarily shifted priorities.

May 21, 2020, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell


New York City Restaurant

Ayumi Saeki / Shutterstock

It might be time to wonder if the car has finally met its match.

While it's so far only a temporary change, the sudden popularity of al fresco streets—a term we are using until a more universally accepted term comes along—presents undeniable evidence that some things in the United States are, for now at least, more important than allowing for the automobile's every possible convenience. 

From California to Missouri to Connecticut, U.S. cities are clearing sidewalks, blocking parking spaces, closing entire streets to vehicles, and setting up shop in empty parcels to make space for outdoor retail and restaurant businesses. These changes are necessary for many local restaurant and retail businesses to survive a summer of social distancing requirements, according to the rationale behind the changes. Since the city of Vilnius, Lithuania announced plans to close streets in its downtown historic core to automobiles to allow for outdoor space to cafés, almost daily announcements of similar plans have hit the U.S. planning newswire. Where the idea hasn't achieved full political and bureaucratic backing, editorial boards and advocates are calling for more, like in Dallas, Seattle, Boston, New York, Denver, and Chicago

Lost in some of the discussion is the significance of the al fresco streets movement in the history of urban planning in the United States. There have been very few occasions since the beginning of the 20th century that any feature other than the movement and storage of the automobile has been assigned top priority in the public and private built environment. 

There are a few exceptions in a century of the car's unflinching dominance: A freeway is torn down here and there (also resulting in new, massive tunnel built to replace the lost highway capacity). A bike lane is added from time to time. Jane Jacobs achieved new levels of fame by preventing an elevated highway through Manhattan, so score one point for everything other than cars. The paint is still wet on two of the biggest pre-pandemic victories over the car-centric status quo: In 2019, New York City gave priority to buses on 14th Avenue in Manhattan and San Francisco closed Market Street to most car traffic. Two points each for everything but the car. 

The sudden proliferation of al fresco streets marks a substantial advancement of the cause represented by those scattered few examples of anti-car political success. We shouldn't discount the political achievement, however fleeting, of this unprecedented shift in the balance of political power. The automobile could still end up being the long-term victor in the post-pandemic reality to come. But for now, we are witnessing history.

To create an al fresco street, politicians must legislatively approve the removal of regulations and other obstacles for outdoor operation—of which, there are many (again, the car has been king for over a century). Preceding interventions—complete streets, open streets, shared streets, tactical urbanism, play streets, slow streetsparklets, Park(ing) Day, and Better Block—have tested some of the concepts of a post-car retrofit. Variations on those previous experiments are visible in some of the examples of al fresco streets that have emerged so far.

Despite the historic significance of these actions, a long-term victory over the destructive status quo of car-centric planning is far from assured. The traditional powers that be are already pushing back on the idea of turning car space over to active transportation and retail activity. In Chicago, opponents of the idea have called for bike lanes and bike parking to be converted to restaurant spaceIn Los Angeles, restaurants and pedestrians can have street space when they pry it from the cold, dead fingers of local driversThe Seattle Times is hosting a digital poll on the placement of "Stay Healthy Streets" around the city of Seattle. "I do not want streets closed in my neighborhood for any reason" is in second place as of this writing, with 27 percent of the vote. 

The temporary popularity of al fresco streets could become a pyrrhic victory if these changes become just another tool of privilege. Preventing the most vulnerable street users from being displaced or disenfranchised will require the participation of people traditionally left out of planning processes. Some organizations and individuals have voiced strong criticisms of al fresco streets, slow streets, and other changes in the public realm during the pandemic out of concern that necessary steps of public engagement are being skipped, and that "the implementation of these ideas is sometimes flowing along the same lines of inequity as many pre-corona planning and policy efforts," as Liz Ogbu states it in a highly recommended opinion piece for Curbed by Courtney E. Martin.

It's reasonable to assume that the world, left to its own devices, will continue to entrench and enrich the powers that be, during and after this crisis. It's clear that the treatment of street vendors and the homeless are two places to start when considering the equitable implementation of al fresco streets. Police enforcement of social distancing has also shown glaring discrepancies along racial lines in some cities, as have decisions about which parks and public spaces have stayed open, and which are closed. Public transit ridership could crater long enough to kill off transit service all over the country. If people start relying on cars for even more trips, cities could lose some of the most effective resources for social and economic mobility. If people start relying on cars for even more trips, entire cities, not just bus riders and pedestrians, will be overwhelmed with the traffic and pollution caused by cars

Unemployment might end up being the only trend with the long-term force to prevent a more car-centric future, but that's not a scenario any compassionate person would choose. As the sudden political support for al fresco streets proves, a sustainable, healthy, and equitable recovery requires a built environment that prioritizes bike and pedestrian mobility, public transit, access for people with disabilities, and less polluted air and water.

It's wishful thinking to assume that the proliferation of al fresco streets around the United States proves anything more than a temporary reordering of priorities. But advocates for less polluted, less dangerous urban environments shouldn't let this crisis go to waste. For the first time in over a century, the car is in the backseat. It's time for someone else to do the driving. 


P.S. The debate about streets has practically become a genre unto itself. Here's a sample that we'd be remiss not to find a place for few more of them in the Planetizen archive:

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