Updated: Nov 6
The industrialist Henry Ford is credited with many accomplishments, including the manufacturing of affordable, personal motor vehicles that enabled the growth of suburbia and suburban sprawl. This fundamentally changed the way cities and regions were shaped, but unfortunately, it also led to an incredible amount of air pollution due to car emissions.
There's an interesting phenomenon that has been studied extensively. It has been shown that adding additional capacity to highways and streets, rather than reducing congestion, actually exacerbates the issue. This is because these improvements entice more people to use cars as their primary mode of transport.
To reduce traffic, we shouldn't reward car use. Instead, we should create barriers to car use, while simultaneously removing barriers from the use of public and shared modes of transport.
On August 29th, the city of London will expand its Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to all boroughs, benefiting an additional 5 million people. While this change will affect only 90% of cars, London has long been moving in this direction. Using a strategy of "carrot and stick," car owners have been transitioning to less polluting vehicles and relying more on public transportation.
There's no comparison between the cleanliness and efficiency of London's tube system and that of New York City's subway - which has been lagging behind.
New York City is moving towards introducing congestion pricing (in my opinion, a long overdue move). Monitoring devices are being installed around the city, and residents are beginning to witness the initial materialization of of the scene which will launch in 2024. It's no longer just a topic of discussion; it's becoming a reality. There's a growing realization that habits may need to change and that this change might have an impact. I've never before seen as much fury and resistance as locals protesting against the move. While it is an added costs and inconvenience, it's unfortunate when individuals only consider the impact on their convenience and lose sight of the bigger picture—the reduction in noise, less pollution, less congestion, and greater ease of moving around the city -for everyone - , which ultimately gives the city streets back to the people.
Safer streets mean fewer accidents, more public space, and a more pleasant outdoor dining experience without fumes and noise.
New York is also implementing schemes to pedestrianize more streets, which will also benefit the surrounding businesses. The recently announced scheme to formalize Covid-era outdoor dining is another mechanism to return the streets to the people.
In urban centers like New York and London, the perception of car travel being more pleasurable and convenient will change once roads are decongested, public transport is efficient and clean, cycling is safe, and people's habits shift away from defaulting to driving. Collectively, we will all enjoy the benefits of better streets and a healthier environment for our urban future.