Decreased car ownership rates among youth and increased transit use in several US cities are certainly not widespread, but each offers us unique insights into urban growth and development: the US cities with increased transit use often had recently made major investments in public transit, while decreased car ownership may be related to demographic shifts or increased environmental awareness. There has been a lot buzz lately about more radical initiatives adopted by some cities, such as car-free streets, car-free zones, and even car-free cities. Again, while these trends may not yet be widespread, their popularity is growing.

Transportation planner Jarrett Walker suggests that the cities with the largest percentages of car-free people are older cities with dominant universities and higher than average poverty.  Walker examined the fifty highest percentages of car-free people living in incorporated cities over 100,000, using the Carfree Census Database. His method is hardly scientific: he reasoned that most of the “top 50” cities on the list are older cities with an urban form created for walking and transit. Newer cities like Portland, despite all its transit-oriented development and progressive land use planning, still has only a fairly low car-free population at 14%. This pales in comparison to New York City (#1 at 55.7%) and cities we wouldn’t expect to have a high car-free population: Buffalo (31.4%), Atlanta (23.6%) Detroit (21.9%) and Los Angeles (16.5%), which are all in the top 50. While Walker’s suggestion about age of city makes sense, it is indeed puzzling that Portland could have fewer car-free households than these other cities, which we usually associate with car-dominant sprawling cities. The fact that poverty might be a factor explains Buffalo and Detroit, and many others on the list.

Treehugger.com recently made a list of the six cities that could easily go car-free: Geneva, Switzerland; Davis, California; Paris; Guadalajara, Mexico; Malmö, Sweden; and Guangzhou, China.  Many of these cities  have already made concerted efforts to increase transit use, decrease car driving or commuting, and increase or redesign pedestrian and bike infrastructure.  However, Guadalajara and Ghangzhou are just starting to realize the value of sustainable transportation: Guadalajara and Guangzhou are about to introduce BRT systems. Guadalajara closes 15 km of its streets to traffic for six hours every Sunday and is considering a proposal to pedestrianize its historic centre. In Ghangzhou, pedestrian alleyways still predominate over car-dominated streets, but as in many parts of China, it may be a hard sell to keep them that way as the cities grow rapidly and become more Westernized.

Car-free lifestyles may not be for everyone, but there are definitely areas of our cities that could stand to be car-free for a few hours or days of the year. We see this every month or so with festivals that close down roads for a couple of days. Many European cities have car-free city centres or zones that remain permanently closed to cars. New car-free developments have also been built, and decreased car parking requirements give people the option of paying less for a condo while giving them the option of car-sharing. While these are small steps, they may add up to lasting change in the way people think about car ownership, transit ridership and active transportation. I mean who would have thought that Buffalo and Detroit had such high car-free populations? This is definitely something to explore further, particularly whether poverty is indeed strongly linked to car-free lifestyles.

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