Walkable downtown areas in pedestrian-heavy cities are not only the future, they are also our vibrant past. Before World War II, it was much more common to have walkable cities and beautiful downtown areas for pedestrians.
However, after the boom of suburbia in 1950s America, most cities found that their downtown and urban areas are emptying and going broke.
We understand now that suburbia is decreasing local profits. Most cities are struggling because their downtowns go unused, and their suburban areas are losing money.
In this article, we will explore why walkable, car-free cities are a necessary future for our planet and our lives:
1. Car-Free Cities are Pro-Pedestrian
In a car-free city, anyone can eat, sleep, work, and play within a walkable distance. They would not need to buy a car, pay for gas, or struggle through hours of morning traffic to get to where they need to go.
For most of history, walkable cities were the standard, ideal way to structure where people live. People rode horses and bicycles or walked wherever they needed to go with little effort or time.
That isn’t our reality today. Today, most people (especially in the United States) are car-dependent.
That means they must drive 20+ minutes to their job, use gasoline, drive another 15 minutes to the grocery store, and then drive home again every day. This costs a lot of time and money and harms the planet and our health.
Even worse, most cities are not safe for pedestrians. Walking, biking, or jogging to your local bar, bakery, or office is dangerous and difficult in car-dependent cities.
Access to safe and clear bike lanes or sidewalks is very rare. Especially in smaller towns or more rural areas, car-heavy roads, highways, and freeways are more common than sidewalks, so pedestrians can’t walk anywhere.
Imagine, if you live in a small or suburban town, how many places do you walk to daily? Can you go to church, the store, or school without a car?
Even American downtown areas that are considered “walkable” have many cars driving 25-30+ miles per hour on little streets.
Most people crossing those streets must be very cautious to avoid traffic or walk two blocks down to find a safe crosswalk.
New York City, for example, is one of our most popular cities, and yet it is very dangerous for pedestrians and drivers alike.
Not only is there a huge amount of crowding on very small sidewalks, but their public transportation has to take place primarily underground in the subway system to get anywhere fast.
In the famously dangerous Casey Neistat YouTube video, Casey was ticketed by a New York City police officer for $50 for not biking in the bike lane – which is almost always blocked by cars, construction, or debris.
Casey recorded himself riding his bike strictly in the bike lane, then crashing several times into objects and even once a police car obstructing the lane.
This proved his point to local law enforcement about just how dangerous most places are for pedestrians who bike or walk in New York City.
2. Car-Free Cities are Cheaper for Shopping and Living
Most Americans have to drive 10-20+ minutes per day in boring traffic, wasting time, gas, and money.
People will often buy all their groceries in bulk once or twice per month to save money on transportation.
Buying in bulk means a higher chance of food going bad, getting thrown out or unused, or accidentally over-buying on meals you don’t really need. Not only is this not sustainable, but it also isn’t healthy for our bodies or our bank accounts.
Walkable, car-free cities take out the cost of gas, automobile repairs, and bulk-buying by simply making amenities easier to reach on foot, by bike, or by public transport.
“According to the AAA, it costs the average American over $9,500 a year, or 13% of average household expenditures, to own a car.”
While the additional housing costs might be high, the overall living costs do go down for many urban citizens.
Independence from Gasoline and Commutes:
People who live in walkable cities tend to buy groceries on their way home from work by stopping into their favorite deli, bakery, grocer, or produce stand.
They buy just enough for dinner or the weekend and generally use everything they buy.
Most people save plenty of money on gas by simply walking or biking to work. Others will take the bus, which costs far less per year when paying for a subscription than owning a car.
Even better, many residents of walkable cities still own cars, but they rarely use them except to go out of town or to travel longer distances!
That means less gas, maintenance, and time sitting in traffic.
3. Car-Free Cities are Cheaper for Housing
While most urban areas are very unaffordable, we often have exclusionary zoning laws to blame. Minimum parking requirements are part of those restriction laws.
To accommodate cars, buildings must include a lot of parking lots, parking garages, and structures.
Not only do those take up a lot of space, but it then prevents affordable housing from being built in urban and bustling areas.
That means that most low-to-average-income earners can’t afford to live in walkable, urban areas.
Basically, if you are a housing developer who must make room for 1.5 cars per person/apartment you build, those apartments will always cost way more money to build than they should.
Therefore, either developers won’t build them at all, or they charge a huge rent price to offset the cost.
That also means that anyone looking to live in a car-dependent city will only be able to afford an apartment on their own with a roommate or a very large income.
Car-free cities that prioritize affordable housing in non-zoned areas create the most incredible walkable cities in Europe.
By supporting mixed-living (residential and commercial) walkable cities, most European citizens are considered healthier, use less fuel, and are not as carbon-dependant.
“Today, the very density [residential apartment city living] that the court [a 1926 Supreme Court decision that upheld zoning in America] scorned is viewed by environmentalists as an antidote to sprawling development patterns that feed gridlock and auto emissions. It’s viewed by planners as an essential condition to support public transit, and by economists as the best means of making high-cost cities more affordable.”
Ultimately, walkable cities without restrictive zoning laws lower housing costs and the need for car ownership. Even better, they increase the use of public transportation, promote healthy living, and widen the average household’s expendable income.
4. Car-Free Cities Have More Amenities
Rather than a walkable downtown that only looks good for tourists, walkable cities are designed to be both functional and beautiful.
For example, in European “downtowns,” necessities like groceries, bakeries, butchers, affordable clothing, and household products are available in downtown shops and businesses for everyone to afford and enjoy.
Those downtowns will be outfitted with bike paths and walking paths without high car traffic.
In American “downtowns,” most businesses are for tourists or weekend splurge-shopping trips, like sit-down restaurants, bars, candy stores, coffee shops, high-priced clothing, bookstores, and maybe a single library.
You’ll also find places locals don’t usually go to unless they work there, like real estate agencies, banks, or other closed-off businesses.
American locals who DO live in tourist towns with picturesque shops and cute downtowns still shop at a grocery store that is 10+ minutes away. That’s because convenience grocers in those areas are high-priced to catch tourists who need a quick gallon of milk or loaf of bread.
In contrast, walkable cities are built to sustain the local people that live there, which means easier access to affordable food, public transport, and local businesses and services.
5. Car-Free Cities are Good for Small Businesses
Post-World War II, suburbia boomed as the desirable way of living for most American families.
To own your own land, a yard, and a spacious driveway for your new car was a dream for most people, and soon it became a more “normal” reality.
This led to car-heavy roads and traffic, as well as un-walkable streets.
The nearest grocery store for most people is a 15-20 minute drive away from their homes, making walking to amenities and luxuries nearly impossible.
As a result, downtowns and “Main Streets” of American cities have since been shut down or replaced by megastores, resulting in a lack of small businesses and car-free areas for pedestrians to shop, explore, and enjoy.
In the YouTube channel NotJustBikes‘ series called “Strong Towns,” (after the American nonprofit of the same name), the narrator explains how American suburbia begins to lose money, and how we can try to help revive them.
Furthermore, car-heavy cities make it hard for people to access most businesses.
In areas without walkable shopping, shoppers have to navigate difficult parking to find small business options.
Instead, most drivers will result to shopping at megastores like Walmart or Target.
Walkable cities promote the use of small, non-chain businesses owned by people who live in those areas. Rather than a giant Walmart taking over a city block, you can choose from hundreds of smaller shops and stores.
While those shops might not be as cheap as Walmart, their products are usually better for you and the people who make them. They also allow you to put money into your neighbors’ pockets, not billionaires.
6. Car-Free Cities Improve Public Transportation
If you live in a car-dependent city, how often do you wait for a bus, train, trolley, or shuttle? I’d imagine not very often.
Yet when you do have to wait for them, you probably find yourself bogged down by annoying time schedules, long waits, and crowded vehicles.
Public transportation in most American cities is poorly organized, low-funded, and difficult to navigate.
Yet public transportation is a huge necessity and important for everyone who can’t afford it or don’t have access to a personal vehicle.
In many walkable, bikeable cities, public transportation is more accessible and much more highly valued by the local government and its people.
7. Car-Free Cities are Inherently Healthier for Citizens
Exercise is important, even if you hate doing it. Yet the reason most people hate to exercise is because it feels forced.
Going to the gym or taking a long, boring walk around your neighborhood is the only way most people can stay fit. That’s because they have no need nor the incentive to walk or bike in their day-to-day life.
Just like how office jobs lead to higher chances of obesity and heart disease, car-dependent cities can also lead to weight gain.
However, walkable cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris are meant for walkers and bikers.
Plus, they’re large, meaning that you have to walk or bike quite a ways to get to where you need to go.
Luckily, that amount of walking or biking is attainable for most people. In fact, many citizens of European cities are healthier due to their walking and biking daily requirements.
Those citizens don’t even realize they are exercising because they are so used to it!
In contrast, most Americans exercise most when they are on vacation. They swim, walk, bike, hike, explore, and enjoy cities and landscapes over the course of a few days. Yet when we go home, we Americans return to our habits of using a car to get everywhere – because we have no other choice.
Walkable cities create a culture of healthy living simply because their citizens need to get from point A to point B without a car. It leads to less obesity, healthier lifestyles, and happier people.
8. Car-Free Cities are Economically Flexible
It is really hard to turn a Walmart into something else that is useful to the community without building another big-box store.
However, turning a small shop in a walkable downtown area into a bakery, apartment, butcher, bookstore, or office is very easy.
When a big-box store like Walmart, Target, Cabela’s, Kohl’s, etc. closes one of its locations, a city is left with a big, ugly, empty windowless building with nothing to fill it.
This takes away jobs and commerce from an area, lowering the value of that town or city.
In contrast, walkable downtowns have dozens of smaller shops operating all at once. If one of those little shops goes out of business, there are twenty more to keep the area functioning. The value of that area stays constant, and the loss of that little shop is temporary.
Once that shop is filled with another shop, things go back to normal pretty quickly. However, most big-box empty stores stay vacant for years before another large company comes in to fix it.
For example, my hometown’s K-Mart went out of business nearly a decade ago, leaving a huge ugly building behind. There are nearly 2 to 3 acres of empty parking lots going unused there, and it is now the primary residence of hundreds of seagull birds and no human beings.
The surrounding area became pretty unused as a result, and so other businesses (especially the little, family-owned ones) now struggle to stay afloat.
Here’s what it looks like in 2022:
Today, the building still remains mostly vacant. A big ugly parking lot and a couple of struggling businesses sit nearby.
Inside, half of a repair shop business is operating out of this city block-sized mega mart.
This suburban shopping center is what bankrupts local businesses and the rest of the city. It is useless unless someone fills it up, and it either has to be torn down or repurposed to serve many different needs.
If you look at your own hometown, I bet you’ll find a similar example.
What Comes Next?
Car-free cities are very different from what most Americans are used to, what with several generations growing and supporting the suburban fantasy.
Yet, now that we know suburbia and car-dependant areas are slowly bankrupting many American cities, it is time for a change.
Yes, the American dream is owning your own house on your land. You get privacy and space to yourself, allowing you to do whatever you want with your own home.
However, suburbia also takes away fundamental human connections, such as community spaces, local business economies, and frequent interactions with new and interesting people.
Think of how often you vacation to places with cute downtown areas, bike lanes and trails, or town squares with market stalls and live music. What if where you lived had those places, too?
Walkable cities may not come with a white picket fence, but they do come with amazing opportunities to connect with people, own a small business, and get outside and stay healthy in safe community areas with your friends and neighbors.
Walkable cities with the proper infrastructure will build the wealth needed to sustain them. Local businesses will thrive, big-box stores will decline, and the city will shift and change over time to meet the needs of newer, modern societies.
It will be less common to see suburban houses crumbling under disuse and instead be more common to see people walking from work to the bar, grocery, or home without having to suffer through traffic or pay for gallons of gas every week.
Bike Lanes by Casey Neistat – YouTube (Warning, foul language and dangerous stunts)
Density, Destinations, or Both? A Comparison of Measures of Walkability in Relation to Transportation Behaviors, Obesity and Diabetes in Toronto, Canada
Walkable Cities Can Benefit The Environment, The Economy, And Your Health | climaterealityproject.org
How Zoning Broke the American City | The Atlantic
Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot | The New York Times