New York Times: In Europe, the car comes last

This story from the front page of today’s New York Times describes the vast cultural, social and political differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to the personal automobile.

From the opening paragraph:

While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars.

Read that last bit again: Europeans are creating environments that are openly hostile to cars.

In Zurich, pedestrians and trams rule the streets and the private automobile is pushed to the sidelines.

In Zurich, pedestrians and trams rule the streets and the private automobile is pushed to the sidelines. (Photo by Torcello Trio via Flickr)

And people aren’t rioting in the streets – in fact more people are choosing to give up their cars. In Zurich, where there’s been a particularly active effort to push cars to the periphery, 45% of households are carless and those that do have cars are driving them less.

Compare that to Los Angeles, where closing down a few miles of freeway for a single weekend has been likened to the apocalypse. Nevermind that the temporary 405 closure is happening in order to widen the freeway to make room for more cars.

In Copenhagen “vast swaths of streets” have been closed to car traffic. In Paris car lanes have been traded for bike lanes. Meanwhile, back in L.A. we struggle to get cars off of a single lane on Wilshire Boulevard for just a few hours each weekday to make room for buses that carry more people than the cars on the same street.

So what do you think? Is European style urban planning – and the resulting inconvenience to drivers – something we should be doing in the U.S. (and in L.A. in particular)? Or is this European social planning forcing people from their cars and into a more inconvenient lifestyle? Read the article and then take our poll and leave a comment.

10 replies

  1. “The idea that Americans drive more than Europeans due to our “tastes” and the “free market” is nothing but a myth.”

    One of the common complaints levied against the transit movement is that it is social engineering.


    But the push for interstate highways and suburban living was definitely social engineering. There was all sorts of propaganda about highways and suburbs and the American Dream. Try the highway exhibits at the World’s Fair. The film Magic Highways by Disney. How about the absurd financing of our interstates?

    Social engineering, indeed.

  2. We didn’t compromise or take it slow when we were building freeways. We went full speed ahead for about 20 years.

    I can sympathize somewhat with Y Fukuzawa’s point of view, because there are a lot of people who are going to have the hardest time adjusting to change.

    However, there are plenty of logical reasons — gas prices, smog, traffic congestion, among others — to make transit top priority.

    Y Fukuzawa can have her scooter or her motorcycle if she wants. I want other alternatives.

  3. The way I see it, all forms of transportation are heavily subsidized by the government, whether it’s through road/highway construction and maintenance, or building transit systems and paying for their operations. The idea that Americans drive more than Europeans due to our “tastes” and the “free market” is nothing but a myth. We drive more because transportation planners have done just about everything they can to make driving cheaper and easier than taking transit. This type of “social engineering” is no different from what the article describes as happening in Europe.

    Since all transportation is “public,” we have near complete control over what kind of transportation network we want to build. There is no reason why we shouldn’t build our cities in ways that maximize efficient land use while minimizing energy and fossil fuel consumption, all while improving the health of our citizens. Sure, this will come at the expense of the private automobile, but in the long run, it’s a small price to pay for a better future.

  4. I wish there was a fourth choice in between “yes, make driving inconvenient” and “lets compromise but make sure we don’t affect driving” Its not that simple. We certainly need to prioritize transit over cars but it does not need to be hostile to cars as a direct intended objective. It just needs to not worry about the impact to cars, because if it does, it means you hurt transit. An example of that is the lack of signal preemption on our surface lines and busways because of concerns about traffic. we are hurting transit in favor of concerns about the impact to cars. The goal here should be, not to directly hurt traffic as an intention, but to improve transit, with a possible side effect of affecting traffic because it then means transit can be maximized. Not prioritizing transit over cars would be the wrong approach and yet that is what LA has been doing for decades despite already having thousands of miles of paved roads and a colossal freeway network.

  5. And another thing, we need to revamp our urban planning to stop building sideways and start building upwards. The reason why we need cars is because we keep building sideways so our commutes are longer and we need to drive to get to the nearest supermarket or electronics store.

    Do we really need a baseball stadium sized lot to build a Target or BestBuy? Can’t we just have a Target or BestBuy that’s five or six stories tall instead? Do we really need Walmarts the size of ten football fields? Do we really need business parks that are only three stories tall but span a lot of 30 acres? Why are the new faux-Mediterranean apartment/condominium complexes being built on 50 acre lots? Can’t we just build one 40 story apartment/condo tower instead?

    Perhaps it has to do with outdated regulations and restrictive tax measures where we can’t build any apartment building or condo that’s above three stories or so. I think it’s time to repeal that. Civil engineering methods have improved drastically in the past thirty years that we can now build fifty story buildings that can withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake; look at Tokyo on how their skyscrapers withstood the recent earthquake.

  6. It isn’t just about making it inconvenient to drive for the sake of making it inconvenient to drive. It’s that there is a social, environmental and economic justification for doing so.

  7. I strongly support policies that inconvenience the automobile. LA has been subjected to several decades of car first policies that have discouraged the use of alternative transportation options to the point where it is not a very practical option to attempt to using anything outside the personal automobile to get around this metro area.

    I strongly support polices that prioritize pedestrians first, followed by cyclist, public transportation, and last the automobile

  8. Why is it that these articles always suggest a black-and-white approach of cars vs public transit? Why not take a step-by-step approach to help get people off of cars for their daily lives and instead, use something more cost efficient like a motorcycle or scooter before going to an all public transit model?

    Americans are not going to give up their cars and switch 180 degrees to buses and rails in a snap. You need a buffer in the middle that adds an extra step for people to become accustomed to the idea of change.

    Motorcycles and scooters are good “mid-paths” to the approach. It provides the freedom of movement as owning a car, but even the most macho Harleys gets way better gas mileage than any other car out there. A thundering Harley can get 34 mpgs on the road and 54 mpgs on the highway, a 125 cc Kymco scooter can edge 70-80 mpgs, a 50 cc Vespa or Honda Metropolitan can get 90-100 mpgs. It’s faster than bicycling, yet the amount of space that a motorcycle or scooter takes up on the road is much less than a car. Americans need to learn that you don’t need a car 24/7 and that most of the time, a motorcycle or scooter does the same job of getting around town as efficiently and fast as a car.

    As you get more people off of cars and onto motorcycles and scooters, you’d need less parking and the need for wider roads. More parking spaces can be converted to motorcycles and scooters only parking, and parking space for cars can be used for a higher price per supply-and-demand economics. i.e., parking for motorcycles and scooters become cheaper, while parking spots for cars gets pricier.

    Sooner or later most people will be driving motorcycles and scooters that you really don’t need six-lane freeways in each direction or three lane major arterial roads on surface streets. A six lane freeway then can be coverted to a four lane freeway each way with two rail tracks each way. The width used for a three lane major arterial road can be shortened to add a bus lane.

    Change needs to happen in steps. First, let’s get people off of cars to motorcycles and scooters. Then after that’s done, we can utilize the emptier roads and freeways for bus lanes and rail lines.

    Increasing number of Angelinos are obtaining M1/M2 endorsements on their drivers licenses. Next time, take notice how there’s more motorcyclists and scooter riders in LA. That should give a hint that some Angelinos are taking heed that we don’t need cars 24/7.

    Encourage that movement to get commuters to change their habits from cars to motorcycles and scooters, and you begin to see a much better environment to add a bus lane or replace a freeway lane with a rail line.

  9. I wish our politicians had the political will of these guys:

    We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy,” said Pio Marzolini, a city official. “When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car.”