For years, environmentalists have pointed out the damage done to our health and lives by car-centric cities, including air pollution and neighborhood demolition, often disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color, greenhouse gas emissions, fatal accidents, traffic snarls and urban sprawl. On top of these injuries are the added insult of huge swaths of city space devoted not to parks or cafes or public squares but to cars. As Joni Mitchell bemoaned in her 1970 song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” we “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
What would the alternative to car-centric cities be? For one thing there would be more buses and trains, bike lanes and walking tracks. But that’s not all. Cities would be designed to promote accessible, reliable and efficient transport, for sure, but also neighborliness, street safety, clean air and a vibrant and creative outdoor culture.
Before the advent of cars, U.S. cities were leaders in public transit. At the turn of the century, large subway systems were built in New York and Philadelphia, and across the country, “inter-urban” tram networks connected rural areas to cities. The rise of the automobile in the 1930s deeply cut into the revenues of public transport systems that, for the most part, were rider-funded, with some municipal support. In 1956, Congress further hobbled public transport’s prospects by passing the Interstate Highway Act, which provided 90 percent of the funding to build out a national highway grid.