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Time for the Car to Take a Backseat?

Chicago Traffic. Photo by Christian Barahona

What is the role of the car within urban areas in the United States? It such a basic question that the answer may seem obvious. But the accepted primacy of the car on our streets belies the congestion, pollution, and fatalities which extract an exorbitant cost on society. The National Safety Council estimates 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads in 2015; the largest increase in 50 years.

For Chicago entrepreneur Josh London, it's not so obvious that the car should be the dominant form of transportation within an urban environment. From his perspective, cities are not working as well and he asks "why can't we have car-free streets?" It's a unconventional view yet one informed by his own personal health journey.

A Personal Journey to Bike Commuting

After 8 years of living in Chicago he had never taken the El train once, instead driving to work and listening to the radio in his steel cocoon. At the time he weighed 40 more pounds than he does today and did not feel healthy. For multiple personal reasons, he made significant changes in his life including his commute. Today, 7 years later, he rides the bike daily to his job as the founder of a growing health care analytics company.

In addition to the health benefits of bike commuting, Josh cites the mental and emotional benefits of biking. He notes with pleasure his rides, "there is something marvelous about feeling the air against your face and moving yourself from one place to another under your own power." He also points out the increased opportunities to meet and interact with his environment and people from the vantage of a bike.

A great example of human interaction without cars are the many summer street fairs in Chicago. During these events, cars are not permitted and people in the neighborhood congregate and socialize with one another.  

The image calls to mind European street plazas or the main streets of small town American from years ago. Places where people can congregate, especially across multiple generations and backgrounds.  It seems when cars are absent people interact more.

The Role of the Car on Our Streets

Josh represents the kind of individual that many cities want:: he's an entrepreneur with a healthcare data analytics firm that is part of the knowledge economy. According to Josh, "I see health statistics everyday and see the exorbitant costs associated with healthcare." Beyond his own personal health odyssey, he sees problems in employer populations such as obesity, high stress levels, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes. And he would like to run his business in a way that supports his values.

Josh challenges us to rethink the preeminent role of the car in our American society. "Why are we not taking certain streets during rush hour and dedicated them to bikers and pedestrians only?"

He observes that 48% of Americans cannot afford a $500 monthly healthcare premiums yet almost everyone has a car,. There are certainly those that need a car for their job or other transportation needs. And yet, is the car really necessary in all situations? Perhaps there is a disconnect in priorities.

Josh asks, "What if we as a society took a different stance toward the automobile?" Already in many situations in Chicago you can get to a destinations more quickly by bicycle than by car. He continues, "the barrier is ourselves. I get strange looks for riding during the winter, and yet with the proper clothing it is doable."

Check out Josh's advice to bike commuters

Changing Attitude Towards Cars

Josh articulates a powerful vision, but issues like safety and more adequate infrastructure and training are required. However the question remains, why can't we have car-free streets? Reducing the dominance of cars within out cities may sound radical and yet we are seeing examples of progressive cities pursuing these strategies today. ​

​Data on millennial buying habits suggests that the primacy of the car may have peaked. One of the largest generations in history, millennials, are putting off the purchase of cars or avoiding them entirely (source: Goldman Sachs Fortnightly). According to a 2014 Washington Post article one of the many reasons millennials shun cars, "They keep telling survey-takers that they view cars as mere transportation, not status symbols. And there's some evidence that millennials factor the environment into their driving decisions ."

Their attitudes and behavior are helping to spawn the sharing economy and explains some of zeitgeist behind the rapid growth of bike sharing programs. ​

A Vision for a Biking and Walking Culture

In selected European cities cycling is a mainstream part of the culture. In Amsterdam, there are an estimated 800,000 bikes and 263,000 cars with 63% of residents using their bike on a daily basis (source: Iamsterdam). While in Copenhagen, 36% of all citizens commute to work, school or university by bicycle (source: Copenhagen Bicycle Account).

Amsterdam Bike Parking Garage. Photo by redjar.

Closer to home, Cook County, IL has just released a Long Range Transportation Plan to guide the County’s transportation decisions and their impact on economic growth and quality of life over the next 25 years. Cook County, which encompasses the city of Chicago, is the second most populous county in the United States. The plan states that "bicycles and pedestrians should be a priority, and new development should include accommodations for both." It also calls for a goal of doubling transit ridership by 2040.

We are already seeing glimpses of the future where the car's role is diminished.

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