Is a Street Without Cars Still a Street? Walkways Gain Traction in Cities

Is a Street Without Cars Still a Street? Walkways Gain Traction in Cities

Halsey Robinson

Halsey Robinson ('22), Summer Reporter

STANWICH ROAD/REMOTE SUMMER- Congestion, pollution, and going nowhere fast is common-place in our cities. There may be only one way to save them: making several of their “streets” car-Free.

New York, London, Barcelona, and many other heavily populated areas have all run into similar problems involving congestion. In New York City, a taxi ride that would normally take ten minutes, often takes more than four times as long.  In addition, CO2 and pollutants contaminate the atmosphere, allowing for unhealthy air quality to exist and medical conditions like asthma, worsening.  People are killed every day in these cities, usually due to their confusing traffic patterns and eager travelers, all trying to get somewhere, while seemingly going nowhere.

Many modern cities faced with these daunting problems have asked “how can we improve and keep our city safe, while at the same time keep our residents and visitors happy?” One solution has been growing in popularity: many are wondering whether cars are necessary in their cities, and if they can be replaced with a better alternative.

Cars take up the most space on city streets, yet pedestrians often outnumber them at a startling ratio of six to one according to nyc.streetblog. If cities were to remove their cars  in a significant way, unnecessary deaths, congestion, and pollution could be a thing of the past, making cities much safer and more livable than ever.  In New York City, the Vision Zero program aims at reducing or eliminating pedestrian deaths.

Ms. Laura Di Bonaventura, Director of Sustainability at GCDS supports the notion for exactly these reasons and more.

“There is so much to gain with this policy, as unimaginable as it might seem to so many who have only known cars in cities: less asthma/better health, less pollution (heavy metals on roads from diesel for example is brought into homes on people’s shoes and very young children ingest them, damaging their short and long-term health), more community connections, space for urban tree planting (data shows trees lower temperatures, even effect crime rates), and so on and so on,” Ms. Di Bonaventura said in an email interview.

This idea has been implemented many times in many cities. Barcelona has turned some of its city streets into “superblocks,” which is a section of the city in which cars cannot enter, while other forms of transport, like bikes, scooters, and emergency vehicles, can. This has restored some of the culture around religious and communal areas, and many residents enjoy the feeling.

“It gives priority to the pedestrian. I believe it’s very important that people have space,” said Marta Louro, a local teacher in an interview conducted by the New York Times.

Many critics worry that this policy would increase traffic around the surrounding roads. However, it had the opposite effect. Many pessimists have been converted into supporters of these superblocks, and it is one of the most effective examples of how to deal with these problems facing modern-age cities.

Janet Sanz Cid, a deputy mayor of the city, told the New York Times, “We like to call it ‘winning back the streets for the people.’ People from Barcelona want to use the streets, but right now they can’t because they are occupied by cars.”

Heavily-populated cities often result in aggressive drivers and impatient pedestrians, which, in turn, creates a lot of horn-blaring at dare-devils weaving through cars to get from point A to point B. 

NYC attempted Barcelona’s approach in a different way in order to address this problem. They wanted to keep cars on the streets, but limit their use. After getting blocked twice by courts, and having protests in the streets, they eventually turned 14th street into a skinnier version of the superblock. 14th street today has a “car-curfew” enforced between 6 am to 10 pm. Cars/trucks during this period can only enter the street if they are doing a delivery, dropping someone off, or leaving a parking garage. This approach has made business owners and residents in these areas more open to the approach, as many restaurants require deliveries that can only be done by truck, and many residents require cars to get where they want to go. Buses are even running 150% faster than before the car-curfew, as buses no longer compete with too many cars on the same road.

“Before this new system. It was mess. So I think they’re doing a good thing,” said one bus rider to Spectrum News NY1.

The “car-curfew” was enforced after a 60-day grace period, where drivers had the opportunity to get used to the new system; an important method to keep people happy.  Afterwords, fines were enforced, and drivers found not adhering to the rules could expect a fine between 50$ and 250$ for repeat offenders.

It should be noted that this policy is only targeting non-residents in these areas; people who live in this area are entitled to own cars and drive whatever they want, but outsiders can no longer use 14th street as a way to get across town. 

But not everybody is keen on the concept. Many say this solution is riddled with problems, such as “Will businesses still be able to get customers and the same, or more, money?” or “What will happen to the roads surrounding this area?”.   

“I think limiting cars in cities would be a good end goal that helps cut down congestion and increase productivity. But the main problem you’ll run into will be getting people living within those areas to agree with your reasoning and trust the projected results over their own wishes,” Sarah Li wrote, a rising sophomore at GA, in an email interview.

Of course there are many things this possible solution will need to overcome before being implemented: finding the right road(s), asking business owners and residents their opinions and how city planners can change their policies to help them, re-organizing in-bred systems to fit these needs, etc.

But understanding that this solution is trying to help residents living on these streets, instead of promoting a political or economic incentive is paramount to its understanding; policy makers are trying to make the street have its own culture, instead of making it a “green goal” of the city.

 James Fiore, a rising junior at GCDS, said he too was a critic but agreed with a more targeted approach.

“The residents in the area should not be restricted how they should come and go, but it’s ok to restrict non-residential car-usage,” he said.

Covid-19 has given cities a unique moment to consider new ideas which were never tried before, including cities transforming their infrastructure. People are likely to be more open to turning roads into 14th-street replicas, since almost everybody has experienced driverless roads and bikers at every corner.

Many have even had to sell their cars or parts of their homes or businesses, in order to make up for the money lost in the recession. Bikes, scooters, jogging, bus-riding, and subways may become the new way to get around big cities

Improving people’s understanding of “City-Street Culture” may be what is needed, so that these blueprints for a new future can embody the asphalt and car-free(ish) zones that come from those designs.


Halsey Robinson is a rising junior who is interested in the lives of those who fight for our country.  This article was written for the summer Journalism Lab practicum.