Do We Really Need All These Cars?

By Lindsay Sturman

Housing is more and more expensive, traffic is getting worse, and we have 12 years to save the planet. But there’s one solution that no one has tried that addresses all three: build a car-free neighborhood….and it comes for the low, low price of free.    

In the run-up to The Grove’s grand opening there was a raging debate over whether Los Angeles needed “another shopping mall,” with naysayers absolutely sure it would fail. Then it opened, and…boom! Families, teenagers, couples — people flocked there, and they stayed. They may have come for the Apple Store, but they stayed because there was something you couldn’t get anywhere else: a place you can walk and explore thanks to the fact there are no cars. Which meant you could let your kids run around. You could stroll and window shop – with no noise, no pollution, no fear of death. It was instantly beloved, a huge success, and a revelation. But sadly, it didn’t start a “car-free” revolution.

Sixteen years later, maybe we can.

It is self-evident that getting people out of cars is the key to addressing traffic and climate change. It can also have a huge impact on housing affordability. We all agree we want people out of cars, but we make it inconvenient, expensive, and dangerous to live without a car (to the point where drivers and elected officials are hostileto people trying to get out of their cars—look at the backlash against bike paths and scooters). We can flip the paradigm and diffuse the opposition by zoning an entire neighborhood to be car-free.

Gamla Stan, Södermalm, Stockholm, Sweden  Attribution: Aaron Zhu

Put simply, designate an area of the city to be a European-style neighborhood with no cars allowed — just sidewalks and bike paths — all within walking or biking distance to a Metro stop. We know these neighborhoods work because they exist all over the world. More than that, they are celebrated tourist destinations–think Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Venice, Italy. People actually payto spend time in car-free places.  

Cities around the world are inching towards fewer cars or outright banning cars — London, Oslo, Zurich and Paris are experimenting with car-free city centers – and finding that citizens don’t miss the traffic, noise, accidents, and pollution. It’s also good for business; business goes up when bike lanes and pedestrian plazas replace cars zooming by – because who wants to window shop along a freeway? And for those who wantan urban existence, car-free neighborhoods offer an amazing quality of life.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

The Plan for a Car-Free Neighborhood

Here’s how it could work in LA. Let’s start with an underutilized area of the city that is a candidate for redevelopment, and then change the footprint of the street to be car free— just sidewalks and bike paths (with room for emergency vehicles.) It can feel like the Venice Walk-Streets mixed with The Grove.

The new neighborhood must be located within walking or biking distance to public transportation, ideally a Metro stop.

After the city acquired the land it would be time to implement a new street design. Instead of the typical LA design of a wide street with parked cars and tons of wasted space, we’d go for narrow, walkable, and curving streets to create a sense of exploration and wonder.

Instead of this:   

How about this:

Photo by Raymond Tan on Unsplash

After the streets, it would be time to create lots. Every lot of the newly designed footprint would be pre-zoned for density and mixed-use: 4-7 stories of apartments above a ground floor of retail and businesses such as cafes, grocery stores, small businesses, and shops. Creating a dense street of stores and apartments means people can walk or bike to do the vast majority of their errands. It’s also what Jane Jacobs calls “sticky streets” – where people want to come, hang out, sit, stroll, and shop. This mix of businesses also provides local jobs which people can walk or bike to.

The neighborhood can be planned to include large and small parks, plazas, and a town square – places to gather and create community.

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

12% of Angelenos do not own a car.  We know that over 60% of millennials and 40% of boomers say they want to live in a walkable neighborhood. But we don’t make it possible, despite the fact that it’s better for the rest of us – better for businesses and the economy, better for traffic and better for the environment.

Creating Affordable Housing

Dense, mixed-use, car-free zoning also offers an opportunity to create naturally affordable housing.This is for several reasons — land cost of a building is spread over multiple units (as opposed to single-family homes on a huge lot). Revenue from first floor businesses can offset rents. Builders also aren’t paying for expensive underground parking (which can add $200 in rent per unit, not including the expense of owning a car — average cost of about $700/month). And compact apartments have substantially lower construction costs per unit.

Having the city pre-zone apartments can substantially reduce risk. Zoning battles and CEQA lawsuits from neighbors and NIMBYs can add years to get a project through the system – and the carrying costs can add another 5-10% to a project’s total cost. In addition, the risk of failuremust also be factored in: if a project doesn’t ultimately get approved, the builder can be out hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars. Multi-million dollar risk means only big developers can take on these projects, and big developers only build luxury units. So by eliminating the zoning risk, a wide variety of builders can enter the market – many of whom are more community focused, bringing new ideas and more altruistic values to our housing crisis.

By creating a flood of new housing options we can also help renters across the city. The lack of housing has driven up rents, so conversely the creation of thousands of units can stop the rise in rents, and even push rents back down. As supply increases, renters have more options, and landlords have to compete for tenants. Seattle has had a building boom and seen rents not just flatten – but seen rents go down.

What About the Cost?

Done right, a new walkable neighborhood can be built at no cost to tax-payers. Cities can opt to have outside investors buy the land and develop it; or the city can buy it themselves, re-do the street design, and then sell the lots to small builders. The city could make a substantial profit, and use a portion of that funding to subsidize affordable units to create an even more mixed-income community.

More benefits of building car-free neighborhoods:

  • Walkable neighborhoods are good for you and can prevent obesity and lower rates of heart disease.
  • Walkable neighborhoods lower crime and make cities more democratic.
  • Walking and biking are fun and lower depression.
  • Walkable neighborhoods are more accessible and offer more freedom to kids, people who can’t drive, the disabled, and the elderly.
  • Walkable neighborhoods are better for businesses.
  • No car accidents – we can achieve Vision Zero right off the bat.
  • No traffic.
  • We can address climate change at no cost to tax-payers – moving people into car-free living will instantly take cars off the streets. And it does not require Federal legislation that conservatives will resist; and it can scale up locally, nationally and even internationally.
  • It’s cheaper for cities: According to Jeff Speck, author of Walkability City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, when someone drives a car it costs the city $9.20 in services like policing and ambulances because of all the accidents and emergencies. When they walk, it costs the city a penny.
  • Done right, car-free neighborhoods can attract tourists and create jobs.

LA is a city of dreamers and doers. If we can find the political will to do a pilot, test it, and see if it works, we could start a revolution. Just think about it: if LA— the ultimate city of cars—can go car-free, anyone can.


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