Downtown is Not a Place for Cars

hennepin avenue shared lanes 2Yesterday, I made plans with friends to go out for dinner in downtown Minneapolis. Although one of my friends has a car, she didn’t want to drive because “there’s never anywhere to park”. This seems to be a common sentiment towards driving downtown in Minneapolis and many other cities, so why is so much space in downtown dedicated to roads and parking? Maybe the answer is that downtowns would be better off without cars at all. The idea of downtowns becoming car-free is a huge change from our current auto-centric mindset and typical city structure. Because of that, this is not a short term goal, but rather a long term vision. If the space allocated for roads and parking were allocated to create more walkable, condensed downtowns the benefits would be incredible socially, economically, and environmentally. Already, we have seen that more walkable cities are becoming more prosperous because they are attracting the next generation, my generation. Cars currently take expansive amounts of prime space in downtowns across the country. In Detroit, streets and parking take up 49.5% of the central city, in Minneapolis that number is 48.3%, and LA tops the chart at 59% (Melosi 2004). Condensing these areas would make them easier to transverse on bike or foot simply because of decreased distance. Besides the health and environmental benefits of this, it is simply what my generation wants. Fewer young adults are dreaming of suburban white picket fences in favor of walkable cities, where everything is easily within reach.

Making cities more walkable and giving people the opportunity and the encouragement needed to do so would completely change lives in those cities. We have already seen these affects in cities that have put efforts into bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure like Portland, Oregon. Between 2010 and 2000 Portland saw a 50% increase in college educated millennials , five times more than anywhere else in the US because it became a place where people want to live. Walkable cities tend to have a higher quality of life because there are simply more social opportunities and people have more time to absorb and interact with their surroundings. In a car, each person is separated from everyone else by sheets of metal, but as pedestrians, they are all walking together on the street. Of course that doesn’t mean everyone says hello to everyone else or that they stop to smell each flower they pass but it does allow some semblance of a community, and gives the opportunity for social and environmental interaction.

Designating downtowns  as car free zones and encouraging people to commute by public transit, foot, or bicycle, would decrease pollution and increase physical activity, two dire concerns today. Less cars on the roads would mean lower carbon footprints throughout the city. More people commuting actively would decrease rates of obesity and improve overall health of the city’s population. People are often reluctant to change their entire lifestyle for the sake of any particular issue at the global scale. Instead of looking at climate change as the motivating force, it’s an opportunity to redesign our cities to be more prosperous and livable, and the lives of those within them to be healthier.

Walkable cities are the most prosperous for many reasons, and all cities could capitalize on these benefits by creating car-free downtowns. Millennials, as a general trend, are not interested in living in the suburbs, they want to live in walkable, bike-able areas and for good reason. In America, the average person spends 1/5 of their income on transportation, and often times they even spend more on transportation than housing. These numbers skyrocketed after the suburbanization of the mid 20th century. But today, many of these suburbs’ young people are choosing to move into the hearts of cities, more walkable areas. Attracting this next generation is the best way for cities to increase innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic activity. They can do this not only by inviting new companies to their cities but by simply changing the way their city is designed to make themselves more attractive to those groups. Downtowns are the hubs of cities. It is integral that they are dense places that people want to be and when about half of that prime space is being devoted to cars and not people it is time to reevaluate how cities are designed and build downtowns based on what the next generation wants and needs.

Written by Olivia Thorp, Macalester College, Class of 2017


Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.

21 thoughts on “Downtown is Not a Place for Cars

  1. SSP

    You mean you have trouble finding free parking downtown. There’s plenty of parking in downtown Minneapolis, especially at night – you just need to pay for it. And it’s much cheaper than during the day.

    Transforming downtowns to be “car free” means creating livable communities downtown- with homes, shopping, schools, grocery stores, doctor’s offices – not just entertainment and offices. Even when we build transit that works for commuting most people still want to drive a car. 84% of trips in Portland are still by car despite massive investment in transit:

    Instead of focusing on getting rid of cars we would be better served by creating more communal nodes where it is possible to live without a car. We have far too few in the Twin Cities.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’d go with “both” rather than “instead of.”

      Maybe “car light” would be a more accurate vision, but I think it’s inarguable that a vibrant downtown means a place you get around in mostly other than in a car. Park on the edge and walk, bike or use transit in the core.

      We’re a very long way from that, though.

  2. robsk

    While I admire the enthusiasm of the author, the tone is a little too “collegie” (yes, I made that up) to be taken seriously. Millennials will be long gone by the time we have downtowns without cars, where everyone works and lives in affordable skyscrapers. “The next generation” is not the generation with the most disposable income, typically it is 35-44 year olds, so I question the economic advantage of a bunch of young people who just don’t want to drive.

    How far will the millennial walk in January with bags of groceries? Don’t forget the impending plastic bag ban and other bag surcharges. How are you going to get the goods and services to these downtowns? How can you even build them without drivable streets? Previous comments already addressed most of my other concerns.

    If the so-called “millennial generation” ends in 2004, what will the next generation want and need?

    1. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

      Editor’s note: The tone is “collegie” because this post and the others under the Macalester Student Views byline were written as college class assignments.

      After the fact and after the course had ended, and the course instructor decided to publish the assignments on for just the sort of real world exposure TOM refers to, plus give readers some new perspectives.

      I believe the Macalester student writers and professor would welcome constructive criticism for how to present student work as blog posts rather than academic assignments (including linking sources, adding images and considering the blog audience rather than just the professor’s perspective).

      I encourage readers to think how to encourage student writers to think critically about their proposed goals or solutions and how they get there.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I thought it was pretty obvious that this was homework being published, but still idealistic college opinions on what we should do should have some basis in reality. The authors obviously hate cars and I love cars, so arguing opinion isn’t productive, so instead I suggested they think about whether some of their idealism is actually practical.

        So if we ban cars from the core city, how would it work? Would we have parking garages at the perimeter and some kind of people mover/ Build more light rail lines to the suburbs? Would businesses decide it’s better to attract car-loving X-ers and before as opposed to a single generation, the car-hating Millennials and move to the suburbs? Would that be desirable in that the businesses that would stay in the city and even relocate their be the type that the Millennials would work for?

        How do we know Millennials, once they outgrow their college idealism, and start to raise a family, won’t decide they’d rather have a picket fence rather than live in a skyscraper, something other generations have done? Believe it or not my parents once lived in the city, near where the Quarry is now, before deciding to start a family. Being crime victims when their motorcycle was stolen is what finally made them pull the trigger and move but they were thinking about moving for some time before.

        1. Joe

          I am a Millennial. I have a family (two kids), and I own a home with a fence (though not of the picket variety). I work downtown. And I bus/bike there! Crazy, eh?

          Also I would never work anywhere to which I couldn’t bus/bike.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m 35-44 and I don’t want to drive if I can help it (or unless it’s for recreation).

      I will walk about 6 blocks in January with a bag of groceries. Walking in the cold isn’t at all hard if you dress for it. But you can even use your car for a trip or two per week to the grocery store.

      And if we’re talking about downtown Minneapolis, of course, you can use skyways so to minimize your outdoor time.

    3. Rosa

      as a person who used to walk 1-2 miles for groceries in a much smaller & more car-friendly town than this one, because I couldn’t pay for a car and tuition both when I was in college, the plastic bag ban makes that easier, not harder – plastic bags are hell on your hands, don’t hold much, and give way at inconvenient times if you put anything pointy, like a box of cheerios, into them. A backpack (something most college students own!) is much easier on your body and, if you want to carry something in your hands, a fabric tote is sturdier and easier on the hands. They cost $1 at Aldi.

      1. Monte Castleman

        So how does banning other people from using what’s convenient for them make it more convenient for you? Was their any law preventing you from using cloth bags when stores still gave out free plastic?

        1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

          People can drive to the edge of downtown (like driving to the edge of a regional mall or amusement park like Valleyfair or Disneyworld) and park in a lot or ramp then walk in to it and around it like everyone else. No different.

        2. Rosa

          You’re the one who’s always concerned about property values, so I’d think you’d be in favor of measures to get rid of the random trash that dirties up our residential neighborhoods. I spend a lot of time cleaning up plastic bags around mine (not to mention, they are a PITA when they are in the street and you accidentally ride over one – they wind all around a bike tire sometimes.)

          But I wasn’t even defending the plastic bag ban, just objecting to Robsk’s weirdly bringing up the bag ban in his screed. Plastic bags don’t make walking with groceries easier.

          (PS, stores in Minneapolis do still give out plastic bags. I could have gotten unlimited plastic bags at the Lake Street Cub yesterday but I had my cloth bags with me, which is great because they are the right size for my cargo bike.)

  3. Joe U

    What would a reasonable car-free boundary look like in Minneapolis? Nicollet Mall is already in place (despite the bus and taxi traffic), but how could that be expanded? It seems reasonable to remove cars from 5th Street between the stadiums which would provide two strong pedestrian corridors connecting Loring, the stadiums, the gov. center, and the library. A 2-4 square block car-free district could be placed at the Nic/5th intersection with short closures on Marquette and 6th Street.

    This is just what I’d piece together to appease a suburban boomer though, I’m sure some whippersnappers out there have grander visions for a car-free downtown.

  4. GlowBoy

    So what if the article is idealistic. It’s a vision. I don’t think it’s any more “unrealistic” than Zero traffic fatalities, and planners all over the world are embracing as a Vision even though we may never fully achieve it.

    I’d sure like to see a less car-dependent downtown. It does seem outrageous to me that cars are allowed to move 30mph in such a dense environment (the limit is 20mph in Portland, where I moved from last year) and that the bike lanes are so sketchy. Is it so unrealistic to talk about slowing the cars down and charging their drivers more for bringing them there? I acknowledge that Minneapolis has many times the number of downtown jobs as Portland, and car infrastructure may have a lot to do with attracting in so many suburban workers (and their employers). But then again, Metro Transit has radically more suburban express-bus routes into downtown than Portland’s TriMet, so I’m not sure pandering to solo suburban motorists is necessary to keeping jobs downtown.

    Furthermore, although Portland (as pointed out in the first comment) is still heavily car-dependent and although its downtown job base is still not as large as one would like, there’s been a large amount of job growth with companies relocating downtown in the last year or two. These companies keep citing three downtown attractions for their workers as the primary reason for moving: transit, bike lanes and food carts. Minneapolis has a way to go on those last two points, but again the above article is about vision. Portland’s still got lots of cars downtown, but they are nowhere near as dominant in the sense of oppressing other modes.

    As to generational warfare, I have to say that the common criticisms of Millennials (thin-skinned, in the above example) do NOT resonate with me. I’m a Gen Xer (remember us? Maybe not – there aren’t so many of us thanks to low birthrates and immigration in the 60s and 70s). Boomers said more or less the same things about us when we were in our 20s, and the Silents and GIs said the same about Boomers before us.

    Personally, I think the Millennials may just be the generation that saves the world. Sure many of them are idealistic, but I see a lot of people making their way in the world without compromising their ideals as much as those of us in previous generations did. Specific to topic of this article, yes some of them are moving out to suburbia and using cars a lot as they have kids, but fewer of them are doing so. I’m unusual in still having young children at my age, but you know what? The vast majority of my kids’ classmates are children of Millennials, who’ve already “settled down”, but done it in the city. EVERY school in south Minneapolis is bursting at the seams with Millennials’ kids right now – 35 kids in every classroom, which by the way is insane. So don’t tell me Millennials are all going to leave the city once they have kids. MPS’ enrollment says different.

    Also, the question was asked about the next generation after the Millennials, and whether they might revert to the behavior of past generations. And as the parent of two of these kids, I can tell you right now that they are going to want even more sustainable life than the Millennials do.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Even the phrase “save the world” implies unbridled, college like idealism. What does the world supposedly need saving from? The kind of suburban growth that you personally don’t like? Global warming? Millennials aren’t going to get laws passed turning back the clock of 100 years of increased freedom, space, and comfort by banning cars, air conditioners, houses, etc, there’s enough other generations and enough Millennials that like cars and houses that won’t stand for it, to say nothing of all our jobs being done by Chinese factories with no emission controls.

      If it’s just because they’re choosing the city; well not all of them are, and the new units being built in the city are being dwarfed by new units being built metrowide in total volume, if not percentages. You hear stories about how McMansion sales are slowing, but sales of modest suburban houses are on fire due to the limited supply and that they’re the only affordable alternative to stack&pack townhouses and condos for many buyers.

      We have a data point of your two kids? Are there any studies? People have been wanting more space since the Proclamation of 1763 so I’m not convinced part of one generation is going to reverse the trend.

      1. GlowBoy

        “What does the world supposedly need saving from?” Everything! It’s easy in our professional class bubble of privileged people, but the world is hell for a lot of people. Millennials aren’t going to get cars or air conditioners or big suburban houses banned – thanks for the strawman – but they are demanding improvements. They are insisting on more fuel efficient cars, they are using them less, they are demanding better air conditioners and more sustainable houses. In their searches for jobs and homes they are demanding amenities like transit, walkability, etc. in much larger numbers than before. They are also starting businesses at vastly greater rates than previous generations.

        This is a cohort that believes in getting their hands dirty and making things happen. Like most people in the workforce, I work with lots of Millennials daily, and I’m impressed with the can-do attitude, belief in doing what’s right, and interest in finding better ways of doing that. By Millennials’ sheer numbers (already the largest age group in the workforce, and barely half of them are IN the workforce so far!) they will move the needle substantially. They are also demanding political change – racial, social and economic. If you haven’t noticed it, a lot of the upheaval and challenge to the stability of BOTH parties is being driven by the upsurge in young voters outraged at how the system is working right now.

        Back to the topic at hand, of course not all Millennials are choosing the city, not even a majority – yes, yes, stories pointing this out have been making the rounds in recent months – but MUCH larger numbers of them are than in recent generations, and across the country, not just in places like Portland. About freaking time too: I did actually grow up and go to college in Minneapolis, and when I moved back last year it felt like a Gen-X neutron bomb had gone off. Seemed like everyone around my age had moved out to the suburbs (not a phenomenon I was used to in Seattle and Portland, where the majority of course moved out, but much larger numbers of my generation stayed in the city).

        You’re seriously going to argue that my perspective about Gen Z is invalid because my “data point” is supposedly just two kids? Perhaps you don’t realize that as a parent I’ve met hundreds of my children’s classmates over the years? You do realize that demographers actually study these things, and survey even young children for their attitudes on things like sustainability, and that these are leading indicators of their attitudes in adulthood? I’m not even going to dignify this by Googling for the studies, but I will point you to one that comes to my head without searching. Feel free to find the “Oh! You Pretty Things!” article in the Economist from sometime last year. Trends in attitudes and behavior (not just worldview, but generally having their act together in terms of drug use, teen pregnancy rates, crime rates, etc.) that surfaced in early Gen Y are only becoming more intensified in recent years across younger Gen Y and early Gen Z kids, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue.

        To be clear, I don’t have as direct a stake in this discussion as most: My family are all Silents, Xers or Gen Z – no Boomers or Millennials to be found. But I have a lot of faith in this generation coming of age now. I’m sorry if you don’t.

  5. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    As a frequent but intermittent commenter, I do not endorse this purified, condensed Mansplainery.

  6. Janne

    I’m feeling great disappointment in this agism. Millenials, college students, high school students, and everyone who uses our cities are people. Each of us deserves respect for who we are.

    Please feel free to critique the content, but insults are never welcome in the comments. Please also stop insulting people for WHO they are.

  7. Andy E

    As a millennial (28), who’s finishing up graduate school I’d like to offer a few points of my own..

    1- Millennials are not some rigid block who all think/act/vote the same. In fact, I would say that the average millennial who has gone into journalism (or into activism/blogging/etc) has more in common with a hippies from the 60s than they do with me and my classmates at Mondale and Carlson (Law and Business schools).

    2- Typically, those who speak the loudest are those who care the most. Like any distribution, millennials are much more likely to fall into a general bell shape in terms of beliefs on any individual matter. Sure, the curve may be shifted a bit to one side or the other based upon the unique situations facing the world during our formative years, but that is true of every generation and doesn’t signify some wholesale change.

    3- Take with a grain of salt any opinions/views/etc expressed by someone who has yet to have a real job with real taxes and real responsibilities. While those things don’t change everyone’s opinion on things, it certainly does have an impact some – and assuming it won’t is extremely idealistic. The millennial who is all into car-free cities may wake up one morning with a husband and 3 kids in Burnsville and realize they havn’t biked to work in years, and without multiple cars it’s impossible to get their kids to all of their activities and at the same time be able to be at work on time.

    Could Minneapolis be better for bikes and pedestrians? Certainly. Could it be better for cars? Certainly. Could, with smart planning and policies, it be better for everyone? Definitely. But to want only one or the other is going to alienate a lot of people and only create other problems.

    1. Rosa

      despite intense social pressure that people with kids and real jobs who pay taxes (some of us pay lots! For decades! Some of us started paying FICA taxes long before we started college, even) lots of us stay in the city and make the intensely wise budget choice to not be dependent on a car. Maybe don’t condescend everyone you disagree with, as a networking and social branding tactic.

    2. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

      Always heartwarming to see UMN professional students working hard to maintain those time-honored stereotypes.

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