Yesterday, 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