Cars have revolutionised human society. In many parts of the world, they symbolise freedom. Even if you don’t have any emotional connection to cars, you still almost certainly use them to transport yourself and the things that you buy.
But there is a growing movement in some parts of the world to move away from cars towards public transport and cycling. This stems from concerns about health, the environment, and the huge amount of space that traditional vehicles take up in our cities.
Even with this drive towards fewer cars on city streets, most metropolitan areas are still designed around the four-wheeled vehicles. Even if the built environment makes it practical and safe to walk, space for pedestrians is still usually restricted to a small proportion of the space between buildings.
With that in mind, have cars made cities better or worse?
Cars Have Helped Connect Us
There is no doubt that cars have helped us to move around more freely. People are not restricted to the area around where they live or the places that are directly connected to it by public transport.
If you want to head to the downtown area from the suburbs at 2 AM, then there will be nothing stopping you.
Cars also make shopping much easier as you can load up the trunk, the back seats, the roof, and any other space you can find with your purchases, and drive them home with almost no effort. Without a car, that would take multiple trips or would be completely impossible.
Making Cities Dependant on Cars
Depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live on, your city will look very different. In North America, cities are spread out over vast distances, with dedicated zones for residential properties, offices, and retail outlets. These zones make it almost impossible to build a small convenience store amongst a large housing estate; instead, residents must get in their cars and drive much longer distances to reach a store.
In contrast, most European cities don’t use these same rigid zoning laws. Instead, you’ll find a mix of different businesses together in the same place. This is great for anyone that wants to walk, but it does mean car owners are severely limited in bigger cities as it’s more difficult to drive from place to place in busy city centres.
You can, of course, drive around in most European cities, even if you have to pay congestion charges like those in London. But you are not practically forced to do so by urban planners like in many North American cities.
Cities Often Prioritise Cars Over People
Regardless of the continent, there are many parts of the world where urban design prioritises cars over every other way of getting around. Wide roads are split into two sidewalks and two directions of car traffic, but the proportion given to pedestrians is so small that they’re forced into the sides while giant metal boxes hurtle past them at speed.
Even when cities try to help people walk, the hierarchy is still present. Las Vegas is a great example of this. Its famous Strip is lined with entertainment venues and many of the most famous casinos in the world. It is the only place where you’ll find world-class shopping, A-list celebrities in residence, and many of the biggest casino venues all in one place. We’re all familiar with it thanks to movies and because it has hosted many big events like the World Series of Poker since the 1970s and the National Finals Rodeo since the 1980s.
With so many visitors and so many venues close by, you’d think walking between them would be easy. But the Las Vegas Strip is essentially a dual-carriageway, each with three lanes, that runs straight through the main part of the city. To avoid accidents, pedestrians are often required to cross using overpasses and taxis are not permitted to stop to pick up passengers anywhere other than in dedicated pick-up spots.
In many respects, cars have been given too much prominence in our cities. That has been convenient for a long time, but it is starting to create problems as populations grow and people look for other ways to get around.