In December of 2015, 195 countries announced that even a global effort to reduce emissions probably won’t prevent the catastrophic warming of the planet. But there is a way we can reach our climate goals. It’s not a pledge. It’s not a tax. It’s easier than that. We ban cars.
Aside from a single panel discussion, the historic COP21 summit didn’t address cars much at all. The United Nations issued one statement, reminding us that 25 percent of all energy-related emissions in the atmosphere are from transportation, a percentage which is expected to grow to a third. To attempt to reach the climate goals, it says, at least a fifth of all vehicles worldwide should be electric by 2030.
Now consider that there are about a billion cars crawling the Earth’s surface right now, a number which might double as soon as 2030. How fast that figure grows depends on how dramatically developing nations like China and India experience increases in vehicle ownership. But no single country is currently driving more cars around this planet than the United States of America. 2015 was a year of record-breaking auto sales.
That’s why electrification isn’t really the solution. Right now, virtually every single electric car—which represent only 0.1 percent of all cars—is still burning fossil fuels. In most of the US, you are literally shoveling coal into your EV. Even if every car on the planet was magically converted into an electric vehicle overnight, we wouldn’t have the grid infrastructure in place to plug all those cars in; we’d have to actually build out the grid to support it. Plus we’d have to power the factories to make all those electric cars to replace the gas-guzzling ones we have now. And if we did either or both of those things right now—and we need to do it right now—it would mean burning a lot more fossil fuels.
Like there is no clean coal, there is no clean car. So we don’t have to get more electric cars on the road. We have to get more cars off the road. Fast.
Banning cars is as simple as it sounds: It’s restricting private automobiles from entering a geographic area. You might have already seen how this works in a pedestrian-prioritized historical district, which is common in bigger cities. So we start the ban there, in the biggest cities: Where about half the world’s population lives now, where car ownership is already low, and where existing housing density and transit infrastructure allow people to easily live without automobiles. These are also the places you can make the greatest impact as the population in cities is growing—70 percent of the world will live in a city by 2050, as part of multiple urbanizing trends around the world.
But it’s not just about banning cars. Cities also have to help their citizens live without a car. This means they must approve taller buildings, get rid of parking minimums, and expand public transit options. Build rail instead of roads. Turn gas stations into bike kiosks. Convert parking lots to sidewalks. Provide a fleet of low-speed zero-emission vehicles (like golf carts!) to make deliveries and help residents get around. And introduce better technology solutions to help everyone navigate the city more efficiently.
Does it sound impossible? It’s already happening in a lot of places. Oslo is working on banning all cars from its city center by 2019. So are Helsinki, Madrid, and Hamburg. London has heavily restricted them in its downtown. Paris has not only restricted vehicular access, but is also prohibiting cars built before 1997. A thriving business district in Johannesburg got rid of all its cars for a month. Even the US has done this, on a smaller scale: New York City has barred them from Times Square, and San Francisco has kicked them off a stretch of its Market Street.
In fact, on any given weekend, cities all over the planet set aside large swaths of their neighborhoods for walkers and bikers as part of regularly scheduled car-free festivals. These are bringing about permanent change: Bogotá began banishing cars from its streets every Sunday and used that momentum to develop one of the most inspiring, low-cost transportation systems on the planet in less than 20 years.
Cities are doing this because we know it’s better for the humans who live there. Science has proven that almost every other way of getting around is better for our bodies and our minds. Banning cars from major cities worldwide would save millions of lives, and not just by reducing crashes: Removing cars from roads shows a drastic and immediate improvement in both carbon emissions and in dangerous particulate matter—the kind that kills about three million people globally a year. Banning cars part of the time, like on alternate days, doesn’t work in the long run because cities are still allowing some cars in. People find ways to get around the rules and cities don’t have the money to enforce them. All cars must go.
Although we can see with our own eyes how much better the air in our cities will be without cars, there’s another crisis happening on the ground. Cities that are built for cars require goods and services to be moved across farther and farther distances. Each building’s carbon footprint includes not only the materials and methods which are required to build it, but all the infrastructural systems required to sustain it. If those systems are served primarily by cars—deliveries, workers, residents, visitors—the building’s carbon footprint balloons. A city built for cars requires far more energy to power it.
Making too much room for cars is also making our cities more expensive. Parking, for example, takes up as much as 14 percent of all land-use in some cities. In Los Angeles County, that’s 3.3 spaces for every vehicle. Less room devoted to cars frees up more space for the additional housing we so desperately need. A city instantly becomes more accessible to all when it plans for the well-being of its citizens, without the assumption that everyone has an extra $9,000 per year to pay for a way to get around it.
The promise of autonomous, zero-emission vehicles can be part of the solution, but only if we think about them as another form of public transit: As shareable, summonable vehicles which will replace taxis (or other on-demand rides). By some estimates, when autonomy arrives, cities will need to dramatically reduce the overall space allotted to cars.
But wait! What if autonomous cars don’t happen—or at least not as quickly as we’d like? That’s exactly why the process of evicting cars from all major cities right now is more critical than ever—because this is really about remaking cities into more livable places long before that future arrives.
And if you don’t live in a city—or don’t want to—banning cars benefits you, too. Besides the obvious health benefits, more efficient transportation systems will make it easier to get where you need to go and reduce the overall costs of goods and services brought to your door. If you need a vehicle out where you live, you can simply borrow one from a local zero-emission fleet. It will take many years and a lot of work to reverse the US away from decades of engrained commuting culture, but it can happen. We start with the cities, where more of the population lives, and let the positive impacts ripple out.
In addition to the 195 heads of state, 1000 mayors were in Paris for the climate talks, pledging to move their communities towards a renewable energy future—even if an international accord wasn’t reached. City leaders have a lot more power to bring about change than 195 countries trying to strike an agreement. A mayor may not be able to shut down a power plant even if it’s inside city limits. But she can make it impossible to bring one more car into her downtown.
If you don’t think that one car will make a difference, consider this. Right now, about three percent of all trips globally are taken by bike. A big study by UC Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy says that reducing car use enough to double that figure to six percent by 2050 could make a game-changing impact. Cities would save $24 trillion and the planet would reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 11 percent. That’s enough to prevent the increase in transportation-related emissions that the UN predicts. And the world would be happier and healthier for it.
A generation from now we’ll look back on this one-hundred year blip in human history and shake our heads. We’ll remember this failed experiment, our temporary lapse in judgement. But we have to reverse this trend now, before we hand over any more of our cities to an antiquated, dying technology that’s killing us right along with it.
Cars are an old idea from the past. But believing that cars are the future could destroy our entire civilization.
This post was updated on July 1, 2016 to include Paris’s car ban, which goes into effect today.