We are the grit in the oyster. John Major

Shifting the Paradigm

The past decades have exposed the unintended consequences of car-based transportation. But times are changing: Cars are transformed from private vehicles into collectively used modes of transportation.

Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Melbourne: Around the world, more cities make do with fewer cars. The public space is instead freed up for pedestrians and cyclists. As early as 1962, for example, Copenhagen began banning private cars and motorcycles from the city center. As private traffic decreased, public life gained: More people began to spend more time outside. Today, Copenhagen has a reputation as the city with the highest quality of life worldwide. And even Times Square – the iconic plaza of the 20th century – has been returned to pedestrian use. We might ask: Will the cities of the future exist without cars?

Car-based mobility is an achievement of modernity, and the driving force behind the development of suburban structures. Along the way, the car became the preeminent status symbol of the last century. Yet the unbounded enthusiasm had unintended consequences as well: Congestion, air pollution, noise and social segregation crystallized as the negative effects of a car-based transport system – and affected not only individual drivers but society as a whole.

The state reacted with legislation aimed at minimizing these negative consequences: Environmental standards for cars increased progressively, environmental zones and modern traffic management programs were introduced. Yet these policies maintain a central aspect of the existing order: They, too, place cars at the center of their thinking.

A neutral paradigm would instead focus on public spaces and the collective importance of mobility. When people meet and interact, the quality of life increases. Interaction allows for the spread of ideas, creates communities and strengthens social cohesion. Public spaces are necessary for that interaction to occur: Streets, cafés, squares, and a traffic system that is flexible and slim enough to give room to people instead of cars.

If we conceive of public spaces and mobility as collective goods, the provision of these services becomes the task of the community. Public investments can then lead to a more attractive city infrastructure and higher subsequent tax revenues – which helps to put mobility concepts on a sound financial footing.

Mobility as a public good is characterized by the ability to reach different areas of the city in a flexible manner. It is based on a combination of bikes, pedestrian walkways and public transportation. The use of cars is not integral to this paradigm – but neither is it prohibited by it. Already, taxis are a central component of the transportation system in many cities. In Berlin or Paris, car-sharing services with a strong online management component are quickly gaining ground. That development is far from surprising: Shared cars are much more effective than private cars (which remain unused for most of the day). For cities, shared modes of transportation represent the logical foray into a flexibility-driven future. They are a continuation of the development that started, paradoxically, with the rise of car ownership in the 20th century: That everyone should be able to travel independently at all times.

Can the car be retired? Hardly so. But in cities that conceive of mobility as a public good, cars can be integrated with other forms of transportation to create a versatile and flexible system of transportation.

Read more in this debate: Karolina Golimowska, Joseph Hammond, Andreas Knie.


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