We live in a world designed for cars. From interstate highways to residential streets, the American city has been designed to maximize the movement and storage of cars. For the vast majority of Americans, the automobile is an intrinsic part of our culture and not only our streets but the entirety of our communities have been designed to support that love affair.
But as we move into the second decade of the 21st century, more and more Americans are recognizing that the car doesn't always improve the connections in our lives and the automobile shouldn't have to be a required means of mobility to thrive in our communities. In fact, the designs of our car-centric communities, which were meant to facilitate the movement of people, have disconnected us from our neighbors and up-ended neighborhoods.
Communities designed primarily for cars aren't only impacting our connections to our neighbors and making it dangerous for our children to walk to school or play a game in their front yards. The ways streets across America are designed are also a critical factor contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, which are released as a result of fossil fuel combustion from transportation. These gases trap heat and contribute to climate change.
Based on a recent study by the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), Mt Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a community of 35,000 people, emits over 265,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The third-highest contributing category of those emissions is created by the use of the existing transportation system. Every year, each ton of CO2 released is estimated to result in $46 in local and global damages resulting in nearly $2 million in damages from the use of the transportation system in Mt Lebanon alone. Multiply that by the 50,000+ communities around the country and the impact is enormous.
Each community has the opportunity to lead regional solutions to transform streetscapes, improve our neighborhoods, reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions, improve our air quality and our resilience, and slow the effects of climate change.
But the scope of this change is sometimes hard to imagine. How can we rely less on cars when the entire community was designed on the assumption that the primary means of transportation was the personal automobile? Luckily for Mt Lebanon, the community already prides itself on being a walking community, has invested heavily in programs to provide safe walking routes for residents, and has a strong commitment to community reinvestment, but there is much planning and preparation to do for a future less reliant on automobiles and more connected to neighbors.
Building Complete Streets
As each town is different, each neighborhood and street are different. Solutions do not come out of a box but are a foundation of principles that inform the design process every time a road is reconstructed. Each community needs to reimagine its streets as shared spaces that, while needing to accommodate cars, also needs to equally accommodate other modes of mobility.
Streets by their very design shouldn't require someone to own a car in order to go from home to school or work or to see friends. Luckily there are many forward-looking solutions that are already being implemented in communities around the world and even close to home. "Complete Streets" programs have been implemented to design and operate streets that enable safe use and support mobility for all users. Those include people of all ages and abilities, regardless of whether they are traveling as drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, or public transportation riders.
Complete Streets provide a means to reimagine our streets so that walking and bicycling can be an integral mode of transit rather than a novel one, where going to a local shop and seeing neighbors isn't done from behind a windshield. We need to create spaces where children and adults alike can feel safe to hop on a bike and ride to the store.
This isn't a simple journey. A typical road will last for more than 40 years. It is an asset that communities invest heavily in and rely on to meet many of our most basic needs. But every time a neighborhood street is rebuilt, we have it in our power to reimagine the future of our communities and develop a transportation system better than what we have today, that is healthier for our families, safer for our children, more economically vibrant for our businesses, and there's no better time to begin than now.