Cities around the world are experimenting with temporary and permanent car bans on their streets. New York, San Francisco, Bogotá, London, Cape Town, and others have experimented with the benefits of turning streetscapes into open public spaces. The changing dynamic of a city’s transportation systems has the potential to build social cohesion and resilience.
The Board of Directors at San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency recently approved a plan that is set to transform the busiest street in the city by banning private vehicles. The ban, part of several changes outlined in the “Better Market Street Plan,” aims to make the area safer for pedestrians, create more public space, and decrease the city’s impact on the climate. The plan will prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists by adding a continuous bike lane and widened pedestrian sidewalks. San Francisco’s iconic trolley cars will continue to have a lane on Market Street, in addition to lanes for buses and taxis. One of the reasons the plan garnered a high level of support was because of its potential to decrease the amount of transportation-related fatalities on Market Street, which is part of the city’s “High Injury Corridor.”
Bogotá, Colombia has been running a car-free streets program since 1974, called Ciclovía. The event, which happens on Sundays and Holidays, is the world’s largest mass recreation program. On an average Sunday, 1.7 million people participate in the event by bicycling, running or walking in the city’s streets, unencumbered by vehicle traffic. Ciclovía is more than just a chance for bicyclists and joggers to take to the streets, it is a community gathering. Food vendors, musicians, and dancers are all known to gather along the streets to spend time outdoors and enjoy the cohesive atmosphere. Bogota’s program has been credited with inspiring a global movement to open up cities for car-free days.
Whether motivated by public safety or community cohesion, car-free streets can be useful tools in strengthening the social fabric of a city. Decreased traffic congestion, lower amounts of air pollution, and spaces for denizens to gather for activities can all result from private vehicle bans. As more cities experiment with car-free streets, the benefits of these spaces will continue to impact the well-being of society.