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Cars – Will We Ever Get Rid of Them?

Owning a car is still a dream for many people around the world. Increasing car ownership brings many problems to cities and their inhabitants – noise, pollution, congestion, accidents and more. Communities and governments around the world are trying to find solutions to reduce these negative effects by reducing the number of cars or getting rid of them altogether. However, this goal seems to be elusive – for example, carsharing schemes have increased traffic instead of reducing the total number of cars in a city. In this article, I point out the fundamental problem that I believe lies at the heart of the failure to get rid of cars.

Trying to Get Rid of Cars

Everyone likes to have a car. Well, maybe not everyone, but a large portion of the population does. And all over the world, people own cars. In fact, their numbers are growing, despite all the negative impacts on climate, noise, pollution, and land taken up by roads and parking lots. No wonder cities today are trying to limit the number of cars, even reduce them, because that would make for much greener cities. But so far, these attempts have not been successful.

Let’s look at some examples.

London introduced the famous congestion charge. But while it did reduce traffic – and congestion – somewhat, its effect was limited because the traffic caused by private cars was largely replaced by private hire vehicles such as Uber (source).

Many cities in Europe and North America pinned their hopes on car sharing. The idea was that if people had access to a shared vehicle, they would give up owning a car. But this did not work, as I explained in my article last week (link). On the contrary, traffic sometimes even increased because people who could not afford their own cars now had one readily available.

Others have pinned their hopes on the advent of autonomous driving. If you don’t have to drive, why not use ride-sharing instead? Surely we could move more people with fewer cars and less traffic? Although this idea has not yet been tested – autonomous vehicles are not yet available on a large scale – I disagree with this hopeful projection. In my view, autonomous driving will lead to even more car traffic, because commuting in your own car will become easier and more relaxing.

Why This Doesn’t Work

But let’s face the facts: Getting people to give up their cars in favor of other modes of transportation has not been very successful so far.
Is the goal of former mayor of Bogota, Enrique PeƱalosa, reachable, who said: “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.” (source).

In my opinion, past efforts have missed a key point: Car ownership solves each person’s mobility needs in the most efficient way, from the owner’s point of view. A person who owns a car can decide where he or she wants to go, when he or she wants to go, at what speed (within limits), in what comfort (as far as he or she can afford it), and with whom. A car owner can also carry as many goods as his car will hold. Public transportation cannot achieve any of these goals for the individual.

And this is a fact: There are only three people we think about: Me, myself, and I. This is especially true when it comes to mobility. If there is a means of transportation that meets all my needs, why would I trade it for something else?

We have seen this in the example of carsharing. We can also see it in the effect of London’s congestion charge: When owning a private car becomes too expensive, people switch to ride-hailing services instead of using public transportation.

To me, all of these examples show that if we want to achieve greener cities, coercing people into giving up their own comfort, the readily available, efficient transportation solution, is not going to work well.

In my hometown of Augsburg, Germany, the city council converted only a short strip of a street in the business district into a pedestrian zone. The idea was to make this space available to pedestrians, plant trees, and even install an outdoor stage for impromptu concerts. But the people would not have it. There was a huge public outcry, and after a lawsuit filed by business owners whose businesses were on that street, the city had to reverse the change (source). To me, this is a clear sign of how people are afraid of having their privileges taken away once they have enjoyed them.

What Can Be Done?

As we have seen, getting people to change their mode of transportation is really hard.

Instead of trying to force people to leave their cars at home, we need to change the entire makeup of our cities. The goal has to be to get people to think that the car is no longer the most efficient solution for their transportation needs.

What if you had a supermarket and a doctor close to your home, so you did not have to drive across town to get there and back? What if every downtown business offered home delivery? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to walk to and from the center of town and have your purchases waiting for you on your way back? What if we could use our home offices more and commute less?

And if you still have to travel, wouldn’t it be great if you could book your entire trip in one app? And while you were traveling, you could see all your connecting trains in real time – even abroad? Or how about a better design for bus stops, where you don’t have to stand in the freezing rain when the wind is blowing in that particular direction?

I am convinced that there are many things, some big, some surprisingly small, that city planners and politicians could change today to bring us a little closer to a world where even the rich can leave their cars at home. Where even a self-centered individual might say: Let’s just walk.

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