Blog

The Value of Open Streets

By Sean Doyle
Democracy Digital Organizer

There are few, if any, public spaces as abundant and conspicuous as streets. They serve as a conduit for moving people from point A to B but can also be social and cultural gathering places. Historically, pedestrians and cyclists ruled on our streets and roads, but today, these public spaces have largely been appropriated by, and are engineered for, the sole use of cars.

Enter International Car Free Day – a day where people are encouraged to move around for work, errands or recreation without a car. While the official Car Free Day has been marked since the mid-1990s, today people are rediscovering that our streets shouldn’t just be for cars, giving the day new significance.

Already, dozens of U.S. cities close their streets to cars periodically giving people the chance to realize the need for and value of open public spaces. San Francisco, for example, has been enjoying "Sunday Streets" since 2008. On these days, streets are closed to cars, but open to everyone else – cyclists, walkers, dancers, yoga-doers, shoppers, diners, and more. Cities from Miami to Tucson to Minneapolis have similar open streets events throughout the year and are seeing the benefits.

Open streets are good for public health and the environment – reducing emissions from traffic and increasing physical activity. They are also good for local businesses located in the area because of the influx of people on foot. After the first Bike Miami Days, an open streets event in Miami, the CEO of a local department store said, “Downtown shoppers were plentiful and they were buying! It was one of the best Sundays we have had.”

This year, in honor of Car Free Day we offer three important policy suggestions that can improve our happiness, safety and health by making it easier for walkers, bikers, transit users and drivers (yes, drivers too) to get around.

1.     Stop Highway Boondoggles

Federally, 80 percent of our transportation money is dedicated to highways while just 20 percent is dedicated to transit. Our funding priorities are skewed towards highways to the detriment of walking, biking, transit, intercity rail and the plethora of other transportation options that make a car-free or car-lite lifestyle possible.

But perhaps even more troubling is that the money we are spending on highways is often wasted.

Earlier this year, in our latest Highway Boondoggles report, we identified 12 highway projects in 11 states slated to cost at least $24 billion that that are a sampling of some of the worst highway projects in the country. Some of these highway projects aim to address problems that don’t exist. Other projects address real problems but offer only ineffectual solutions. Many significantly harm the surrounding communities, and all drain scarce transportation dollars that could be spent far better on repairing existing roads and bridges.

On average, states spend about 55 percent of their highway money building new or wider roads instead of repairing and maintaining the remaining 99 percent of our roadways – the ones we already have. So while the majority of transportation money goes to roads, their overall quality continues to decline as maintenance and repair are deferred in favor of expansion. In their latest report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a “D” to both our roads and transit systems and a “C+” for bridges. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are nearly 59,000 structurally deficient bridges in the U.S.

To really stop highway boondoggles, we must do two things. First, reorient our overall spending away from overreliance on highways (particularly expansion), and give greater emphasis to other modes of transportation (like transit, walking, and biking). Second, we need to prioritize maintenance and repair with the funds we do have.

2.     Reduce pollution from transportation

Our transportation system as it exists today is a dirty business. Earlier this year, the transportation sector overtook the electric power sector to become the largest source of carbon pollution in the country for the first time ever. And the cars and trucks that zoom along our streets are responsible for half of the smog forming pollutants. Every year, 53,000 Americans die prematurely as a direct result of pollution from transportation. Research suggests that exposure to even low levels of pollution – “first and foremost from traffic” – can impair the mental development of our children with a lifetime of implications.

That’s why U.S. PIRG, along with more than 80,000 citizens, local elected officials, state transportation departments, professional organizations and business leaders called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to include a carbon performance standard as part of a pending rule on air pollution. Such a standard would require states and metropolitan planning organizations to measure, track, and set goals to reduce carbon pollution from transportation. If enacted, localities would also have to publicly report on their progress, allowing the public to hold them accountable.

In order to protect public health and our environment, a rule like this is necessary.

There is also another benefit to a carbon standard when it comes to leading a car-free or car-lite life – if localities are required to think about the carbon implications of their transportation plans, they’ll be more likely to fund biking, walking, and public transportation projects to reduce emissions. Approximately 60 percent of carbon emissions from transportation come from light-duty vehicles, i.e. the cars and trucks we drive. If we can make other forms of transportation attractive and convenient options for more people (and thus reduce driving), that’s good for everyone.

3.     Build a multimodal public transit system

More and more Americans are making it clear that they want transportation options. They want to be able to walk, or bike or take public transit to where they need to go and they want the infrastructure that makes that possible. In other words, they want to be able to live car-free or car-lite.

A poll released last month shows a large majority of Americans – more than 73 percent – “support using tax dollars to create, expand and improve public transportation in their communities.” In the same poll, almost as many Americans “believe Congress should increase the level of federal spending on public transportation infrastructure.”

Americans of all ages want transportation options and they’re are showing their support for public transit by using it. In 2014, Americans took a record 10.8 billion trips on public transportation, the highest level since the 1950s. In 2015, Americans took another 10.6 billion trips despite plummeting gas prices.

Beyond consumer sentiment there are also pressing safety reasons to invest in more and better transit. Studies have repeatedly shown that public transit is much safer than driving and the most recent study showed that this benefit extends not only to people who use transit, but also those who don’t. In communities with higher transit use (50+ annual trips per capita), the crash risk for the entire community is cut in half compared to communities with less transit use (under 20 annual trips per capita). A previous study also showed that taking commuter rail is about 20 times safer than driving, light rail is about 30 times safer, and the bus is about 60 times safer than driving.

Can we really go car-free or car-light?

Living car-free or car-light is likely easier than you think. Half of all trips in the U.S. are three miles or less, a distance that can easily be covered on a bike, public transit, or for the shorter trips, on foot. Yet in America, 72 percent of these trips are made in a car. As more cities close their streets to cars and open them to other users, even if for a limited period of time, more people will begin to rediscover the value of these public spaces. As people’s hearts change, we’ll work to change the minds of decision makers to make our transportation system cleaner and more multimodal. 

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