Rise of car dependence was highly destructive, moving away from it — unfortunately — cannot be painless

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Idealising the process of change is a recipe for inaction — change is a messy business, it’s complicated and it generally annoys at least a section of people. There is no one thing — not park and ride, not a metro line, intercity rail line or new urban bus network — that’s going to make change better for everybody.

The rise of car dependence around the world was highly destructive. Communities were literally destroyed in all but a few cities around the world to make way for larger roads for cars. The main question in most places is what was the extent it happening before people shouted stop loud enough or the cities ran out of money.

Streets were surrendered to cars — streets went from a place where children played to nearly the sole reserve of movement. As car use increased only children up to no good remained on the streets. The independence of children was shrunk, with the distances they are allowed to travel on their own narrowed hugely compared to just a few generations ago. Even if partly down to other reasons, the increase in danger from cars on our roads played a central part.

This has tied parents to the “parent taxi” and tied children to be set for a life of inactivity.

Previously perfectly normal behaviour was criminalised and/or made socially unacceptable — the prime example is the simple act of crossing the road was highly restricted to make way for cars.

Cars have clearly given extra mobility to much of the world. There’s no doubting that and the advantage of that cannot be just dismissed. But all too often we dismiss the negatives especially linked to car dependency.

Such as the countless numbers of injuries and deaths, the poor planning of sprawl enabled near-unfettered car-focused planning, little priority to alternatives, sustainable transport starved of funding for it to be spent on roads, and air pollution from not just the tailpipe but also from tires and brakes.

The central problem with car dependency is its self-perpetuation nature:

Car dependence is ingrained in society. So, — unfortunately — it cannot be painless breaking free from it.

The rise of cars was destructive, it should be the goal to make the process to rebalance transport as painless as possible. But it cannot be pain-free.

Claiming you need a metro system before giving over space to cycle paths or trams everywhere before you can stop rat-running on residential streets (ie Low Traffic Neighbourhoods) is generally a charter for maintaining the status quo (often not supported by data).

Claiming taking space from cars in town and city centres is anti-rural is wrong. It is not anti-rural to want to have less priority for cars in town or city centres. As a growing number of people work in, visit and live in centres, street space needs to be used more wisely and fairly.

Car dependency is a system and sustainable transport needs to be viewed in the same way — however, it is more complicated. With a mix of walking, cycling can public transport, every jigsaw piece won’t fit the way it suits everybody or a way people might hope.

There will be some disruption ahead — some people will switch to sustainable transport, some people might be delayed by sticking in their cars, some won’t make some trips. The disruption will not however be on the scale of riping apart cities, and benefits will be huge including more active, healthier, greener, and generally more livable places.

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