The notion that the car enhances our lives is being severely tested in the rich world. Young people living in countries where even the poor can afford to have cars, are increasingly opposed to owning and driving Karl Benz’s 1885 invention. So says The Economist, reporting on a broader change in the collective mindset.
It’s true that schemes to make the car less welcome in cities have come a long way on both sides of the Atlantic. A congestion-charging zone started in London and was adopted by Milan and Stockholm. Later this year, New York may get it too. And even as we speak, local authorities in many British cities are introducing “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTN) by blocking off streets. My own local area in London has LTN schemes.
Parking is also being targetted with Oslo removing almost all on-street parking spaces from its city centre. In Paris, the mayor of Paris has done the same, as well as adding other car-unfriendly initiatives such as narrowed streets and a proposal to turn the French capital into a “15-minute city”. It is a reference to the rule coined by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti that people throughout history have been unwilling to spend more than 30 minutes travelling to and from work (placing a limit on the size of cities). [Click here to read my Economist piece on the importance of the commuting ritual.]
Meanwhile, in the US, New York has banned cars from Central Park. Several other American cities have done away with the obligation for property developers to provide some free parking around their buildings. And California has done the same, state-wide.
Taken together, these initiatives do suggest a shift. Could it really be that we’re looking at the tail end of the Age of the Automobile? Back in 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, suggested it would be wise to prepare for the coming end. He explained his reasoning by listing three big breakthroughs that changed the American way of life. The Erie Canal in the early 19th century connected the Midwest farm belt with the Port of New York and the eastern seaboard. The railroad connected the two oceans and the continent in between. The Interstate Highway System served the car. But now, he said, fiber-connectivity demands something else.
He may have been prescient.