Curbing Cars for Stronger Communities and a Better Climate

If you take a good look at any city, large or small, one of the first things you may realize is how much of our communities are dominated by infrastructure devoted to transportation. Roads, highways, parking lots, and the like all affect how well residents are connected with critical destinations in their city. However, for many cities throughout the nation, getting from one place to another has become more of a chore than a convenience.

Commuting and Climate

A recent report released by the Energy Policy Institute shows that for the first time in nearly four decades, CO2 emissions from transportation have surpassed those released by power plants. One element of this is the extent to which renewable sources of energy have exploded over the past decade. Wind power, along with rooftop and community solar have helped bring what used to be costly electricity alternatives to middle income and working class communities.

Power generation makes up roughly a third of greenhouse gas emissions. While it has been one of the focal points for climate action, transportation, which is an equally problematic source of CO2, has been largely ignored. For mayors and city leaders, building new mass transportation infrastructure like subways and light rail are often too expensive—they require years to develop and implement, and can burden tight city budgets. Similar prohibitive costs often prevent energy-saving upgrades in transit infrastructure, such as busses. Nevertheless, transportation’s contribution to climate change simply cannot be ignored.

Changing How We Get Around

However, cities have low cost, effective options in their climate toolkit that often are overlooked. Last week, we looked at how cities are beginning to implement robust bike-share programs. These can be implemented and maintained by local governments, or through public-private partnerships, which can help eliminate high start-up costs—and represent significant steps towards addressing transportation and climate.

Another transportation solution that promises to make a significant dent in citywide transportation emissions is to make cities car free. At first glance, it may seem a radical solution. However, many cities, of all sizes, are beginning to consider this as a real option.

Some of the places most ripe to become car free zones are, surprisingly, the areas with most traffic. Dense downtown locations typically have fewer full-time residents and are where commuters, workers, and city-goers often represent the bulk of traffic congestion. Because of this, some of the most bustling city centers offer prime opportunities to go car free. As Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo put it, urbanites “are not obliged to move around in a personal car, there are other ways to approach mobility in a city”.

By restricting or eliminating cars, city officials can open up city streets to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation services that can more efficiently and effectively move commuters and other would-be drivers from point A to point B. This approach is already being tested in major world cities, including Madrid, Milan, London, Copenhagen, and Oslo—all of which are finding car free zones to be effective climate and commuting solutions.

And going car-free is gaining ground here in the US. In Los Angeles, city streets are closed once a year for cyclists and pedestrians to walk and explore the downtown. In Little Rock, AK, the mayor took part in a car free challenge, pledging to give up his vehicle for a week while calling on residents to do the same. In Santa Monica, CA. large stretches of the city have been closed off to encourage visitors to use public transportation from different hubs around the city.

These efforts to decrease the amount of cars and traffic in our communities are simple, low cost climate solutions that can be implemented in any city. Encouraging residents to give up their vehicle for even a day, designating permanent or temporary car free zones for cyclists and pedestrians in major downtown areas, or even going to the extreme and eliminating cars altogether round out all the options for commuting solutions.

Ditching cars for walking, cycling, or public transit will lead to happier, healthier communities. Cutting traffic congestion means less air pollution, shorter commute times, and cities that are more enjoyable places to work and live. To boldly develop and implement your climate action plan, be sure to connect with climate leaders and get on the Path to Positive Communities today.

Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at

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