New Streets for North America’s Cities


New streets for North America’s cities

Cities have always been about connectivity—connecting people to jobs, friends, cultures, and new livelihoods. But new forms of connectivity in cities are emerging. That means a striking new vision for our roadways—where cars occupy a small fraction of the space they take up today, replaced by green spaces, bike lanes, and other uses we haven’t yet thought of. It’s time to prepare for the change by unbuilding roads.

Driverless cars are real and getting better by the day. Tesla owners have already driven over 75 million km on Autopilot since October 2015. Over the coming years, not decades, machines will increasingly replace humans at the ‘steering wheel’. Autonomous vehicles drive more predictably and can follow each other closer than humans in cars ever could. This means that once enough of them are on the road, a given stretch of road can carry more vehicles, in narrower lanes, than human drivers who need space to drive poorly.

At the same time, carsharing services like car2go and Zipcar and ridehailing apps like Uber and Lyft have already uncoupled car trips from car ownership.  Shared, and we might add electric, autonomous cars or trucks will allow passengers to rent on-demand the vehicle they need for a trip or task, even for children who need to attend soccer practice across town. One-person trips, which represent most round-town journeys, will be supplied by a fleet of one-passenger autonomous cars. These take up far less space on the road than the 3 to 4 meters typically allotted to lanes now.

Autonomous cars will also transform parking. Today, an enormous amount of space is wastefully devoted to on-street parking—the storage of private cars on public roads. Shared driverless cars can provide door-to-door service but be parked further away, where land is less valuable. And, new autonomous rental cars will be in motion more often, so fewer cars can provide the same service, requiring still less parking.

On top of the coming technological changes, travel patterns are transforming. Travel in general, and by car in particular, has remained relatively flat for over a decade. Furthermore, it has declined on a per capita basis. This is a remarkable shift into reverse compared to the previous century. We attribute this trend to many factors, from an aging population, to rising unemployment, to volatile energy costs. But the young and employed travel less too, increasingly relying on mobile communications to do their work, shopping, and socializing—and they increasingly prefer to live closer to urban amenities.

Given these technological advances, combined with trends towards less personal travel, we envision a dramatically different future from what most governments and industry trade groups have been planning for. To prepare for this change, cities, states, and provinces should largely stop building new roads and widening existing ones. Instead, transportation agencies ought to gracefully abandon excess lanes, and trim away underused or redundant roads, converting the space to serve changing needs and preferences.

In 2009, New York’s Times Square joined the growing list of marquee places now without cars—others include Washington DC’s Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue by the White House, Minneapolis’s Nicollet Avenue, London’s Trafalgar Square, and city centers across Europe. Urban freeways have been removed in other cities, including the Central and Embarcadero Freeways in San Francisco, Harbor Drive in Portland, the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee, and Cheonggye Expressway in Seoul. These trends in cities will become more widespread as the demands for roadspace diminish with new technologies like driverless cars.

Designs for streets and roads will need to respond to an explosion of new vehicle types and patterns of use. Space no longer needed for auto traffic can be allocated to public transit, walking, or bicycling, which are all on the rise. Many communities are lowering the barriers to cycling via safer, physically separated bike lanes, and bikesharing programs.

How cars are used, owned, and driven will become unrecognizable sooner than people expect. Soon-to-be (or already) obsolete asphalt and concrete monuments are liabilities. It is no secret that North America’s streets and highways are not in excellent condition. The public sector should focus its transportation funds to better maintain, reconstruct, and adapt street space in a way that responds to an evolving transportation context that better serves people’s evolving needs. The cities that do this will win the 21st century. The others are building unnecessary capacity justified by extrapolating the exhausted trends of the past.



David Levinson (Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-engineering at the University of Minnesota) and Kevin J. Krizek (Professor and Director of the Program in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder) are the authors of the new book, The End of Traffic and the Future of Transport. [Link: ]