American driving habits are changing, with more people choosing transportation alternatives that could mean we see fewer cars in the future. City policy makers across the country have taken notice and adopted transportation plans that make room for bikers, walkers, and transit users. Los Angeles made headlines recently for jumping on the bandwagon.
The new policy in Los Angeles, called Mobility Plan 2035, aims to improve safety for other modes of travel and reduce the number of drivers by adding “hundreds of miles of new bicycle lanes, bus-only lanes, and other road designs,” according to the LA Times.
Ken Bernstein, principal city planner for Los Angeles, said in an interview that the long-term plan “creates new choices for Los Angeles residents.”
“Transportation policies pursued in recent decades aren’t working,” he said. “We cannot build our way out of our mobility crisis any longer.”
American Car Culture is Changing
Millennials and those coming up behind them are less concerned with driving cars, research in LA shows. They put off getting a driver’s license for years and some have joined the crowd of bike commuters. Between 2000 and 2010, LA saw a 56 percent increase in the number of people biking to work.
After years of saying the number of drivers in the U.S. would rise dramatically, the Federal Highway Administration majorly adjusted its estimated trajectory in January, saying that, actually, the number of drivers will stay pretty flat over the next three decades.
The adjustment “is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways,” according to Streets Blog USA.
For communities improving their policies, the standard seems to be “Complete Streets.”
Complete streets is a city planning philosophy that prioritizes roadways that are safe for people of all ages and abilities, balance the needs of all road users, and “support local land uses, economies, cultures, and natural environments,” according to the National Complete Streets Coalition.
That translates to roads that make room for your bike with more than just a symbol on the pavement. It also mentions longer walk signals and shorter crosswalks. No longer must you wait at the mercy of a car to cross the road. In 2013, Chicago established a “pedestrian first” hierarchy that says, “All transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles,” according to a city statement.
Across 30 states, 712 communities have complete streets policies.
By walking, biking, and bussing, creative travelers can reduce air pollution, cutting back on the environmental and health impacts attributed to driving.
In California, 38 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Reducing smog could be as easy as walking or biking with your kids to the park or to the market – those little trips that take five minutes that wouldn’t be much worse if they took 15 and included some outdoor exercise.
Almost half of all trips in greater Los Angeles are less than 3 miles – within biking or walking distance. Currently, 84 percent of those trips are done by car, according to the city.
Walkers, Bikers Need Safer Streets
Opponents of the new plan in LA argue that there won’t be fewer cars in the future and reducing car lanes to add bike and bus lanes will create even more congestion for drivers.
“They feel that it is trying to force people to abandon the automobile,” Bernstein said. “That’s not the intention but that’s the perception.”
In reality, the city is trying to add choices “that don’t exist today,” he said.
But you can’t be expected to bike or walk if the streets aren’t safe, just like you don’t use the bus when it’s consistently late.
According to the LA Times, pedestrians represent only 10 percent of people involved in car crashes but more than 35 percent of overall road deaths in Los Angeles County between 2002 and 2013.
“Reducing all types of crashes, experts say, is possible if the city is willing to dramatically reshape streets by adding medians, widening sidewalks and putting in dedicated bus and bike lanes, at the expense of car lanes,” the Times reports.
Four U.S. cities are making major strides in protecting bikers at one of the most stressful points during an urban bike ride: intersections.
Just a few days before city officials passed the new plan in LA, Davis, California, opened the first protected intersection – a redesigned intersection that is hard to explain but apparently easy to use. The method is modeled after Dutch infrastructure.
Davis narrowly beat Austin, Texas, Salt Lake City, and Boston, which will open their own protected intersections soon.
Recent research by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities upholds the commonsense that more people are willing to bike in lanes that are separated from cars either by curbs, medians, or parked cars.
As cities of all sizes add infrastructure that makes biking, walking, and bussing a serious alternative to driving, we’ll see the effect of fewer cars on the road, less smog in the air, and healthier, happier people.
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Bicycle photo from Shutterstock