EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Designing Cities for People: Cities for People

As the new century begins, it is becoming evident to urban dwellers, whether in industrial or developing countries, that there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. Urban air pollution from automobiles is emerging as a leading health issue in hundreds of cities. Worsening congestion also takes a direct economic toll in rising costs in time and gasoline.

Another cost in cities that are devoted to cars is a psychological one, a deprivation of contact with the natural world—an “asphalt complex.” There is a growing body of evidence that there is an innate human need for contact with nature. Ecologists and psychologists have both been aware of this for some time. Ecologists, led by Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson, have formulated the “biophilia hypothesis,” which argues that those who are deprived of contact with nature suffer psychologically and that this deprivation leads to a measurable decline in well-being. 67

Meanwhile, psychologists have coined their own term—ecopsychology—in which they make the same argument. Theodore Roszak, a leader in this field, cites a study of varying rates of patient recovery in a hospital in Pennsylvania. Those whose rooms overlooked gardens with grass, trees, flowers, and birds recovered from illnesses more quickly than those who were in rooms overlooking the parking lot. 68

Throughout the modern era, budget allocations for transportation in most countries—and in the United States, in particular—have been heavily biased toward the construction and maintenance of highways and streets. Creating more livable cities and the mobility that people desire depends on shifting resources from roads and highways to urban transit and bicycle support facilities.

The exciting news is that there are signs of change, daily indications of an interest in redesigning cities for people, not for cars. That U.S. public transit ridership nationwide has risen by 2.4 percent a year since 1996 indicates that people are gradually abandoning their cars for buses, subways, and light rail. Higher gasoline prices are encouraging commuters to take the bus or subway or get on their bicycles. 69

Mayors and city planners the world over are beginning to rethink the role of the car in urban transport systems. A group of eminent scientists in China challenged Beijing’s decision to promote an automobile-centered transport system. They noted a simple fact: China does not have enough land to accommodate the automobile and to feed its people. This is also true for India and dozens of other densely populated developing countries. 70

Some cities plan transport systems that provide mobility, clean air, and exercise—a sharp contrast to those that offer only more congestion, unhealthy air, and little opportunity for exercise. When 95 percent of a city’s workers depend on cars for commuting, as in Atlanta, Georgia, the city is in trouble. By contrast, in Amsterdam only 40 percent of workers commute by car; 35 percent bike or walk, while 25 percent use public transit. Copenhagen’s commuting patterns are almost identical to Amsterdam’s. In Paris, fewer than half of commuters rely on cars, and even this is falling as Mayor Delanoë restructures the transport system. Even though these European cities are older, often with narrow streets, they have far less congestion than Atlanta. 71

If developing-country transportation planners continue to concentrate fiscal resources in support of the automobile, they will end up with a system built for the small fraction of their people who own cars. There are many ways to restructure the transportation system so that it satisfies the needs of all people, not just the affluent, so that it provides mobility, not immobility, and so that it improves health rather than damaging it. One way is to eliminate the subsidies, often indirect, that many employers provide for parking. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup estimates that off-street parking subsidies in the United States are worth at least $127 billion a year, obviously encouraging people to drive. 72

In 1992, California mandated that employers match parking subsidies with cash that can be used by the recipient either to pay public transport fares or to buy a bicycle. In firms where data were collected, this shift in policy reduced automobile use by some 17 percent. At the national level, a provision was incorporated into the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century to change the tax code so that those who used public transit or vanpools would enjoy the same tax-exempt subsidies as those who received free parking. What societies should be striving for is not parking subsidies, but parking fees—fees that reflect the costs of traffic congestion and the deteriorating quality of life as cities are taken over by cars and parking lots. 73

Scores of cities are declaring car-free areas, among them Stockholm, Vienna, Prague, and Rome. Paris enjoys a total ban on cars along stretches of the Seine River on Sundays and holidays and is looking to make much of the central city traffic-free starting in 2012. 74

In addition to ensuring that subways are functional and affordable, the idea of making them attractive, even cultural centers, is gaining support. In Moscow, with works of art in the stations, the subway system is justifiably referred to as Russia’s crown jewel. In Washington, D.C., Union Station, which links the city’s subway system with intercity rail lines, is an architectural delight. Since its restoration was completed in 1988, it has become a social gathering place, with shops, conference rooms, and a rich array of restaurants.

One of the more innovative steps to encourage the use of public transportation comes from State College, a small town of 40,000 residents in central Pennsylvania that is home to Penn State University. To reduce traffic congestion on campus and to address the lack of sufficient parking, Penn State in 1999 offered $1 million annually to the bus-based local transit system in exchange for unlimited free rides for its students, faculty, and staff. As a result, bus ridership in State College jumped by 240 percent in one year, requiring the transit company to invest heavily in new buses to accommodate the additional passengers. This university initiative created a far more pleasant, attractive campus—an asset in recruiting both students and faculty. 75

As the new century advances, the world is reconsidering the urban role of automobiles in one of the most fundamental shifts in transportation thinking in a century. The challenge is to redesign communities, making public transportation the centerpiece of urban transport and making streets pedestrian and bicycle friendly. This also means replacing parking lots with parks, playgrounds, and playing fields. We can design an urban lifestyle that systematically restores health by incorporating exercise into daily routines while reducing carbon emissions and air pollution.

Previous Table of Contents Next


67. E. O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); S. R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993).

68. Theodore Roszak, Mary Gomes, and Allen Kanner, eds., Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995).

69. Public transport ridership growth rate calculated from American Public Transportation Administration, “Unlinked Passenger Trips By Mode, Millions,” in 2007 Public Transportation Factbook (Washington, DC: 2007), p. 12.

70. Ding Guangwei and Li Shishun, “Analysis of Impetuses to Change of Agricultural Land Resources in China,” Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, vol. 13, no. 1 (1999).

71. Molly O’Meara Sheehan, City Limits: Putting the Breaks on Sprawl, Worldwatch Paper 156 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, June 2001), p. 11; Schrank and Lomax, op. cit. note 4.

72. Jim Motavalli, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” E: The Environmental Magazine, March–April 2005; Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Chicago: American Planning Association Planners Press, 2005), p. 591; Daniel B. Klein, “Free Parking Versus Free Markets,” The Independent Review, vol. XI, no. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 289-97.

73. O’Meara, op. cit. note 3, p. 49; Donald C. Shoup, “Congress Okays Cash Out,” Access, Fall 1998, pp. 2-8.

74. “Paris To Cut City Centre Traffic,” BBC News, 15 March 2005; J. H. Crawford, “Carfree Places,” at www.carfree.com, viewed 17 August 2007; see also J. H. Crawford, Carfree Cities (Utrecht, Netherlands: International Books, July 2000).

75. Lyndsey Layton, “Mass Transit Popularity Surges in U.S.,” Washington Post, 30 April 2000; Bruce Younkin, manager of fleet operations, Penn State University, State College, PA, discussion with Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute, 4 December 2000.


Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute