Can we ban driving in urban centres?

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

I hate driving. Not because it’s terrible for the environment (which it is) or contributes to air pollution (which kills more people than smoking), but because of the entitlement of drivers who feel they own the road over pedestrians, cyclists and other multi-modal forms of transportation. Can we just ban them?

Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s article on how vehicles kill urban life inspired me to imagine what Downtown Winnipeg might look like if we cut vehicles from the equation. This quote, in particular, sparked my interest and instilled my rage: “Street life is treated as an impediment to traffic. In cities all over the world, it has been cleared for cars. Stalls, hawkers, football and cricket games, old people playing dominoes, chess or pétanque: all must make way for the car. So much land is required for driving and parking that there is little left for human life.”

Is banning driving in urban centers even realistic?

So, is banning vehicles even possible in Downtown Winnipeg? In New York City, a tactical urbanism project brought about significant change for its busiest intersection in 2014. My colleague, senior landscape architect wrote, "the City of Winnipeg brought in Tim Tompkins to speak publicly about the trials and tribulations of getting the Times Square pedestrian plaza project off the ground. I attended this public presentation and was in awe by how they used simple, low-cost lawn chairs to reshape the mindset of a city with a population of 8.5 million people to move forward with the idea that became a $55 million project."

I understand Winnipeg resembles New York City in no way (except maybe a few blocks of The Exchange District!). I also understand that owning a vehicle in Winnipeg is necessary to get around—especially if you live in the suburbs or need to visit them. Moreover, urban sprawl has put a lot of pressure on our public transit system, reducing its effectiveness for timely and convenient commuting. Maybe instead of banning all vehicles from our roads, we can challenge the status quo instead?

We can't ban all vehicles, but we can rethink how we use our streets downtown--especially in the summertime when pedestrian traffic increases significantly downtown. A few ideas that stem off the top of my head is closing down streets for pedestrians on Sundays, expanding restaurant's patio space onto the road during evening hours and developing more bike lanes.

Community support

Monbiot’s words brought up a lot of frustration, especially after the Portage and Main plebiscite  where the majority of Winnipeggers (outside of downtown) voted to keep the barricades in place instead of opening them up for pedestrians. It felt like a symbol of Winnipeg’s inability to prioritize people over vehicles, and in turn, fueling some people’s entitlement to downtown’s spaces that should be left or opened up for parking.

However, banning all vehicles would be impossible and therefore hurt the many people who use downtown as a gateway for work. However, if we can reduce the number of vehicles using downtown as this gateway, well -there’s a discussion to be had.

Environmental Impacts

Global warming is one of the most significant reasons to move away from vehicles. According to the National Geographic’s Car Buying Guide, “cars consume a lot of energy before they ever make it to the open road”. Eighty -90% of a vehicle’s impact is because of “fuel consumption and emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases that climate scientists say are driving global warming.”

Also, according to the Government of Canada, passenger vehicles account for a considerable proportion of the total national transportation emissions, including:

  • approximately 21 per cent of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions
  • approximately 51 per cent of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions
  • approximately 4 per cent of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) emissions

Most likely, this is through idling, whether from drive-thrus, traffic jams or merely warming up your vehicle in -50 F weather, but it’s essential to recognize that millions of vehicles on our roads add up to a lot of carbon emissions that negatively impact the environment and contribute to the warming of our planet. In fact, Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Scientists with Environment Canada say climate change is “driven (no pun intended) by human influence”.

Driving in urban centers: a necessary evil?

So where do we go from here? Challenging our perception of driving would help as a start. Encouraging other modes of transportation would put less stress on roadwork activities. Moreover, with fewer cars, we could designate more lanes for bikers, for transit specific or scooters. We could give a pathway that is no longer needed for parking to patios or close down streets permanently in the summer, particularly downtown, providing pedestrians with the opportunity to spill out onto the streets and enjoy the warm air.

My colleague highlighted in Attention: Have you gone outside lately, that nearly two-thirds of Canadians spend less than two hours outside each week;  almost one-third of Canadians spend less than 30 minutes outside each week. It's absolutely true that we need to spend more time outside, but we also need to provide people with the spaces and places to do so. Vehicle use in Downtown Winnipeg often overrides (sorry for the pun) pedestrians ability to explore outside freely without barricades.

Moreover, by transforming spaces usually reserved for vehicles will have a positive impact on our health and wellbeing. As noted, by Eillie Anzilotti, for Fast Company, citing a report from The Nature Conservancy, “Trees are sustainability power tools: They clean and cool the air, regulate temperatures, counteract the urban “heat island” effect and support water quality and manage flow. Yes, they look pretty, but they also deliver measurable mental and physical health benefits to concrete-fatigued city dwellers.” In short, public or green spaces can help reduce carbon emissions and provide fresh air for people, improving their overall health and wellbeing.

In conclusion

Downtowns have a real power to enact change. They are a unique area as workers come in from all over the city and surrounding area, and tourists come from all of the world to see the sights. If we can get individual car use down and increase walking, biking, scootering, busing, skipping, pogo-sticking and all that healthy activity jazz—then all of those movements and choices create a more vibrant, efficient and healthy place to be. We can convince the rest of Winnipeg to skip the car and get on the right track in terms of our climate goals. Not to mention, with fewer cars, there is less traffic congestion and quicker commute times.

Spending time outside is critical to our health, to the health of the environment and the health of our cities. Vehicles act as an invisible wall to becoming a better world, and while they are necessary, I don’t feel they are required to dominate those urban centers. Multi-modal or mixed-use streets, like Argyle Street in Chicago, present an excellent compromise for creating a better world.

Like the National Geographic noted in its guide—this is very much within our control. We need to shift our way of thinking about vehicles as being a critical element of commuting and traveling, and instead focus and encourage less impactful modes of transportation such as walking, cycling and taking public transit. When we do this and move away from being a vehicle-centric city, the economic and environmental benefits show; we can truly become a place where people live, work and play.

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