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This opinion piece was originally published on the Vice Impact online platform.
I'm lucky. The best part of my day is my commute. It's a 25-minute bike ride down the Hudson River Greenway – an 11-mile car-free path along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River. With a view of the River on my right, I zoom past hundreds of cars stuck in traffic on 12th Avenue. Others – commuters, fitness enthusiasts, parents -- bike and run alongside me.
I'm lucky I live in a city that has accessible public transit and infrastructure for biking and walking. I can afford to live and work a few blocks from the Greenway. When it's snowing, there's a subway station three blocks from my house that drops me off within minutes of my office. Every day is car-free for me.
But if we planned our cities around people, instead of cars, my luck and economic status would not define the way I get around.
Over the last century, governments have spent countless billions of dollars building streets and highways and garages and on-street parking for privately-owned cars. They've allocated millions of acres of public space to car infrastructure, the ubiquity of which has fueled the demand for even more cars. Car culture is so ingrained in us that getting a car has become a symbol of adulthood and success. Even worse, in many cities not having car makes it impossible to get to work, or take your kids to school, or go grocery shopping. Those who cannot afford to buy cars are forced to take out crippling loans to purchase them -- or to rely on public transportation systems that have received fractions of the funding spent on infrastructure for cars. The piston-driven cycle of poverty continues at 55 miles per hour.
Vehicular violence took 40,000 lives in the US just last year. 1.25 million die on the road every year globally. Add to that the environmental costs of transportation emissions, the health burden of obesity and respiratory diseases, the time lost sitting in congestion, and you're left wondering in whose interests cities are being planned.
The #BreatheLife Campaign is a global intervention by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Environment, and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition to curb air pollution through several solutions at the city and individual level. Changing our transportation systems and behaviors is one solution. Our cities don't have to look the way they do.
Picture your city's streets. Imagine what your city would look like if that space was converted into affordable housing, green parks, sidewalks, designated bike lanes, and mass transit lanes. Transformed into spaces where people can breathe and exercise. Transformed into spaces free from the danger of cars.
Being car-free equalizes us -- and creates opportunities for spontaneous social interaction in a world where in-person interactions are otherwise declining. Being on-foot, on two wheels, or sitting next to strangers requires us to look at each other, read each other's body language, and adjust our movements accordingly. It builds community by reminding us that the other is a human being, not a massive ton of unforgiving steel.
Could car-free become the everyday norm in our cities? Maybe. Every city has different needs, different cultures, different layouts. Every city also has people living in it, visiting it, who have places they need to go. But mobility is not just about getting from point A to point B. It's about the experience as well - the people we meet, how our bodies feel, the fragrant cherry blossoms we pass senselessly by in our cars. Car-free transportation can make us more thoughtful, more connected, more human. And governments can use car-free transportation as another strategy to address broader social concerns like health, safety, and cost of living.
So today, ask yourself: Can you walk to work quickly? Easily take the bus to the grocery store? Safely bike with your kids to school? Probably not. And because luck and economic status should never constrain the way we choose to get around, governments need to actively choose growth patterns that prioritize movement around the city for everyone -- not just prioritize the convenience of the car for the few.
Our cities are growing, and as they do, we must demand that our governments create transportation systems that allow us to be car-free. Because car-free should be the dream. It is freedom.
Washington D.C. was the first U.S. city to join the #BreatheLife Campaign. Ask your city to join the #BreatheLife Campaign. And if you can, join it yourself by choosing to go car-free. If you want to support renewable energy in your hometown, find out more about the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.
Krysia Solheim is the Business Operations Manager for nextbike in North America.