Are Cars an Invention of the Past?

Holiday Issue: Innovation and the Mind

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Most of us cannot imagine a life without cars.  Whether to go to school, to visit our friends, or to go to the movies; we all use cars on a daily basis.  With gas prices so low and free drivers education at our school, why wouldn’t we?  However, what few of us realize is that cars may soon be rendered obsolete.  I’m not talking about flying cars, jetpacks, or teleportation; I’m talking about cars disappearing in our cities.  While it may seem impossible today, many suggest it is just around the corner.

        A few weeks ago, the city of Oslo, Norway, a city of nearly 600,000 residents,  announced that it would be going “car-free” by the year 2019.  This may sound like an impossible feat, but they are well on their way to making the whole downtown area a restricted zone for cars.  In removing all cars, they plan to make more room for pedestrians to walk and enjoy the city without having to be wary of drivers or breathe in polluted air. As part of the program the city is also expanding its cycling network, building another 35-40 miles of bike lanes, as well as expanding the public transportation system. A final measure the city is taking is a larger rental bike system, which allows users to rent bikes from any part of town, use them for up to 12 hours, and then return them.  In essence people will be trading in their cars for subway passes, and car keys for bicycle locks any time they want to go into the city.

        Oslo is not the first place to make this shift.  A year ago, Madrid pledged to do the same thing by 2020, abolishing car traffic from 500 acres of the city center.  Paris is also beginning to phase out cars from certain popular tourist sites like Notre Dame.  Both these cities have excellent public transportation systems that run more efficiently, and certainly more ecologically friendly than cars.  A personal example, for me, is the city of Montpellier, France, where I lived for year.  The city had been battling traffic problems for years, especially in the densely packed, historic downtown.  To solve its problems, at the turn of the century, it decided to to make a radical change.  In the year 2000 it built a system of trams that provided a cheap, reliable, and environmentally friendly way to travel the city.  The trams ran mainly on roads previously used by cars, cutting accessibility for drivers, and in the historic downtown cars are completely banned.  Although a large risk for the city, the tram was a huge success, and now 282,000 people use it every day.  As it connects to the bus system and even the downtown bike sharing system it provides a wide variety of travel opportunities.  Also with a year- long card costing approximately $240, it is cheaper than any car.   Downtown has also become much friendlier to tourists and town residents alike.  A hidden benefit to this change was that because the downtown is still accessible for utility vehicles, if there is ever an emergency, they can respond quicker than before.  All of this makes Montpellier a cleaner, greener, and safer place to live and go out.

        Bringing a system like that in Montpellier to the U.S. would be extremely difficult, but not unthinkable.  Already the downtown areas of cities like New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C. are investing millions in the expansion of their public transportation systems. These are; however, exceptions to the trend the whole rest of the country is following  We have what some sociologists call “The culture of the car.”  Every aspect of our lives is structured around it.

Cities like Wilmington are laid out for optimized flow of car traffic and are meant to be completely accessible by car.  As someone who does not have a car and lives in Wilmington, I can tell you it is virtually impossible to get from one place to another.  Drivers in Wilmington have no respect for the biker or the pedestrian.  If you try to take the bus, you will be faced with a complex system which far from being intuitive, and suggests routes for you that are entirely nonsensical.  Instead of moving towards more public transport for the future, American Venture Capitalists are investing in Uber or Tesla.  We are constantly trying to improve upon our car-based system, attempting to make it less noisy, less polluting, and more efficient.  What if, however, the best solution is to remove them from the equation entirely.