Before I go on to make everyone feel awful, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, driving is a pleasurable activity, particularly when done up and down some remote mountain road, and especially when there’s only one vehicle around (you). I myself have long dreamed of owning a truck, which I absolutely do not need, as someone whose maximum load consists of the three-ish pounds my laptop weighs. (“What are you going to do with a truck,” asked an insightful but not particularly well-meaning friend. “Cart around your ‘likes?’”)
In my dream my truck has a two-toned racing stripe, and I spend a lot of time careening around with the windows down, going well above the speed limit. It goes without saying that the sound system in my imaginary Tacoma is top-notch. But in my dream, I do not live in a congested metropolitan area with a neglected public transit system, in a country fond of dismantling foreign states to satisfy its malignant dependence on oil, on a planet that is boiling. Ban private cars in cities! It’s the only way to stop selfish idiots like me.
We should probably do this everywhere—France is working on it—but in order to ease the shock delivered to our road trip-loving systems we’ll begin the purge in New York, which in addition to being my place of residence has been trying to eject private cars from its borders for nearly 50 years. Banning cars entirely from, say, the island of Manhattan is such an intuitive and obvious thing to do it almost happened in the ‘70s: Sam Schwartz, the public employee who literally coined the term gridlock, nearly succeeded in banning single-occupancy vehicles from Manhattan as part of his 1979 transit plan. He was so close the NO CARS signs for certain parts of the city had already been made.
Congestion pricing, even as a quality-of-life issue, was at the time popular both on the right and left, as he told The Guardian: It was the “middle” Swartz had trouble with, and why the radical plan to ban cars from densely populated areas with little infrastructure or space to support them ultimately failed to gain traction. Well, that and the auto lobby, a powerful hand that’s been fighting regulations from the years it invented the crime of jaywalking through its distaste for seatbelts, all the way up to its recent push against emissions caps.
Besides service drivers and medallion-holding cabbies, there is no discernible reason to allow motor vehicles in a city with so little space—the kind of bustling metropolis in which 70 percent of the world’s population is projected to live by 2050. As our friends at Gizmodo pointed out a few years ago, a car ban—or even a partial scaling down—would do more for the environment than the measures offered in the Paris climate agreement, curbing CO2 emissions globally by 11%. Americans drive more cars than any other country; soon, transportation is expected to make up a full one-third of energy-related emissions.
And these heaps of steel and aluminum clogging New York’s streets, belching out noxious fumes and making traveling a couple of blocks during rush hour impossible, make living here even more of a twisted nightmare than it already is. The city’s more than 80,000 metered parking spaces take up almost 150 miles, cutting into already inadequate public place. And even considering all that, there’s demand for even more space in which to not even use you car: Parking spaces in this city can cost up to a million dollars each. (The average cost of your own private parking space on the island actually runs around a grand a foot.)
Which brings me to another thing about private car ownership in the city: It is one of those luxury conveniences best suited for, and most often enjoyed, by the rich. According to the most recent data, more than half of all New Yorkers and three-quarters of Manhattan households don’t even own one. If you live in Manhattan and own a car you use for your own pleasure it’s probably because you’re lazy, taking long weekends in the Hamptons, or are afraid to take the bus. And counter-intuitively, over the last few years, car ownership in New York is up—but mostly, according to an analysis from StreetsBlog, among property owners and government employees, which should tell you a little about the car-owner’s general mentality.
According to recent data from New York State’s transportation department, car-free households generally earn 52 percent less than those with vehicles. Ostensibly, without the crutch of other transportation options, our city’s beleaguered transit system would get better, if only because the power brokers would occasionally be late to meetings because of a system malfunction or a “sick passenger,” too. And lest you be tempted to tell me we need something softer—congestion pricing, for instance, or road space rationing—remember what’s happened elsewhere. In places like Mexico City, where you’re only allowed to drive certain cars on certain days, wealthy people simply buy more cars so they can do whatever the hell they want.
If personal car use were a thing of the past, service vehicles (and emergency response, and cars-for-hire, and bikes, and pedestrians, and small animals) would move through the city more freely. Uber and Lyft wouldn’t have been able to insidiously replace the taxi industry with their precarious “ride-sharing” gospel, offering predatory subprime Goldman Sachs loans to an indentured army of aspirational car owners. And I guess banning cars could curb terrorism, too, though to be honest that has been the last thing on my mind.
Car ownership is one of those stupid, nostalgic things we do mostly because it feels right to drive, and because we live in America, where highway culture was invented—a force of habit made to feel natural when it’s actually that our institutions and city planners have been steadfastly moving away from the logical conclusion. (Which is, obviously, to invest in a network of sustainable and robust public transit systems to wean us off of of cars, rather than to keep constructing city streets with future gas-guzzlers in mind.)
Ban cars, entirely—start in cities like New York and move outwards. Do it so I won’t be able to drive my truck, because I am weak and otherwise I totally will.