What Will Be America’s First Car-Free City?

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BOSTON - DECEMBER 21: Cyclists partake in the Boston Cyclists Union winter bike ride over the Mass Avenue Bridge during a snow flurry on December 21, 2014. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Cyclists partake in the Boston Cyclists Union winter bike ride over the Mass Avenue Bridge during a snow flurry on December 21, 2014. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

New Yorkers have been plotting to kick cars out of the city almost since they took over. All the way back in 1961, Dissent magazine argued that the motor vehicles should be banned from Manhattan, with the exception of buses, small taxis, and essential police and medical vehicles. For decades, car owners won out, but that might finally be changing: New York has the highest percentage of car-free households in America; the mayor's Vision Zero plan is slowing down traffic; and Gridlock Sam's Move New York plans has given at least a little bit more political life to congestion pricing.

The idea of having a car-free city isn't impossible, either: Hamburg, Germany, has pledged to eliminate cars in the next couple of decades; Abu Dhabi's trying to build a (mostly) car-free city from scratch; and in October, Johannesburg's kicking cars out of parts of a central business district for the whole month.

But the realistic chance of an outright ban on cars in any large section of Gotham is basically nil. The same is true most places in America. The most notable exception — that is, the major U.S. city that has the clearest route to going car-free — is Boston.

Boston's already the third most walkable city in America, and a new report from George Washington University makes the argument that it's only going to become more so. Before 2000, about 27 percent of new development was in walkable places; now 46 percent is. And 40 percent of the city's population already lives in extremely walkable areas. Plus, Boston has an unusually high percentage of households already living without cars — 37 percent, which puts it behind only New York and D.C.

Walkable doesn't immediately translate into "car-free." Driving in Boston might be a terrible experience, but the city's public transit system can't be relied on, either (as this winter amply demonstrated). But, recently, Anthony Townsend, the senior research scientist at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy, imagined how Boston could transform into "a place where mobility has changed profoundly."

The short version of the vision for Boston is this: Starting around 2020, Boston's taken over by micro-apartments, filled with young, connected people who aren't particularly attached to their homes — they might move every few months, just to stay within walking distance of work, school, or friends. At the same time, cognitive science advances our understanding of how people react to "walking environments," and yields streets and sidewalks that make people more likely to move about. Soon, enough people are walking that the city commits to going car-free — in central Boston, at least—by 2034. Cars are replaced by a network of shared electric bikes and self-stabilizing skateboards; the city upgrades the T, and by 2032, cars are relegated to "a niche role for inter-city travel."

Townsend's report, though rooted in deep research, was speculative. And, in reality, the only way that Boston could eliminate cars would be if it could make the T system work for more people. "That's a big if," says land use strategist Christopher Leinberger, the author of the GWU report. "They've got the oldest transit system in the country, and it looks it." (His vote for first American car-free city goes to Washington, D.C., where not only is the district itself walkable, but, increasingly, the suburbs are, too.)

Of course, not every city is full of people who want to live without cars: One of Townsend's other future scenarios focused on Atlanta, and imagined that driverless cars would shuttle workers from home to office — then go park themselves in huge parking lots on the edge of the city. Sounds pretty pleasant, in its own way.