Fix Public Spaces 2: To Create a Great Space, Start by Making it Car-Free
Great public spaces don't make people stress over cars.
This is the second in a series of common sense solutions for building great public spaces.
Many of the iconic public spaces in the world have one thing in common. They are largely car-free.
Times Square in New York. Las Ramblas in Barcelona. St Peter’s Square in Rome. The Higashiyama district of Kyoto. The city of Venice. The list goes on.
Cars = stress
There is a very simple reason that great spaces are largely car-free.
Cars are stressful. It’s hard to relax and enjoy a space when you’re worried about getting hit by a moving vehicle.
There is science on this. Biometric analysis out of Tufts University notes that “people appear to be happier when cars aren’t in the picture”.
It turns out we don’t actually like looking at cars. Perhaps because they stress us out. Perhaps for other reasons.
If you want to create a great public space where people want to be, start by removing the cars.
Closer to home
Turning to Canada, some cities are clearly understanding the benefits of making car free spaces for people.
Montreal has famously been pedestrianizing streets during the summer.
Banff is planning to keep its main street car free during the summer (although is locked in a jurisdictional arm wrestle with Parks Canada).
Even Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park — a development that puts a high priority on car access — recognizes the importance of closing surrounding roads to the success of events such as its outdoor Christmas market.
Old habits die hard
It’s not complicated. If you want to make a great public space that people want to visit, put the cars elsewhere.
Unfortunately, many cities — in Canada and elsewhere — are hesitant to take on their drivers. There will always be a vocal minority of drivers ready to fight to keep every inch of existing roadway.
To successfully turn over road space to other uses, cities need to do a better job of articulating the exciting plans they would have for a car-free space.
Rather than letting drivers define the debate as “closing a road”, it’s time for city builders to shape the narrative as the “amazing things we can have” by freeing up public space from cars.