How Cars have Killed Our Downtown: The Loss of People-centric Planning and What We can do About It

4 min read

Jake McPhail ‘24

Opinion Editor

It does not take a genius to see that American downtowns are in serious distress. Unless you are from a large city like New York, Boston, or Providence, you are acutely aware that the once bustling downtowns that scatter the American landscape are nothing more than hollowed out shells of what they once were.

I often find myself staring at long-forgotten pictures of my hometown of Southington, Connecticut, and, now, Hartford, reminiscing of a time that I never lived. And I do not say this in the way that Aerosmith fans say they were “born in the wrong generation,” I say this in the way that I wish that I could have a human space centered around people for myself and my friends to enjoy.

So, what happened? Why do only our largest cities or the very select few downtowns have this idealized landscape?

There are plenty of places you can point to and blame but for the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the advent of the automobile and the subsequent destruction of our public transportation network.

When you come across pictures of our old downtowns, the first thing you will notice is that the streets were made for people, not automobiles. Rather than everyone being crammed into tiny sidewalks while being doused in carcinogenic fumes from gasoline-powered cars, it was people going about their day in a space that was for people.

Yet, people did not walk everywhere, they took what was available to them: streetcars, carriages, and other forms of public transit. I am not advocating for our streets to be lined with horse-and-buggies again, but what I am advocating for is more transit options than a personal vehicle or a bus. 

Picture this: you wake up on a lazy Sunday morning and want to do some last-minute shopping to prepare yourself for the week. You run down the stairs of your apartment building or to the front yard of your house to catch the trolley that runs through the street. You hop on, sit down, and read a book as the world goes by; soon enough, you see the supermarket and pull the line to indicate you would like to get off, and there you are.

Compare this to your reality of having to regularly fill your car’s tank with expensive petroleum, sitting in traffic, and then struggling to find a parking spot, only to repeat this process again when you want to go home. 

Not only is it unpleasant to drive in a world full of cars, but it is also horrific for our environment and pedestrians. Every year, automobiles pump 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere in the United States alone. Furthermore, in the U.S. in 2021, nearly 7,500 pedestrians were slaughtered at the whim of the automobile.

This is, mostly, not the fault of drivers though. Roads are designed to carry as much traffic as quickly as possible, making people feel comfortable driving at high speeds and risking the lives of pedestrians every day. With every passing year, cars take a larger and larger share of the road away from pedestrians, only worsening the issue. 

Cities and towns leaning into car-centric transit was not some natural shift either, automotive industries are to blame. For example, the term “car accident” was one created by the industry to overtake “vehicular murder” and shift the onus of being cautious to the pedestrian rather than the drivers. Also, during this change in dialogue, the term “jaywalk” was conceived—also by the industry. In the 1920s, the term “jay” was a pejorative term for someone who was not very bright, thus further cementing the notion that roads are for cars and not people, someone who crosses the road without a signal or not at a designated sidewalk was “an idiot.”

Furthermore, the robust network of trollies and other forms of light rail that took townspeople to and fro were bought out and destroyed by the industry. As more and more cars were sold, lining the pockets of wealthy automotive tycoons, they sought to force the automobile onto ordinary people by destroying any and all other transit options.

It does not have to be like this. We can take the inspiration of yesterday to guide us as we look towards our future. We know this is possible. As an example, we can look to Amsterdam as a place that recognized the problems associated with car-centric planning and fixed it.

Realizing their cities were being destroyed by cars, they looked onto their past to move toward a more sustainable and people-centric future, and I suggest we do the same. 

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