Can we reimagine streets for people?

Updated: Mar 5

When it comes to vehicles, the main conversation is how to reduce emissions. Hybrid cars, electric cars, busses, trains, bikes, and scooters are all viable options to help people get from point A to point B with fewer carbon emissions. While this is certainly progress, especially considering the massive weight oil companies have over our economy and politicians, it’s still mostly in the category of less bad options.


Sustainability is the midpoint between destructive and regenerative. When we rip open the earth’s crust in search of oil only to spew it into the atmosphere through our tailpipes, we are destroying the planet. There is absolutely zero evidence that this course of action benefits anyone or anything except employers and oil companies. By reducing emissions, we are certainly becoming more sustainable, but sustainability is an extremely modest goal. That is, if we fail to achieve it, what we have won’t last because it is unsustainable.


To actually cross the sustainability midpoint, we need to think beyond less bad solutions. For example, we talk about replacing gas powered cars with electric cars, but we don’t talk about replacing cars with trees that actually absorb carbon.


I know what you’re thinking. James, I can’t get to work in a tree. And that is undoubtedly true. But consider this. How many cars actually use the street you live on every hour? Even in cities as bustling as New York City there are countless streets that only see 1-2 cars per hour. We’ve designed places that are hostile to people in favor of a couple cars driving by every once in awhile. Now who’s being absurd?


The truth is, we don’t need cars nearly as much as we’ve been conditioned to think we do by slick advertising and poor street design. 95% of car trips are under 30 miles, and the average car trip is less than 6 miles.


Quick detour -- pun fully intended. 10,000 steps is approximately 5 miles. While this is highly oversimplified, there are studies that show taking 10,000 steps per day will help you lose one pound per week. Conversely, commuting to work has massive health repercussions in terms of your posture, stress, and levels of anxiety. There’s even a link between time spent in traffic and incidents of domestic violence.


Alright, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Cars suck, and we need to walk more often as a species. So why the heck do we have so many streets designed for cars when the average trip is about as far as we need to walk every day?


I’m not saying we should ban all cars or tear up all the streets. But maybe we only need 25% of the streets we currently have. Maybe it’s 50% or even 75%. Regardless, that opens up a ton of real estate that we could use to dramatically improve our health outcomes and decrease the pressure we put on our planet.


Fortunately for me, leaders around the world are taking this concept to the extreme, making me look like a reasonable moderate. In Barcelona, Spain, the concept of Superblocks is all the rage. They are slowly but surely pushing cars out of cities in favor of more walkable, mixed use streets that favor healthy lifestyles. In Heidelberg, Germany, cars are straight up not welcome. Instead, they are focused on superhighways for bikes and a hydrogen powered fleet of busses. Residents who give up their cars get free public transportation for a year.


These are the kinds of solutions we need if we are serious about cutting carbon. We can’t replace gas powered cars with slightly less gas powered cars if we expect to make significant progress. We can, however, replace cars with trees.


Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.



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