Blog: The Divide – Cities for Cars Cities for People
By Luis Alejandro Murcia Jiménez
Throughout history, people have used many different types of transportation to move through and between towns and cities. From using the most basic methods, like walking or biking, to complex types of machinery, like cars and trains. The transportation method of choice has changed over time, but for a lot of our history, it was designed with walkability in mind. Our cities were made on a human scale, like old European neighborhoods. In the 1960s, many countries, especially here in North America, took a car-centric stance when designing their expanding cities. When cities are designed for cars and not people, the city tends to quickly expand outwards and spreads out to accommodate the space that cars need, like wide roads, parking lots, and driveways. This is called urban sprawl and it makes the city unwelcoming to those who do not travel in cars.
Suburbs are an example of city design fueled by a car-centric society. Suburbs are built to separate homes away from everything else in the city. This might not seem like an issue if you live close to the city’s core, however, the further the city expands the more evident problems become. Living further from grocery stores, retailers, doctor’s offices, or anything else you need, means driving becomes a requirement. This creates barriers to access and social inclusion.
Living far from any destination also leads to boring commutes with little to no change in the visual environment. This creates mental fatigue (1), where commutes become so routine in our brains that people drive on autopilot without paying attention to their surroundings (2). Adding extra pressures to the brain like following a GPS, eating, talking, etc., the risk for human error rises. The combination of mental fatigue and poor city and road design (stroads) means that over 60% of accidents occur while the driver is distracted. (3)
One of the biggest issues that urban sprawl and car dependency create in North American cities is what non-profit media advocacy organization Strong Towns calls, “stroads”. (4) Stroads are a mix between a road (which is a high-speed connecting route with wide lanes) and a street (which is a place with many locations for people to interact with businesses and/or residences). Examples of stroads in Edmonton are 124th Street, 111th Ave, and 170st Street, one example can be seen here. Unfortunately, a stroad does poorly at being either a street or a road. It does not allow for fast travel between locations, since you are always stopping at stoplights or waiting for someone to turn into a parking lot, and it is more dangerous for people heading into businesses or residences. It becomes an unsafe space by creating many points of conflict between modes of transportation (ie: cars and cars, cars and bikes, cars and pedestrians, etc.).
Stroads not only make roadways unsafe physically, but they also remove the social aspect from the streets. Multiple lanes of traffic and vast amounts of parking are unappealing and uninviting for people to use for leisure. This hinders people’s ability to create new connections. (5) Humans are social creatures, and the lack of social interactions is a concern to our mental health. (6)
What can be done?
While North America currently remains heavily dependent on cars, some other countries, such as the Netherlands, have noticed the safety problems and other issues that car-centric cities bring and have returned the space to the people, creating a livable environment (7). The standard in Dutch cities is to create spaces that are inviting, charming, quieter, accessible, and safe. The city is designed for pedestrians, cyclists, people with disabilities, and others – not solely cars. When the cities make people feel connected and welcome, the people tend to be happier living there. (8)
In the Netherlands, good road and street design helps drivers and pedestrians with the previously mentioned issues drivers experience in cities filled with suburbs and stroads. Dutch roundabouts, continuous sidewalks, roadways that are designed to make drivers travel the speed limit and avoid speeding, and the concept of autoluw, or pedestrian only areas, are just some of the many ways the Netherlands makes safer, more livable environments and socially inclusive.
A continuous sidewalk keeps going at a level that has no breaks or inclines. When vehicles turn onto a street, they must do a sharp turn and go over the sidewalk like a speedbump. (9) In addition to slowing down vehicles, continuous sidewalks demonstrate that this space is primarily for people, not cars. They are an inclusive part of city infrastructure because people with low mobility and disabilities can walk without uneven pathways and big steps up onto curbs and sidewalks. (10) Another benefit to continuous sidewalks would come during Edmonton’s harsh winters – the slopes where the sidewalk meets the road become very slippery adding to a lack of safety for pedestrians, and a continuous level sidewalk means people no longer risk slipping and falling into roadways.
There are many options that both Canada and the City of Edmonton can pursue to improve walkability and livability in the interest of creating a safe social environment. A straightforward solution is creating “almost car-free” zones. Unfortunately, in the past when such proposals have been made there has often been great opposition to the change – mostly from people who fear that losing car space will mean fewer people can access the area. In the Netherlands, there are places known as “AutoLuw,” (11) which are more effective regarding safety in densely populated and highly visited areas with lots of businesses, like downtown.
Stroget, a shopping area in Copenhagen, Denmark, experienced resistance in the 1960s (12). Many shop owners, traffic engineers, and public transportation groups expressed concerns and fears about the consequences of converting the area into a pedestrian-only shopping area. Most of the fears were for loss of business profits from a reduction in customers in the area. In the end, Stroget’s transformation to a pedestrian area was a success in both urban and commercial aspects and businesses saw an increase in customers. The area became more friendly to people and saw an increase in people who were passing by, choosing to stay and visit the businesses in the area. It is important to acknowledge that such strategies are not a one size fits all solution for many areas. It requires a strong foundation of population density and viable access to car-free locations. If city planners have cars in mind and expect people to drive to these locations, then the plan has already failed.
Edmonton is currently working on multiple projects (13) to change our current car-centric situation by exploring improvements in our active transportation system in multiple locations. (14) The focus of these projects is people that “walk, bike, and wheel”. The city is also piloting a pedestrian- and bike-only corridor downtown, like the autoluw concept previously mentioned for one year. (15) 102 Ave will remain closed for motor vehicles next to the new Valley LRT.
Vehicles have shaped our cities extensively in unsustainable and pedestrian inaccessible ways. They have created an unsafe social environment and have pushed us far from each other. Fortunately, there are many options for our cities to take to bring back people to the streets and create a safe livable Edmonton.
 Ma, J., Gu, J., Jia, H., Yao, Z., and Chang, R. (2018). The relationship between drivers’ cognitive fatigue and speed variability during monotonous daytime driving. Front. Psychol. 9:459. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00459
 Safety Driven. (2021, March 2). Distracted driving and your brain. Safety Driven: Trucking Safety Council of BC. https://safetydriven.ca/resource/distracted-driving-and-your-brain/
 Dingus, T. A., Guo, F., Lee, S., Antin, J. F., Perez, M., Buchanan-King, M., & Hankey, J. (2016). Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2636–2641. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1513271113
 Towns, S. (2021, May 24). What’s a STROAD and why does it matter? Strong Towns. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/3/1/whats-a-stroad-and-why-does-it-matter
 Back, M. D., Schmukle, S. C., & Egloff, B. (2008). Becoming friends by chance. Psychological Science, 19(5), 439–440. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02106.x
 Yen, I. H., & Syme, S. L. (1999). The social environment and health: A discussion of the epidemiologic literature. Annual Review of Public Health, 20(1), 287–308.
 Hembrow, D. (2011, January 10). Stop the child murder. A View from the Cycle Path. http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/01/stop-child-murder.html
 Seveno, V. (2022, March 24). The Netherlands once again one of the happiest countries in the world. IamExpat. https://www.iamexpat.nl/expat-info/dutch-expat-news/netherlands-once-again-one-happiest-countries-world#:%7E:text=The%20Netherlands%20as%20the%20world’s%20fifth%20happiest%20country&text=This%20year%20sees%20the%20country,their%20lives%20were%20in%20balance
 Weetman, R. (2020, May 10). Design details 1. Nicer Cities, Liveable Places. https://robertweetman.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/design-details-1/
 Gagnon, F. (2017, April 5). Raised crosswalks and continuous sidewalks: “Pedestrian priority” – Briefing note – For up-to-date knowledge relating to healthy public policy. Policy Commons. https://policycommons.net/artifacts/1933480/raised-crosswalks-and-continuous-sidewalks/2685251/
 Hembrow, D. (2013, February 13). “Nearly car free” areas. A View from the Cycle path. http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2013/02/nearly-car-free-areas.html
 Yassin, H. H. (2019). Livable city: An approach to pedestrianization through tactical urbanism. Alexandria Engineering Journal, 58(1), 251–259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aej.2019.02.005
 City of Edmonton. (n.d.). City-run projects & plans. https://www.edmonton.ca/projects-plans
 City of Edmonton (2022, June). Active Transportation Network Improvements. https://www.edmonton.ca/projects_plans/roads/active-transportation-network-improvements-project
 Mertz, E. (2022, June 14). Edmonton will keep 102 Avenue closed to traffic for 1-year pedestrian pilot. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/8916732/edmonton-downtown-102-avenue-closure-pedestrian-corridor/
Luis Murcia’s goal and passion is the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of society. In 2013, he came to the University of Alberta from El Salvador and graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy. He is striving to develop into a person that can help others become their best self.