It’s Time for a Car-Free Manhattan

It is fully possible to live a complete life in Manhattan without ever touching a car, so why do we give them so much importance in our streets?

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Americans love their cars. In 2019, 93 percent of American households had access to at least one functional vehicle, and 73 percent of American car owners claimed that they love their cars. Unlike them, I cannot understand their appeal and would go my entire life without learning to drive. Few things sound less pleasant to me than realizing that there is no adequate place for me to dispose of my four-wheeled metal pollution box and having to parallel park on some narrow street 15 minutes away from my destination.

Unfortunately, I am not responsible for American city planning. American cities are mostly unwalkable nightmares of asphalt and smog, and public transportation is sparse and remains underfunded across the country. Because of this problematic design, 85.4 percent of workers commute by car. America is a car-dependent country, and it would be extremely difficult to change that—except in New York City.

Only 45 percent of households in the city own a car, and it is even lower in my home borough of Manhattan, where household car ownership stands at 22 percent. Cars do not serve a clear purpose in Manhattan. In my neighborhood, I can get to several grocery stores, parks, cafes, restaurants, and retail stores on foot. Additionally, I have access to a subway line with frequent service, two crosstown buses, and a ferry line. My neighborhood is by no means an outstanding example of the amenities and connections available to Manhattanites. Even the most remote corners of Manhattan are easily accessible by public transportation, making cars obsolete when we consider the alternatives.

Car ownership in Manhattan is also cumbersome. The average monthly cost of parking is $430, and the average speed of traffic is 4.7 miles per hour. This expense means that you will be shelling out thousands of dollars each year to move about one mile per hour faster than walking speed. Beyond New York-exclusive car issues, there are the general downsides. Personal vehicles emit 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for every gallon of gasoline and account for about one-fifth of U.S. carbon emissions. As climate change is an existential threat, we should be doing anything we can to reduce emissions. Cars are also massive contributors to air pollution; removing them from our streets would help clean the air in Manhattan.

Though Manhattan is substantially less car-dependent than the rest of America, an area that is nearly four times the size of Central Park is still devoted to roads and parking, reserved for the minority of residents and visitors who use cars. By restricting roads to buses, delivery vans, and rideshares, we can free up a ton of space and eliminate traffic. We could turn major thoroughfares into busways and cut down bus trip times across the city. We could turn one lane on most streets into a protected bike lane to make bike riding safer and less intimidating. We could close three lanes of the West Side Highway and expand the Hudson River Greenway with extra green space, playgrounds, and walking paths. We could even fully close small residential blocks to traffic altogether and turn the streets into safe places for kids to play and people to congregate.

Beyond the quality of life benefits, removing cars brings economic benefits. In 2018, Madrid closed its city’s center to private cars for a few weeks leading up to Christmas. That year, retail stores on Madrid’s main shopping street made 9.5 percent more than they did in the previous year. In the United Kingdom, where pedestrian streets are more common, store vacancy rates are five times higher on streets with high levels of automobile traffic than those that prioritize walking and cycling. A car-free street is simply a more pleasant experience. Pedestrians are not confined to narrow sidewalks and are free from the whizzing and honking of cars.

Beyond the creative uses of streets that would be open to us, Manhattanites would experience a higher quality of life. Our streets would be quieter, the air would be fresher, buses would run faster, and the wealthy would be more compelled to care about the MTA when there is no other alternative. The snow would not turn as brown from the exhaust fumes, and walking would no longer be a contact sport. Banning private cars is a necessary step to untether Manhattan from the automobile and give Manhattan back to New Yorkers.