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The Revenge of the Cars

Traffic, car sales, and car rentals are rising, crushing the pandemic-era hope that streets could be reclaimed for pedestrians and bikers.

Cars wait in a line on a highway.

It would be callous to suggest that in the dark, early, and deadly days of the Covid-19 pandemic there were bright spots or signs of hope. But thinking back to the spring of 2020, it’s easy to remember the ways in which elected officials across the nation and around the world—at least at the city level—used their powers to make life under lockdown a little easier for their citizenry.

One commonly used tactic at that time was a reapportioning of the most abundant public resource: streets. With car traffic all but evaporated, thanks to high levels of remote work and a sudden surge in unemployment, allowing people access to their streets lessened not only the burden of being stuck at home but also the anxiety that accompanied the often-frightening messaging about the need to stay at least six feet away from other people at all times.

Under various names, such as “Slow Streets” in Oakland, California, and “Stay Healthy Streets” in Seattle, these programs flipped the transportation food chain on its head, with automobiles demoted from their place as the dominant species and instead treated as guests. People—pedestrians, runners, cyclists, wheelchair users, parents pushing strollers, dog walkers, rollerbladers, and more—had free rein, while motorists were forced by barriers and reminded by signs to travel at low speeds. All it took was paint, plastic, and planters—and, of course, the kind of political will that only could have been brought on by a global pandemic.

After years or even decades of watching in frustration as proposals to change city streets came up against the powerful forces of motordom, Covid-19’s seismic shock caused many, myself included, to wonder if the hegemony of the automobile might finally be ending. Happy scenes of children playing hopscotch on open streets, restaurant patrons enjoying meals in former parking spots, city residents quickly taking to temporary bike lanes, and pollution-free skies across the globe offered a striking illustration of the damage wrought by a century of car-centric planning, causing many to envision a new and more sustainable future. Change, it seemed, was suddenly inevitable.

Or so many hoped.

With vaccine distribution continuing apace, schools and businesses reopening, and life slowly returning to something one might describe as normal, the original justifications for creating these people-centric spaces have waned. And just like that, people are back to being terrified of a world with fewer cars.

In Washington, D.C, an effort to ban cars permanently from parts of Rock Creek Park has faced fierce opposition, with drivers wanting their old pre-pandemic shortcuts back. The 34th Avenue open street in Queens, which has proven popular among broad swaths of the Jackson Heights community in which it is located, has been met with vociferous and very organized resistance. Residents of Manhattan’s East Village have claimed that outdoor dining structures are “inviting the next pandemic by attracting rats, which feast on the detritus of mimosa-happy brunchers. In San Francisco, the president of that city’s Board of Supervisors went so far as to call a proposal to ban cars from JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park “recreational redlining,” claiming without evidence that it would deny access to low-income people of color and people with disabilities. This despite the fact that those populations own cars at far lower rates than their whiter and wealthier fellow San Franciscans.

So what happened? If the pandemic was supposed to change everything, how is it that so many cities have wound up back where they were during the before times, with people arguing about parking spaces and drivers demanding unfettered access to every square inch of asphalt?

Some of the pushback can be chalked up to the natural reaction that occurs anytime humans face change. Some of it can be attributed to the comfort found in a return, after nearly two years of so much uncertainty, to a familiar status quo, no matter how dysfunctional and car-choked it was. But something bigger is at play. Rather than usher in a new transportation utopia, the events of the last 18 months or so have set in motion two opposing forces, creating a contradictory situation.

On the one hand, enthusiasm for people-centric urban environments and noncar forms of personal transportation is higher than ever. A poll commissioned by Transportation Alternatives in New York showed overwhelming support for outdoor dining, more bike lanes, and open streets; a poll in Boston yielded similar results. National demand for bicycles has surged, with that growth particularly noticeable in the rise of electric bikes: Sales of e-bikes in the United States were up 145 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, with 600,000 e-bikes sold. (In the U.K., a trade association estimates that one e-bike was sold every three minutes last year.) This trend was also evident in the growth of bicycle-share systems; Chicago’s Divvy bikes saw the number of rides increase from 338,000 in May 2019 to 531,000 in May 2021, with a third of those additional rides on e-bikes.

On the other hand, just as the e-bike industry has experienced a tremendous surge in growth, so too has the far more entrenched auto industry. Fueled by a combination of converging factors, including a global semiconductor shortage, stronger than expected economic recovery, government stimulus payments, and high amounts of savings among Americans who were lucky enough to stay employed through the pandemic, car dealers can hardly keep up with demand for new—and used—automobiles. This frenzy has even trickled down to car rental companies, many of which sold off their fleets during the pandemic slowdown and are now charging high prices to those looking to satiate the seemingly innate American desire to hit the open road.

Then there’s the dashed hope that working from home would lead to a reduction in driving. While commuting patterns may have changed, perhaps irrevocably for some, many Americans may find themselves driving more. (If traffic in your town seems worse than ever, consider all the people who used to pick up their dry cleaning or shop for groceries on the way home from the office and now go out at various times throughout the day instead.)

The rise of things like open streets and cycling isn’t an equal-but-opposite force that can counteract the increase in driving. Automobiles, like water, tend to fill every space given to them. A lot of American cities that, before the pandemic, were merely swimming with cars are now flooded by them.

Traffic in New York City, never good to begin with, is reaching apocalyptic levels, driven in part by misplaced fears of transit as a vector for disease and local TV news networks’ sensationalist coverage of violent attacks on the subway. Bus ridership remains low, subway ridership is only about half of what it was before the pandemic, and commuter rail ridership is particularly anemic. Meanwhile, bridge and tunnel crossings by automobiles have returned to over 90 percent of 2019 levels, according to MTA numbers. With many offices still closed, schools out for the summer, tourists scarce, and the city’s most prominent cultural institutions, such as Broadway, not reopening until at least September, what traffic will look like in the fall is frightening to contemplate.

A similar story is playing out in Boston, where ridership on the T, that city’s subway line, remains down compared to pre-pandemic levels. Car traffic, however, is “approaching 2019 levels.” The same goes for San Francisco, where BART ridership in downtown is just 12 percent of pre-pandemic levels, even though traffic on the Bay Bridge and other crossings is at or near 100 percent of the way things were.

Breaking the automobile’s vicelike grip on America, even in liberal enclaves like New York and San Francisco, where support for progressive transportation agendas is high, will take more than a once-in-a-century global health crisis. Still, the constituency created by things like open streets and a surge in e-bike sales should not be ignored. The fight to transform cities, long the dominion of dedicated advocates and urbanists, might soon grow to include restaurant owners who survived the pandemic thanks to repurposing parking spots or parents who want a safe route on which to take their kids to school via e-bike. The increasingly unavoidable evidence of catastrophic global warming might also tip the scales. Only time—what little we seem to have left of it these days—will tell.