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U.S. mayors like the idea of being less car-focused but hate the policies that could make it happen

A new survey of mayors finds a big disconnect between what mayors want in terms of street design and what they’re actually willing to support to make it happen.

U.S. mayors like the idea of being less car-focused but hate the policies that could make it happen
[Source Image: ilyakalinin/iStock, eestingnef/iStock]

While cities across Europe are banning cars and radically redesigning streets, in the U.S., cars still take up a lot of urban space. Most U.S. mayors seem to agree that cities here are too dependent on cars—and many also believe travel for pedestrians and cyclists is unsafe on their streets—yet a new survey finds that they don’t actually support the policy changes, like such as parking prices or reduced speed limits, that would decrease car usage and make streets safer.

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“It’s a positive that mayors recognize that cities have too many cars and are too reliant on cars, and there’s promising results, particularly in regards to bike lanes; mayors were willing to give up some parking spots and driving lanes to provide more bicycle safety,” says Katherine Levine Einstein, a Boston University political science professor and lead researcher on the 2019 Menino Survey of Mayors. “But I was really struck across the whole series of questions about largely their unwillingness to support or implement things that we in transportation planning know are evidence-based ways to make roads safer for vulnerable road users.”

The Menino Survey of Mayors, published January 21, is an annual report conducted by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities that collects responses from a nationally representative sample of more than 100 mayors about their policy priorities, leadership strategies, and the pressing issues they and their cities are facing. The survey doesn’t ask the same questions every year, and the 2019 edition was the first to ask specific street safety questions. The decision to include that this time around, Einstein says, was prompted by the fact that 2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990. Things didn’t seem to get much better in 2019; in New York City, more than 110 pedestrians were killed by cars, up from the year prior. Denver saw a 19% jump in traffic deaths compared to 2018.

According to the survey, nearly half of mayors believe travel for cyclists in their cities is unsafe and nearly 40% are concerned about pedestrian safety (fewer than 10% say their cities are unsafe for drivers or mass transit riders, for comparison). Though there is high support for some infrastructure changes that improve safety—two-thirds of mayors implemented bike lanes to increase cyclist safety, for example—there’s still a disconnect between what will actually save lives and what mayors are doing.

It may be an information issue: Mayors may not know that painted bike lanes actually make roads more dangerous for cyclists than if they built protected bike lanes, according to Einstein. Mayors also don’t seem to see an issue with their city speed limits—77% believe their speed limits are set at the right level, even though reducing motor vehicle speed is a proven method to improving road safety for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

When it comes to the general presence of cars in their cities, more than three-quarters of U.S. mayors say their cities are too oriented toward cars, and two-thirds believe vehicles are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in their communities. And yet 60% say that their cities feature the right level of street parking and more than a quarter actually worry that there is too little parking in their cities.

For some context, New York City has more than 3 million on-street parking spaces (not including garages, driveways, and lots), which is about one for every three people. And this isn’t just an issue for big cities; Jackson, Wyoming, has about 27.1 parking spots per household. Research has shown that more parking spaces, especially when they’re free or cheap, makes driving congestion worse. “We know if we make it harder for people to park places, they will find other ways to get to those places. When we have more parking, it increases driving,” Einstein says. “We need to look at parking in American cities in a critical way.”

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One reason for all this dissonance around cars? Parking is pretty polarizing: “Parking is the third rail of local politics. Internally these mayors might be thinking of every public meeting they’ve ever been at and so they say, ‘No, no, no, parking is fine, don’t touch parking,'” she says. Another might have to do with federal funding. Implementing street safety initiatives is expensive, Einstein notes, and if we were to see big federal government programs set aside money for street safety, we might see some movement in this area. As she puts it, “We might see mayors say, ‘I’m willing to give up parking spaces now that the federal government is willing to give me hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it.'”

Interestingly, a lot of mayors are willing to give up parking spaces for gasoline vehicles to improve electric vehicle infrastructure, though this was split along party lines, with 78% of Democratic mayors and 40% of Republican mayors in support of this change. That’s a win for the environment, but it’s still prioritizing cars on city streets. Getting people to challenge car culture is going to be really important going forward, Einstein says. “We hope that mayors can see these results and say, ‘Huh, maybe I need to think more critically about how I treat parking spots in cities,'” she adds. Still, it’s clear it’s not just mayors who are still idolizing cars, and if they’re going to change anything around how vehicles fit into their cities, Americans need to be willing to let go of their cars a little bit, too.

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