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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Streets should be for people — not cars

Cars wait at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are often touted as critical to the future of transportation. They emit far fewer greenhouse gases, cost less over the long term and even have cheaper maintenance costs. 

All of those things are invaluable in the fight against climate change. Especially when you realize that transportation is the single largest emitter of American greenhouse gases — most of which comes from private cars. 

However, we cannot continue to look at EVs as our saving grace. A car — whether electric or gas-powered — is still a car. EVs may be immediately necessary to minimize the harm caused by transportation, but they are not a sufficient, standalone solution.

The real key to minimizing our emissions is investing in transit access, densifying housing and making alternative commuting modes, such as biking and walking, safer.

Recent proposals, such as the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, view EV production and widespread charging infrastructure as vital to achieving a net-zero emission future. For that reason, $174 billion of the $2.3 trillion plan is slated for the EV industry.   

Gov. Roy Cooper has also supported increased production of EVs. He, along with 11 other governors, issued a letter to Biden asking for a mandate that all vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2035 are zero-emission. 

Both of these are well-intentioned steps in carbon reduction, but neither go far enough. EVs still contribute to a car-oriented development model. When we continue to invest in private cars, we become further entrenched in this system that fails to create safety and equity within transportation. 

The only true way to minimize our emissions is to minimize our driving altogether.

Doing that requires a localized approach to transportation reform. It means redesigning our roads to prioritize non-car transportation. We need to rethink how we build and design our roadways to make them reliable for all types of users.

That means creating roads with non-car users in mind. The pedestrian, the cyclist and the bus rider should be thought of first — not as an afterthought. When we change streets, we change their usage.

Studies show that when you invest in bike lanes, more people bike. When you invest in buses, more people ride the bus. And unfortunately, when you build more car lanes, more people drive. 

The good news is that we know how to redesign our streets, and we know how to do so quickly. The pandemic showed that even a town like Chapel Hill can quickly and cheaply create spaces for outdoor dining, cycling and reduced car lanes with a strong enough impetus.

Street changes as a result of COVID-19 showed cities across the country that they did not have to bend to the will of the automobile. Over 500 cities across the world made street infrastructure changes during the pandemic that reallocated space from cars to humans.  

That will to accommodate the people on our streets should be here to stay.

Our transportation system needs a paradigm shift that gives the streets back to the people. We need to keep investing in these changes that make our streets more accessible and usable to all. 

That means not depending on cars — regardless of how they are fueled.   


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