European cities are moving aggressively to promote alternative forms of transport to the car in their downtown areas, not just with friendly programs like easy public bike rental stands (one in Copenhagen is pictured above), but with programs that are downright unfriendly to the automobile: street closings, traffic light sequences designed to slow car commutes; disappearing parking spaces; hi gas taxes and usage fees. An article in the New York Times discusses this in depth.
Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, American cities are still overwhelmingly planning their cities around the automobile (above is a large parking deck recently finished in downtown Birmingham whose volume is almost entirely given over to the daytime warehousing of single-occupancy vehicles. At night, its eerie fluorescent lights hum over thousands of empty square feet at a prominent intersection, Richard Arrington Blvd. and 4th Avenue North).
Current zoning laws require far too much parking for certain uses in certain urban environments. Even when they don’t, market forces–including lending institutions which refuse to contemplate anything but car-centric projects–end up mandating the same car-dependent situation. European cities have learned that vibrant center cities are vibrant because of people, not vehicles. Public policy, gas taxes, and history make this an easier sell over there. Here, it’s a lot easier to pave a road for cars than to stripe a lane for bikes, or construct a decent transit system. We can’t turn ourselves into Europeans, but we could sure learn a lesson or two.