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Car-less cities campaign is the latest paternalistic fad

By Steven Greenhut, Pacific Research Institute

Many modern urbanists like to claim the great urban writer Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” as one of their own. It’s easy to understand, given that Jacobs was a proponent for vibrant, walkable urban life and is best known as a critic of sprawl-inducing redevelopment projects championed by her nemesis, New York planner Robert Moses.

But today’s New Urbanists and YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yarders) actually have more in common with Moses and less in common with Jacobs than they would like to admit. These groups somehow miss Jacobs’ most fundamental point – that cities are living organisms that should grow and evolve naturally, mainly as reflections of the individuals who live there.

Jacobs despised top-down planning models and regularly railed against urban paternalism: “The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so,” she wrote in her seminal book. Indeed, central to modern urbanism is using the superficialities of government funding and rulemaking to profoundly remake neighborhoods in the way that planners deem best.

This is most obvious in the urbanist campaign to limit automobile usage. Urbanists and YIMBYs have myriad disagreements as they try to densify our nation’s land uses, but they are nearly unanimous in their disdain for cars – even though the vast majorities of Americans (including urban dwellers) depend upon them to get around. It’s one thing to promote car alternatives, but quite another to try to remake cities to obliterate car usage.

I’ve spent significant time arguing with these ideologues on X, where they routinely refer to passenger vehicles as “murder mobiles” and fantasize about banning them or at least vastly restricting their use. Urbanists and YIMBYs virtually all despise the suburbs, too.

Not surprisingly, the latest paternalistic urban fad is to impose steep “congestion taxes” on commuters, limit parking, replace road lanes with bicycle lanes and turn large sections of cities into pedestrian-only zones. In his Free Cities Center article this week, Andrew Smith detailed demographic trends that energize this process. Namely, cities are dominated by young, progressive professionals. They have the political power to turn their utopian dreams into policy.

Furthermore, bigger cities no longer are the commuter meccas they used to be, which makes their economies less dependent on suburban commuters – and more beholden to millennials who value coffee shops and hipster bars over parking garages and office space. The New York City fight over congestion pricing has gotten ugly, with urbanists routinely mocking suburbanites who park on “their” streets. Their goal is clear: forcing people onto transit if they want to come into the city.

Academics and urban writers have concocted a broad range of specific policies such as the ones mentioned above, but the push is fundamentally paternalistic. The goal is to create cities where virtually everyone gets around on foot, bike or transit. They envision a utopian change in urban design. They know what’s best and don’t seem swayed by the desires of most residents.

By most standards, New York City is the American city that mostly closely fits the urbanist dream and yet even within that densely populated city 45% of households own a car (and most rely on taxis and ridesharing for many of their trips). That number is still 70% in the New York metropolitan area, which has the lowest car-ownership rate in the nation.

Even in Manhattan, with its astounding 79,000 residents per square mile, 22% of households own a car. And car use there has jumped 37% since the pandemic. In San Francisco, 54% of adults have cars registered in the city. The number is 82% in Los Angeles. Obviously, removing cars is a utopian task even in the nation’s most-populous cities, yet the campaign continues.

As with all top-down pushes for major societal change, advocates start off relatively small – and typically conceal their likely long-range goals. They often point to legitimate concerns (e.g., pedestrian safety) as an excuse to push fairly limited policies. Writing in the San Francisco Standard, for instance, Jeremy Stoppelman, the Yelp CEO and prominent San Francisco YIMBY, outlines four priorities to get residents out of their cars and onto bikes.

First, he calls for expanding the city’s “slow streets network” by “installing concrete traffic diverters every few blocks.” Many taxpayers have been surprised to learn about “Road Diets,” whereby the state and localities used new road-building revenues to reduce the number of traffic lanes and purposefully slow down traffic. Think of these slow-streets initiatives as Road Diets on steroids.

The San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Authority explains that the purpose of these slow-streets projects is to provide barriers to car usage to “encourage more people to choose low-carbon ways to travel for their daily trips.” In other words, it’s a means to purposefully annoy and deter drivers with the stated goal of encouraging them to stop driving and hop on a Muni.

Priorities two to four include prohibiting parking within 20 feet of every intersection, increasing the use of speed cameras to automatically ticket speeders and adopting a citywide no-turn-on-red rule to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street without worrying about people turning. One can make a case for these suggestions from a pedestrian-safety perspective, but it’s clear that this urbanist campaign will not stop with their implementation.

“If visionary mayors can pedestrianize the Champs-Élysées in Paris and Times Square in New York, what’s our excuse for not doing so in our most vibrant shopping districts?” Stoppelman asked. For one thing, San Francisco is incapable of even cleaning up its homeless encampments – let alone revamping its urban landscape. But you see where this is going. There’s no sign that average San Francisco residents have been consulted about the transformation.

Paternalistic ideas hatched by urban theorists and academics never are restricted only to the largest and most progressive cities. They spread everywhere, even to smaller, more-conservative cities where residents – the people who Jacobs thought should be the motivating force of urban life – might occasionally feel like lab rats for social experimentation.

For instance, two members of a pro-transit group last year detailed their vision for Stockton Boulevard, a working-class Sacramento neighborhood filled with immigrant-owned businesses in strip malls. In the Sacramento Business Journal, Steve Cohn and Emel Wadhwani propose “a bustling mixed-use neighborhood, dense with well-designed apartments and businesses, located near public transit. Pedestrians stroll past restaurants and retail as cyclists move safely over protected bike lanes. It’s a picture of world-class, climate-friendly urban planning.”

The result might sound nice, but it would empower government to change the character of the neighborhood, drive out existing businesses and transform the area into something entirely different. New Urbanists and YIMBYs might not like strip malls, but those humble shopping centers are home to wonderful eateries and shops that cater to the local clientele. Note that Sacramento has 91% car-ownership rates, so turning swaths of the city into carless enclaves is nothing less than utopian.

The government certainly can use its powers to replace them with something different that appeals to a different group of people, but let’s not pretend this is anything to do with the grassroots urbanist ideas championed by Jacobs. I suspect she would be appalled.


Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Free Cities Center. Write to him at