Planning for people vs. Planning for cars: Why have the US and Europe pursued different paths?

Jun 29, 2011


In Monday’s post we linked to a fascinating piece (with an unfortunately biased headline) in The New York Times that outlined some of the differences in planning between the United States and Europe namely what each prioritizes. American cities notes Elisabeth Rosenthal tend to plan around the automobile whereas European cities tend to plan around people by prioritizing walking biking and transit (for example a recent post of ours highlighted transportation policies in France specifically).

One could argue that this is simply a factor of the technologies available during primary periods of urbanization. While Western Europe was heavily urbanized when bicycles trains and feet were the main form of transport much of the US became urbanized precisely at the time that the personal automobile was becoming ubiquitous in the States. After all the few US cities that do have a sizeable percentage of transit users/walkers (NYC Boston Philly etc.) are older cities that developed prior to the arrival of the automobile.

One could also argue that it’s a lack of proper prioritization and investment. Look at DC for example which didn’t get a subway system until the 1970s though it’s now the second most-used system in the country behind NYC. This would seem to prove that cultures can change if infrastructure and resources are provided.

The Times has opened up a debate on the piece and on land-use and transportation planning in general. We want to do the same. What do you think are the main reasons the US and Europe have diverged when it comes to urban planning? Is planning for people inherently at odds with planning for cars?

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