Anna Zivarts is a low-vision non-driver, a mom, and an advocate for transportation, housing affordability, and disability mobility rights. She was born with the neurological condition nystagmus which, for her, means that she doesn’t drive. She gets around her city of Seattle mostly by foot, bike, and transit. She’s not alone; fully one third of Americans do not have a driver’s license. Plus, as she points out, non-drivers are children and young people and seniors; non-drivers are disproportionately Black, Native American, and Native Alaskan, as well as immigrants and anyone who can’t afford to own and fuel a car. In other words, non-drivers are everywhere. And at some point, every day and in each stage of life, everyone is a non-driver. And when it comes to systematic car-centric thinking in land use and transportation policies, that’s exactly her point!  

At some point, every day and in each stage of life, everyone is a non-driver.

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Since launching the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington in 2020, Zivarts has worked to bring the voices of nondrivers to the planning and policy-making tables where decisions are made about how we shape our cities, transportation systems, and the built environment. Those decisions include what kinds of housing are allowed—and where—and  how communities design streets and public spaces.  

In her organizing and advocacy work, Zivarts has come to understand the benefits of policies that shift away from the entrenched systems that privilege cars to those that center people who need— and want—more choices about how to get around. As she illustrates in her new book, When Driving Is Not An Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency, the upsides aren’t just for people like her who cannot or opt not to drive, either. The benefits are big, broad, and game-changing : connected, accessible, convenient neighborhoods; freedom of movement and mobility across and between cities; cleaner air and water and a protected climate; less pressure to sprawl and eat into open space, forested areas, farmland, wildfire risk zones, and delicate habitats; safer streets and public spaces; thriving local businesses and more equitably-shared economic opportunity; and access to schools, transit, and jobs. 

Through the lens of the non-drivers Zivarts profiles in the book, she sets out to help elected officials see beyond the our car-centric worldview to rules and systems that support people and places first instead. These are policies that support more livable, safe, and healthy places to live.  Sightline has studied and advocated for these solutions, including zoning for abundant housing in residential areas, more home choices like apartment buildings near transit hubs, and parking reforms that make convenient, in-city living more accessible and affordable to more neighbors.  

Zivarts’ book offers solutions that serve non-drivers. But the bigger takeaway is that non-driver solutions are win-wins for all. Below is an excerpt. 

Approach Housing, Transit, and Services as an Ecosystem 

For our towns and cities to work for nondrivers, we must reduce the distances people need to travel to go to the places they need and want to go. This means building housing with greater densities and making sure the zoning laws and parking requirements incentivize, rather than discourage, the location of retail, groceries, offices, health care and childcare facilities interspersed with housing rather than in separate areas that can be reached only by driving. The concept of the fifteen-minute city has been circulated in planning conversations since the 2010s and began to be adopted as a policy objective by city governments across the world as pandemic restrictions reduced travel. At a fundamental level, fifteen-minute cities are a reminder that it is possible and beneficial to build cities so that car travel isn’t necessary to meet our daily needs. And while I don’t love the name—fifteen-minute cities implies that there is a homogeneity around how long it takes people to walk or roll a set distance, which simply isn’t true—the underlying concept is key to making communities work better without driving. 

In his role as the policy director for Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, low-vision nondriver Devin Silvernail worked on an update to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan so the city would allow commercial or nonprofit groceries, fresh healthy food merchants, childcare, health services, home goods, and cultural anchors in residential neighborhoods, if existing services were more than  a quarter of a mile away. Neighborhood retail is much more common in older neighborhoods, and corner stores continue to offer vital services in many communities throughout the US, but too often retail, childcare, and other essential services are zoned out of newer housing developments. These Seattle Comprehensive Plan revisions could begin to rebuild what we lost when we restricted anything but housing in residential neighborhoods. 

Reform Parking 

We also must remember that prioritizing car parking and car access to locations not only makes driving the easier choice but also makes arriving somewhere by walking, rolling, or riding more difficult. Drive-through and drive-through-only businesses are an obvious target for reform. In 2018, Portland, Oregon, passed legislation requiring that drive-through-only services allow people to access the drive-through window as pedestrians or cyclists.  Other communities, including Minneapolis and Long Beach, have banned new drive-throughs because of their impacts not only on pedestrian safety but also on car traffic congestion and air pollution.  This is an important shift from what we encountered during the pandemic, when many businesses, as well as COVID testing and vaccine clinics, were accessible only as drive-throughs, a public health mistake when the reality is that nondrivers also need to access care and many did not have someone in their household who could drive them. 

Car parking also creates barriers for nondrivers, not only when we have to cross large hostile parking lots to access businesses in suburban, strip mall–type developments, but also when planners choose to allocate limited public right-of-way space to car parking instead of wider sidewalks, bus priority lanes, or protected biking infrastructure. 

“Often, people try to pit parking reforms against people who need disabled parking spots,” explains Cassie Wilson, a wheelchair user and climate and mobility justice advocate from Oregon. “We can have both parking reform and access for people who need disabled parking spots by converting regular parking spaces to disabled ones and making sure they have the recommended space for people using wheelchairs to exit the vehicle safely.”  

With less parking, more drivers will be encouraged to take transit, walk, or roll and to seek out closer businesses that don’t require them to drive and park. This is the kind of market shift we need, but it will be almost impossible to achieve when driving yourself in a private vehicle remains by far the most convenient choice. 

Build Abundant Housing 

“Growth management” laws that seek to limit sprawl can help to ensure we are building higher-density housing instead of building low-density housing on the cheapest land that is far away from existing services, disconnected from transit routes, but without changes to allow and incentivize more density, the lack of new housing construction has made too many of our communities unaffordable to all but the wealthiest. 

Additionally, growth management legislation has too often come with transportation “concurrency” ordinances that require local jurisdictions to maintain vehicle level of service—measured in seconds of delay or inconvenience to drivers, even during peak travel periods—even as new housing or development is permitted.  

Chris Comeau is a senior transportation planner with the Transpo Group and has worked with local jurisdictions in Washington State for more than two decades on land use and transportation planning. He explains how concurrency has resulted in local governments widening roads and intersections to ensure that vehicular levels of service, even at the busiest time of day, remain at a static level. Comeau worked as a transportation planner for the City of Bellingham during the housing boom in the mid-2000s, when, because of a concurrency threshold violation, the City of Bellingham put a moratorium on new development on a major commuter corridor since evening rush hour traffic congestion was getting worse as the city grew. 

In 2008, Bellingham realized that, instead of just measuring vehicle level of service, it would stay in compliance with the concurrency rule if it came up with a new methodology that measured the movement of people—including people riding bikes, walking, and riding transit—not just the movement of cars. With this new multimodal level of service methodology, the city was able to  build higher density infill housing and grow in compact mixed-use urban centers connected by transit. 

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  • “It injected a huge amount of capacity into the citywide transportation system because it went from auto only to multimodal,” Comeau shared. It also meant that the city could stop widening roads and intersections in response to traffic congestion, which, Comeau notes, “was completely counter to the goals that we have for pedestrian safety because as the intersection got wider, the crossing got longer.” 

    In the 2023 legislative session, Washington adopted the multimodal level of service into an update to the state’s growth management act, requiring cities and counties to ensure that the needs of transit riders and people walking, rolling, and biking are weighed along with the needs of drivers.56 It is still to be seen how this will be adopted, as planners have yet to reach consensus on reliable methods for measuring the movement of people outside of vehicles. 

    There is also the inherent tension between “level of service” measurements that look at how fast and how many people move, and the reality that congestion might actually keep us safer by reducing speeds and help us prioritize which trips are important. 

    From his experience in Bellingham, Comeau believes much of the most difficult work is in convincing the public that reducing congestion shouldn’t be the overarching priority of local government. He insists we need leaders who are willing to be straightforward with how our communities must change:  

    We’re gonna densify. There’s going to be more people living here in the future, and we need you all to get ready. That includes more traffic in certain places, and you’re going to have to get used to it. We’re not going to widen our streets just because it’s not as easy to drive anymore. We want it to be easy to walk. We want it to be easy to bike or get on a bus or cross the street to a bus stop. Nobody enjoys traffic congestion, myself included. But that’s literally the trade-off for focusing on density and people-oriented infrastructure. You cannot continue to make it easy to drive or park a car if you’re trying to plan for people. 

    In addition to redefining expectations around traffic volumes and speeds to counteract arguments against growth and density, we also need to continue to change our zoning laws to allow more homes. Many local jurisdictions are working to add “missing middle” housing by passing laws that make it easier to build more units per lot or even to legally split lots to allow additional housing construction and ownership. Oregon passed a law in 2019 that allows duplexes on single family–zoned lots across the state, and Vermont, California, and New Hampshire have statewide accessory dwelling unit laws allowing owners to build another residential structure on their property. While missing middle housing is an important infill strategy, our cities also need additional investment in higher-density housing to ensure that we are building at scale and can ensure housing affordability in places where market rents far exceed the incomes of many community members. Transit-oriented development (TOD) policies that allow greater densities and taller buildings near high-frequency transit, especially TOD developments that are publicly funded or on publicly owned land, can provide some of this scale and affordability. And we need to fund and legalize structures so that low-income and middle-class people can afford stable housing, whether that be through social housing initiatives, affordable unit requirements, rent-control and tenant-protection laws, land trusts, or housing co-ops.  

    At the end of the day, best practices evolve, and we experiment with new policy ideas. While the concepts highlighted in this chapter will hopefully be useful for some time in the future, the key to creating communities that work better for nondrivers is to listen to nondrivers. Nondrivers must be incorporated into the decision-making and daily operations of the structures that govern our land use and transportation systems.  

    Book cover for Driving is Not an OptionFrom When Driving Is Not An Option by Anna Letitia Zivarts. Copyright © 2024 Anna Letitia Zivarts.

    Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.  

    You can purchase When Driving is Not an Option from Island Press.