The road to eco-friendly cities: could our streets be car-free?

Have you ever noticed how much space in city is taken up by cars? The precise numbers are difficult to calculate, but according to some estimates, in US cities like Houston and Dallas car parking can take up as much as 70% of urban land. Now let’s try to imagine that space taken over by pedestrians.

What is the problem with cars?

Part of the concern comes from the fact that we now know more about the impact of cars on people‘s health. Car fuels, especially diesel, are the leading sources of nitrogen dioxide.

This can be a serious problem in cities with heavy and slow traffic. For example, London’s stop-and-go traffic pushed the city’s nitrogen dioxide levels above the legal limits 120 times in 2017, whereas the limit set by the European Commission is just 18 times per year. Researchers at King’s College London have recently found that exposure to city’s nitrogen dioxide pollution contributes to over 9 thousand premature deaths each year.

While the pollution in Edinburgh remains largely within limits, there are some hot spots there, too. For example, the mean nitrogen dioxide levels on one of the busiest and slowest streets, Nicholson street, exceeded the legal limits almost every month last year.

Another major concern is safety. World Health organization reports that worldwide car accidents are the leading cause of death among young adults under 25 years old. It also states that pedestrians and cyclists amount for half of all people who die in car accidents. Historically, concern for children’s safety on the streets was also one of the driving forces behind Netherland’s switch of attention to bicycles in 1970’s – times of skyrocketing popularity of motor vehicles.

What are the problems without cars?

Despite the seriousness of the issues caused by cars, removing them from the streets of cities is far from easy. Firstly, this is due to the fact that transportation by car is a convenient habit, and changing habits is not always easy. Private vehicles still account for more than 50% of means of transportation in half of European capitals.

Removal of cars is even more difficult because it interferes with other habits – for example, with the growing popularity of online shopping. Should delivery vehicles that bring goods to our doors be exempt? How about the vans bringing supplies to stores and private hire vehicles? Should the residents of car-free areas be allowed to drive in? And, crucially, what should people with mobility difficulties do?

The possibilities of becoming car-free also depend heavily on city design. Additional problems arise in younger cities, whose streets from the very start were built to fit the car. It might be relatively easy for European old towns to go car free because they were initially designed to be such; not so much for the newer cities.

The opponents of car-free cities also argue that prohibition of cars might lead to plummeting businesses as parts of the city might become more difficult to access. Some also argue that removal of cars in one parts of the city might simply result in their replacement to other parts and overcrowded parking in the neighbouring areas. Finally, as cars are still a symbol of social status for some social groups, changing that could potentially require a shift in cultural attitudes.

Overcoming the problems

Despite the obstacles, there are many cities that have taken steps towards a car-free future.

An increasingly popular measure is prohibition of old diesel cars in city centres – this is currently implemented in Lyon, Madrid, Milano, among others. Order is ensured through surveillance cameras, with large fines awaiting those who decide to disobey. In Madrid, such a ban led to traffic reductions ranging from 6 to 30%.

Oslo took further steps to alter people’s habits. It used to be a city designed for cars, but now it succeeded in making most of its city centre entirely car-free. This is part of the city’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2030.

Those steps were aimed at making car the least convenient way of travelling. They involved a massive removal of most of the parking lots in the city centre and car entry restrictions in certain streets. At the same time, the city’s council made sure that while people were letting go of the car-using habits they would have plenty of convenient alternatives. The city heavily invested in public transport and bike infrastructure. Bike lanes were built instead of parking lots, citizens were offered grants for buying electric bikes, bike sharing sites introduced experimental bikes with spiked tires for cold seasons. All this to make cycling safer and more convenient.

Finally, for cities not yet prepared to make parts of them permanently car-free there is another alternative – the Open Streets initiative. It encourages the cities to give the streets back to the communities on designated days. For example, Paris turns some of its streets car-free every first Sunday of each month. Edinburgh has also joined the initiative under the same conditions. In May 2019, Edinburgh started an 18-month trial period during which streets such as the Canongate, Grassmarket, Victoria street and many others become free of cars for one day every month.

The outcome

The most common benefit among cities that implemented car restricting measures is that the cities become more sociable. As much of the space previously devoted to cars is given over to people, it becomes public space for social interactions. On carless streets with cleaner air restaurants can extent outdoor seating, and new local initiatives and events can thrive. Often contrary to the fears, local businesses see an increase in their revenues and new businesses open up.

In Ghent, another city to make its centre car-free, many people feel that the general quality of life has improved and the city has become more enjoyable than before. They also started to view the streets as safer and more inclusive. Parents reported being less afraid to let their kids play outside alone. Many of them have realized that cars were less of a necessity than they thought, with some even selling their vehicles since the change. And, for many, the air in the city just started to ‘taste better’.

According Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s Vice Mayor for Urban Development, the car-free areas “usually become some of the most attractive parts of the city.” To all the cities that are considering taking steps towards being car-free, she says: “Do it. Once people experience cities like this, they are enthused.”

With these benefits in mind, it seems that a car-free policy could be on the cards for many urban cities in future.

Image: Friends of Earth Scotland via flickr.com

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