Urban Mobility - Do We Want or Need Car-Free Cities?
What are the major wins and the most significant challenges of creating car-free urban centres?
The Dutch are admired for many things including their 17th Century painting, tulips, clogs, windmills and cheese markets. However, one of the most significant aspects of their culture that many other nations worldwide are now endeavouring to embrace is their city planning. Unlike many urban hubs, which prioritise the service of commerce and the passage of vehicles through the centre, Dutch city planning focuses on human experience.
Less than a quarter of trips in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, take place in a car and last year Sharon Dijksma, the councillor responsible for city traffic, issued a 27-point “car-free” agenda that plans to reduce traffic in the city centre still further. More than 11,000 parking spaces will be sacrificed to make way for wider pavements, trees, bike parking and cycle lanes and the number of parking permits available is to be significantly reduced.
It takes guts to switch from a car-centric infrastructure to a more human-centric one, not to mention the investment in time and money and the significant shifts in attitude that need to take place before it can be successfully implemented.
However, if Birmingham (formerly known as “motorway city”) can declare a climate emergency and plan to be carbon neutral by 2030, then it proves that even the most vehicle-reliant urban centres can switch to being fully or partially car-free. Amongst Birmingham’s plans to reduce the number of cars on its roads are the creation of a network of pedestrian streets, devoting more space to bikes and public transit and offering businesses incentives to get rid of their parking areas.
“In dense city centres, where space is rare and expensive, it simply makes no sense to be using two tonnes of metal to move a 70kg human body.”
The impetus for change at both a national and city council level needs to be strong and consistent in order to drive the significant changes needed to reduce or remove cars in city centres. This vision for a less car-reliant future is not always present in our leadership and without it, even the best-laid plans will come unstuck.
Gaining Support from Citizens and Businesses
Not only is it necessary for the government to be committed to a car-free vision. It is also helpful if the local population and business owners are equally dedicated to the concept. Those who support car-free urban centres feel that it is the best way to revive struggling high streets, as people travelling by bike or on foot are more likely to frequent the businesses they pass than people in cars.
However, given that many city-centre businesses may already be struggling to make ends meet, the ultimate vision of a less polluted neighbourhood and more customers could seem rather too distant, as the disruption caused by transitioning from one to the other may have an adverse effect on business before things improve. If the weight of public opinion is not in favour of going car-free it will be hard to maintain the momentum needed to fully implement the change.
Fully Integrated Urban Development Strategy
The car-free ideal may be an easy mental leap to make, but the development of a comprehensive strategy to make it a reality is far more complicated, even if public opinion and political leadership are equally committed to making it happen.
Shift from Mobility to Accessibility
If you are stuck in your car in a city-centre traffic jam in the rain, being on a bike or on foot at that moment really does not seem like it will be the solution to your problem! In order to get people out of their cars and embracing alternative modes of transport, there needs to be a robust infrastructure in place to make it safe, comfortable and efficient not to be in a car.
The advent and development of light electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters makes car-free travel more accessible to people of all ages and mobility levels, but in order to get people investing in the technology as their go-to transport solution, city layouts need to be drastically overhauled, and it is managing that transition that poses the biggest challenge.
Local and national councils need to have enough faith in their car-free visions that they can cope with the fallout of inconveniencing everyone while the switch is in progress. This is by no means easy and many of the cities that have started to implement car-free plans often modify their ambitions and start to make exceptions to the rule before work is completed.
Making sweeping changes to the way thousands (if not millions) of people get from A to B cannot be done without the concurrent development of a media strategy that lets everyone know how to manage the changes in their everyday lives. From working with commuters who will be impacted every day of the working week to notifying occasional travellers and tourists in the city centre, a media strategy is essential to ensure that chaos does not reign during the transition period and after the completion of the project.
Limited Transport Options
Cars take up a lot of space and spew out harmful toxins but even the most ardent environmental activist cannot deny that it is more comfortable to be in a Mercedes than on a bicycle when it is snowing, raining or blowing a gale! For everyone to fully embrace car-free city centres, there need to be vast improvements to facilities on offer for users of car alternatives. Covered walkways, underground cycle paths and skyway systems (such as the one in Minneapolis) go a long way to appeasing people who may otherwise just feel limited by the removal of the car from their list of possible transport options.
Reduced Dependence on Fossil Fuels (and a consequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions)
Even those of us who are not at the front of Extinction Rebellion roadblocks can see that we have finite fossil fuel resources and a growing world population that cannot be sustained by them. Revolutionising our city centres and encouraging workers, visitors and residents on to public transport, bikes or their own two feet is part of a major overhaul of the way humanity operates and we can’t really afford to put it off.
Reduction in Air and Noise Pollution
There is much to love about many urban centres. They are often rich in culture and history and populated by interesting shops and places to buy delicious food and drink. However, the overuse of motorised transport is increasingly detracting from our collective enjoyment of our cities. With air and noise pollution on the rise, our relationships with the fabric of our cities is suffering and it’s going to take big changes to the way we navigate through them to bring us back outdoors and enjoying them to the full.
Fewer Road Accidents
55% of the world’s population live in urban areas and, due to our rapid urbanisation the number of motor vehicles in the world has risen from 0.85 billion in the year 2000 to 2.1 billion in 2016. This has resulted in city streets that are over-loaded with motor vehicles and, when these vehicles collide with each other or other road users, even if no one is seriously hurt, the resultant traffic disruption costs businesses dearly in terms of workers arriving late and disrupted schedules.
Reduction in Congestion
The global population simply cannot continue to use cars in the way it does currently. Without a drastic re-think of our infrastructure we are destined to spend hours stuck in traffic jams, getting nowhere fast. In Los Angeles commuters spend an average of 119 hours stuck in un-moving traffic each year, and in Moscow the figure is even higher, at 210 hours.
In terms of urban land use, closing roads to motorised vehicles and devoting the same space to cycle lanes and pedestrian areas will increase the capacity of our cities to accommodate commuters. In his article published earlier this year entitled This is the year a major European city will ban cars for its centre, Martin Mignot observed:
“The cycling superhighway along The Embankment in London could carry five times more people at full capacity than it would if they were travelling by car. The same is true for parking: one parking spot for a car can store 12 bikes.”
By switching to car-free centres our busy, growing cities will be able to accommodate more people who will be able to travel more efficiently. Rather than representing a regression to a simpler time, a car-free centre is actually a progression that addresses the increased number of people using city streets worldwide.
Physical and Mental Health
The majority of people who bike or walk to work are enthusiastic in its praise as a way of boosting both their physical and mental health. Even if you are unconvinced by the mood-enhancing powers of exercise, a reduction in the number of harmful pollutants in the air that comes as a consequence of getting motor vehicles off the road, will lead to healthier urban populations.
In 2019, German researchers estimated that 8.8 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. Cars are not solely responsible for this, but they are a major contributor and finding ways to ease our reliance on them in city centres is essential to reducing the number of people dying from breathing dirty air.
Better Social Cohesion
Since 1974, Bogota in Columbia has regularly closed its city centre streets to traffic in order to allow people to safely enjoy the city by bike or on foot. Known locally as Ciclovía, this car-free initiative allows people to gather as a community on Sundays and public holidays, enjoying street food, open-air music and performances and the chance to spend time outdoors in a socially cohesive atmosphere. As more cities follow this example and make the switch to car-free streets a permanent feature of life in their environs, it would not be unreasonable to expect that social cohesion will improve across the board.
Better Use of the Space Currently Designed for Car Parking
With urban space at a premium and green spaces being threatened with development to accommodate the growing urban populations, turning parking areas into housing or parkland is another way in which going car-free actually solves some of the challenges posed by our increasing urban populations.
By seeing the removal of motor vehicles in terms of a solution to the issues of congestion, health, mobility and safety in cities (rather than the crazed fantasy of a league of militant cycle commuters and tree-huggers), it becomes a more mainstream concept and could start to become a reality for more and more places.
Since the beginning of 2020, many of us have had to make big modifications to the way we live our lives in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. There is no reason why our adaptability cannot be successfully harnessed once again in order to improve the conditions in our cities, we just need governments, local councils, business and individuals to be fully convinced of the benefits and committed to the ultimate vision for our city streets. A comparable shift in attitudes and legislation was achieved with our attitudes to smoking in the early 21st Century, so it really isn’t an impossible dream.
At midnight on 31st December 1999 many people were in clubs and pubs around the world cheering in the Millennium through clouds of cigarette smoke. Today it seems completely alien to contemplate dancing in an enclosed public space with second-hand smoke. There is no reason why we shouldn’t feel the same way about cars in our cities in 20 years time and be telling our disbelieving children about the amount of time we spent in traffic jams in our youth!
 C. Cabrera-Arnau, R. Prieto Curiel and S. R. Bishop, 15.04.20 Uncovering the behaviour of road accidents in urban areas, viewed on 12.09.20 https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.191739
 Adele Peters, 30.01.20, Here are 11 more cities that have joined the car-free revolution, viewed on 02.09.20 https://www.fastcompany.com/90456075/here-are-11-more-neighborhoods-that-have-joined-the-car-free-revolution