Oslo is one of the world leaders when it comes to going car-free. Its downtown city area is now almost completely free of cars. But how did this city manage to succeed in getting rid of private vehicles in its innermost urban areas, and what are the key takeaways for other cities trying to follow in its footsteps?
If you live in or around an urban area, then you know all too well what rush hour looks like in city zones. Cars gridlocked as far as the eye can see, cyclists weaving in and out of the blanket of lingering fumes that coat the city streets, horns blaring and frustration building as each minute passes and commuters get nowhere.
Yet in Oslo’s city centre, this familiar scene is nearly a thing of the past. Sounds impossible, right? But in fact, the downtown area of the Norwegian capital is almost totally car-free, and pedestrians, public transport and cyclists now take priority. Not only this, but this is how most commuters and residents actually prefer it.
So how has Norway actually managed to turn the tables on car precedence, and can other places around the world do the same?
A “Drive” Down Memory Lane: Oslo’s Transport Transformation Timeline
The pedestrianisation of some city streets first began in the 1970s, and heavy investment into public transport began throughout the 1980s. However, it was the progressive political coalition that came to power in 2015, that took the transport transformation to its next level and put a significant mobility change in motion:
The ground-breaking Climate Budget was a first of its kind plan first developed by Oslo in 2017 that set out 42 measures directly affecting the city’s climate gas emissions, to which transport was central.
At first, an outright ban on cars was suggested as the majority of residents in the city didn’t drive, however objections and concerns from business owners that customers would be lost had to be taken into consideration, so the government changed to a more gradual approach whereby the removal of on-street car parking became the main focus instead.
The city council began with six pilot trials which began in 2017 when around 300 parking spaces were removed, increasing to a total of 700 eliminated spots for private cars by 2019. As a result, car traffic in inner city areas has decreased by 28%.
A few spaces remain for disabled drivers, electric vehicles and charging services and emergency services, however traffic restrictions nudge drivers who don’t need to go through the centre to take an alternative ring road around it instead.
Over time, people became more accepting of the measures. “Our traffic reforms are like the 2004 public smoking ban”, Vice Mayor Hanna Marcussen told The Economist. “Many grumbled before the law was passed but today few people would clamour to let people smoke in pubs again.”
How Can Other Cities “Just Do It”?
We spoke to Norwegian architect and urban planner Ellen de Vibe; the chief town planner in Oslo from 1998-2019 to understand more about why the removal and replacement of car infrastructure has been such a success in Oslo, and what others would need to know to replicate it.
There are five key takeaways that others can learn from Oslo:
- Have a clear political ambition: “This is a vital part of the process”, said de Vibe, “most aspects of our professional life are very sectorial; therefore, we must have clear and strategic leadership to bridge these sectorial divisions.” A clear and cohesive strategy is pivotal to making cities for people – and the goals you set must be defined to ascertain which direction you must go in for AND what you wish to achieve. Having an agenda is key to making what you have on paperwork in practice.
- Dare to let go of the rules: “Piloting must be used deliberately. Pilots and trial periods allow us to test things out – but if all you stick to are long-term rules, you will never get anywhere.’ ‘We should be able to use the results we obtain from trials to see what works and only then canthem to influence the rules in the long run.”
- Listen carefully, especially to the younger generation: “The older generation tends to feel more secure with what they know… young people have a different approach to city space, and what they actually want from it, which I think is very useful. They claim to be able to appropriate the public space, even though the rules may say something different.” Their perspective is important, and we should listen to them to be able to create the best urban spaces for future generations.
- Importance of architectural quality cannot be understated: “Piloting means nothing if the architectural standard of infrastructure is not high… this needn’t involve a lot of expensive materials or cost a lot of money to achieve – but if done incorrectly, it can ruin the reputation of a project.” De Vibe continues: “Something that we learned early on was that in order to increase city life, it is important that street interventions are strategically placed. For example, it is not enough simply to create a public space along a blank façade – this won’t give you city life. There must be a connection between the velocity inside a building and what is going on outside it in the street. If there is a public building or attraction, then this is where benches and outdoor designs should be, so that people can properly make use of the space.”
- Legal solidification is necessary: “In Oslo, we started out with different types of campaigns, working with businesses and NGOs. But simultaneously, we also started to prepare a new legal plan for the city centre and public spaces. I believe it to be important to ground the temporal piloting work into a proper legal framework afterwards, or perhaps as you go along the way, to make measures meaningful and durable”, de Vibe says.
A recipe applicable to other cities as well? Let us know in the comment section!