Cars have been part of our cities and our lives for decades now. They’re comfortable, they can take us almost everywhere, they suit our lifestyle, and they are advertised to become more and more sustainable. So, what’s all the car-free fuzz about? Doesn’t an additional lane or more parking spaces solve anything? What’s the case for car-free cities? And how is a city’s liveability inherently connected to challenging the status of passenger cars?
Cycling and walking are the go-to’s when talking about sustainable urban mobility, and it makes a lot of sense for cities to focus on both of these options. However, the public tends to focus on cyclists and pedestrians and neglect the bigger picture of car-free cities. This is pitiful, as all cycling and pedestrian measures only make sense if they go hand-in-hand with reducing car dependency. You’re not sure if there’s really a case for car-free? Not to worry, we’ll make it for you:
1. The Case for Space Allocation in Dense Cities
The world population is growing, and people increasingly live in cities rather than the countryside. Since space in cities is not expanding, but is continuously expected to accommodate for a larger number of people, it is only logical that cities get denser every year. In 2016, an estimated 54% of people worldwide were living in cities, by 2030 this number is projected to rise up to 60%.
Since space is the scarce good, the question is rather obvious: How do we allocate it? According to Eurostat, the number of passenger cars per 1000 inhabitants is on the rise in almost all EU countries. Drivers sure love sitting in their cars: In 2020, they lost up to 134 hours in congestion in European cities (that is 5.5 days of being stuck in traffic). The annual cost of congestion in the EU in 2020 added up to 100 billion Euros, which was 1% of the EU’s GDP. On top of that, cars are parked 95% of the time – there is absolutely no economic case to make for individuals owning cars in dense urban areas, and we didn’t even talk about air pollution, road accidents, noise, or equity yet.
It’s an easy equation: space that we’re dedicating to cars (driving or parking) is lost urban living space. To give you an example: one car occupies about 15 square meters, one parking spot could provide space for 10 bicycles. And remember, for one car there is the need for at least two parking spots- one at your starting point and one at your destination.
Apart from all these arguments, space allocation in cities simply boils down to their liveability: The space used for car parking or wide car lanes could be re-used making the city a more beautiful place to live and stay in. Whether it would be areas for alternative modes of transportation (like bicycles) or replacing parking lots with playgrounds and housing. If you’re being perfectly honest, even as a car driver you prefer cities that are not built around cars – or did you ever go on holidays in a city because you just loved how well you could drive around in it? Car-free urban areas allow us to give the cities back to whom they really belong: the people.
2. The Case for the Environment
We know you know, but we’ll say it again and again: Cars are one of the biggest contributors to the environmental crisis. Globally, transport contributes around 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with transport being the second fastest-growing source of fossil-fuel CO2 emissions.
In Europe, 60.7% of total CO2 emissions from road transport are produced by regular passenger cars. One passenger car produces 122.4g of CO2 per kilometre on average. Per year, a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
While changing drivers’ behaviour is one thing, an even bigger problem lies with the automobile lobby working actively on finding ways around CO2 regulations. Many cars are designed to cheat air pollution tests mandated by governments. One study, for example, found that all tested diesel cars produced more pollution on the road than in the lab- some emitted up to 12 times the EU maximum.
Fortunately, there has been a recent shift away from the love for diesel. Many countries in the EU and across the world are calling for diesel phase-out strategies.
Not only does driving cars cause the environment to suffer, but the construction does, too. To build cars, environmentally damaging resources such as platinum and palladium are used unsparingly.
As if this wouldn’t be enough, roads themselves affect wildlife in numerous ways. In addition to causing mortality, roads have an indirect impact on habitat fragmentation as roads create barriers to animal’s movement. Moreover, the covering of the ground with asphalts is a main cause of soil degradation, which affects fertile agricultural lands, increases flood risks, and puts biodiversity at risk.
3. The Case for the Economy
There is a myth surrounding everything car-free that seems to be unbreakable: The concern that the limitation of cars in inner cities would negatively affect local businesses. The opposite is scientifically verified: Many retailers overestimate the number of customers travelling by car. In an ECF Report, the perceived share of cycling shoppers was 12% when it was actually 42%.
For local businesses, car-free areas are very beneficial, as people using alternative transportation are more likely to shop locally and are more loyal to retailers. Even though they tend to not spend as much as car drivers, they visit the shop more frequently. A 2016 study of over 100 cities showed that pedestrian-only streets increased retail sales by around 49%. As many city centres are dying, car-free measures should be considered much more frequently.
Another public concern surrounding car-free areas is that it may prevent emergency services and essential deliveries from access to the neighbourhood. Rest assured that there is not a single car-free area that prohibits emergency services from entering.
If we look at existing car-free blocks, cars aren’t completely banned out of the city. Many times, the ban only applies to non-resident’s cars, and exceptions are made for essential delivery cars. One of the most prominent examples of car-free areas in recent years is in Barcelona. Cars are still allowed in the block but speed limits and reduced lane capacities automatically lead to a decrease of car-use – no ban needed!
4. The Case for Our Health
Cars produce CO2 emissions – a lot of them. But air pollution is not only a threat to our environment, it harms us directly as well. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7 million premature deaths per year can be linked to air pollution, with private vehicle pollution accounting for 184,000 premature deaths alone.
Several studies have additionally found that people exposed to diesel exhaust of cars have shown significant increases in the risk of getting lung cancer.
Air pollution is not the only thing affecting our health. The simple activity of driving puts us in danger. In 2010, road crashes killed 1.24 million people. To put this into perspective, road collisions are responsible for 1.95% of all global deaths. Consider this next time you argue against car-free: cars kill more people than tuberculosis, malaria, diabetes or HIV/Aids.
Where Do People Want to Live?
The case for car-free areas comes down to one single question – Where do people want to live? What makes a city liveable? For most people, it’s probably the opposite of a congested, air polluted city full of parking spots. Green spaces, playgrounds, a sense of community and safety are factors more and more local governments focus on to make their cities attractive to citizens. Are you curious to see what this looks like when put into practice? Here are a few examples from cities spearheading the transformation:
Let’s start with an impactful transformation made in New York about a decade ago. Iconic 42nd street was pedestrianised in 2009 and finally, space was created for people to stroll around and enjoy seating areas in the middle of the worldwide known plaza. If you’re interested in more information on the transformation of the iconic Times Square, check out this video.
We mentioned Barcelona’s superblocks before – neighbourhoods where cars are only guests on the street. With one-way streets, speed limits and no public transit, space previously occupied for cars is now re-used for playgrounds, vegetable gardens and wide pedestrian lanes. The idea is getting a lot of attention with similar projects planned in other European countries such as Vienna and Berlin.
The city of love, Paris, has shown its love for car-free measures with the election of Mayor Anne Hidalgo. It’s the perfect example of how political leadership can change sustainable urban planning for the better. With an ambitious plan for Paris in 2015, Hidalgo banned cars along the banks of the River Seine and is working on removing 72% of on-street car parking by 2024, replacing them with green spaces, vegetable plots and playgrounds. All of these ideas are reflecting the 15-minutes city idea – you can find out more about that approach in our recent article.
Another Spanish city, Madrid, has made headlines with banning all cars from the city centre in 2018. To tackle air pollution and major public health issues in the city, it seemed the most effective measure. In 2019, a new, more conservative mayor got elected, planning on pulling the ban again. Without much luck though: Residents opposed his plans, demanding the car-free area to last. They even got support by a local judge saying pollution in Madrid can’t be allowed to rise anymore. Moral of the story: With time, the most controversial car-free measures will find acceptance and realisation of their necessity.
In London, the TfL (Transport for London) introduced a series of measures to improve public health, reduce carbon emissions and encourage cleaner air. With the programme called Streetspace, London introduced not only many new bicycle paths and wider pedestrian corridors, but also implemented Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, restricting car access in several neighbourhoods. In line with this broad concept is another London-based idea: The Healthy Streets Approach. Check our article out for more information!
One European city, however, is THE frontrunner in going car-free. The Norwegian capital Oslo made its downtown city area almost completely free of cars. The city started in 2017 by removing 300 parking spaces and increasing this number to a total of 700 by 2019. Car traffic in the inner city has since then decreased by an incredible 28%. Find out how other cities can do it in our article ‘How Oslo hit reverse on its street parking‘.
Some futuristic ideas are even going a few steps further by creating completely new districts without car lanes in the first place. In Shenzen, a Chinese city, the Tech company Tencent is planning to build a neighbourhood roughly the size of midtown Manhattan with no roads for cars, mangrove trees as natural flood defence, and solar panels to provide green energy. Even though the project is only in its beginning phase, the designs look pretty amazing.
The Case for Car-Free in a Nutshell…
There’s simply no way around the case for car-free! It is a necessary forward way of thinking and the only real solution for cities with limited space, congestion, air pollution, and dying city centres. Implementing car-free measures in your city will increase liveability, with public space being a vibrant place for people to gather, feel safe, and enjoy living there. Sounds good? Then let’s get started right away!