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Cities Liberated from Cars

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

Private vehicles are being designed out of urban areas with encouraging results for communities and businesses.

Almost every city on Earth (Venice is a notable exception) has been built or adapted for cars. “That was seen as the modern way to develop in the ’60s and ’70s,” explains Dr Robin Hickman, senior lecturer at The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. “Now we see that as a huge mistake.”

According to Jan Gehl, professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen and author of Cities for People, that realisation came around the turn of the 21st century. “Motor-orientated city planning had gone on long enough for people to be sick and tired of the outcome,” he says. “Then came the climate challenge.”

Gehl claims his native Copenhagen was ahead of the curve and it’s hard to argue otherwise – the city has been laying cycle lanes since the 1960s. Almost half of all journeys there are made by bike, which might explain why it is regularly ranked Europe’s most liveable city. Indeed, as OGN Daily reported last month in Blue Sky Thinking: “It feels good to walk around Copenhagen,” says Jeppe Juul, of the Danish Eco Council, noting that it's a question of priorities. “Pedestrians have more space than bikes, and bikes have more space than cars.”

“The conditions for people [in Copenhagen] are much better than in most other cities,” coos Gehl, citing the Netherlands as another place that puts people before cars.

Cities elsewhere are now playing catchup, many with great zeal. The Norwegian capital, Oslo, has taken the extraordinary step of scrapping most of its parking spaces. Barcelona has a plan to turn 60 per cent of the city’s streets into “citizen spaces”.

The Belgian city of Ghent took the bold step of banning through traffic in 2017. To reach the other side of the city, motorists now have to get on the ring road and drive around. The number of car journeys being made has reportedly halved since the initiative came in, with an apparent corresponding rise in public transport use and cycling.

Ghent’s strategy wasn’t initially popular. The former mayor who mooted it, Frank Beke, was sent a bullet in the post by one angry shopkeeper, who feared his business would be adversely impacted by pedestrianisation.

The authorities claim the scheme has actually stimulated enterprise, evidenced, it says, by a 17 per cent rise in restaurant and bar startups, as well as a fall in shop closures. Anyone familiar with the concept of footfall will not be surprised.

Ghent’s figures are broadly in line with research from other cities, including Copenhagen, where it is reckoned that every kilometre covered by bike brings a net gain for society of 1.22 DKK (£0.14), compared to a net loss of 0.69 DKK (£0.08) for every kilometre covered by car. These numbers include savings in healthcare and additional economic activity in the private sector.

In France, the urge to go green in cities is evidenced by the recent mayoral elections in Paris and Marseille. For example, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has been re-elected having promised to put a cycle lane on every street in the city during her campaign. 

Milan has introduced one of Europe’s most ambitious cycling and walking schemes, with 22 miles of streets to be transformed over the summer. Barcelona is adding 30,000 sq.m to its pedestrianised networks and 13 miles to the biking network.

Even in London, which is dominated by the car, improvements to pedestrian and cycle infrastructure have been found to boost retail takings, increase rental values and reduce the rate of shop closures. At least that’s according to research published by Transport for London, which found that people who walked, cycled or travelled by public transport spent 40 per cent more in their local shops than motorists.

Aside from benefiting the economy and public health, evidence suggests that banishing cars from cities also makes people feel safer. In Bogotá, the Colombian capital, cars have been outlawed from the city every Sunday since the ’70s as part of an initiative called Ciclovía. It’s the one day a week when cyclists and pedestrians have the streets to themselves.

According to a survey published by the American Journal of Public Health, 42.4 per cent of people taking part in the initiative felt safer from crime compared to regular weekday users of the city’s cycle lanes.

“The city just changes,” says Bogotá-born Marcela Guerrero Casas. “From the way it sounds to the way people behave. I feel like on Sundays, people let their guard down.”

In Canada, Toronto is leading the way. The city has been described as “San Francisco turned upside down” — where the latter has hills, the former has a ravine system representing 17 percent of the city’s area. And now, as one of Toronto's plans for going greener, a new 81 km bike path will connect five ravine areas, 22 neighbourhoods, the Humber and Don River ravine systems and the waterfront.

Despite the apparent benefits of going car-free, the road to urban utopia remains gridlocked in most metropolises. Still, according to Gehl, the direction of travel is clear. “Cities have been invaded by cars,” he says. “Now they are being liberated.”

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