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Prioritising People Over Cars

Car-free days and restrictions in city centre driving are nothing new but cities are looking beyond simple traffic bans to more fundamental redevelopment. They are also introducing ideas that challenge decades of orthodoxy in urban planning and design.

Long before the world's mindset changed during lockdown, Denmark's capital had transitioned its city in a way that many others are now trying to emulate.

As Jeppe Juul of the Danish Eco Council explains: “Pedestrians have more space than bikes, and bikes have more space than cars.” This clearly puts personal and planetary health first. As a result Copenhagen is one of the cleanest cities on Earth and is well on the way to becoming carbon neutral by 2025.

This semi-utopia fits the zeitgeist and everywhere else is, happily, racing to catch up. The Dutch city of Utrecht is once again circled by water and greenery rather than asphalt and exhaust fumes. More than 40 years after parts of the canal that encircled Utrecht’s old town were concreted over to accommodate a 12-lane motorway, the city is celebrating the restoration of its 900 year old moat.

At the start of this year, also in the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s Witte de Withstraat was a car-choked thoroughfare. Today, cars are banned after 4pm, locals stroll leisurely down the middle of the road and special wooden terraces have taken the place of parking spaces. The scheme is part of a phenomenon that has recently swept the world’s cities: roads and parking spots reclaimed for pedestrians and cyclists.

Oakland, California, has converted many neighborhood streets into pop-up “slow streets”, closed to car traffic. In London, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, introduced Streetspace for London, including temporary cycle lanes and wider pavements. In Paris, the plan is for 650 new kilometres of pop-up “corona cycleways”, and the removal of 72% of on-street parking. “The current health crisis forces us to rethink our mobility system,” Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Île-de-France, explained to Le Parisian.

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

The Belgian city of Ghent has banned through traffic. 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.

“Things are happening at a pace that no one has really seen before,” says Adam Tranter, an urbanist and the bicycle mayor for Coventry. “The only thing required is political will and leadership.”

China has recently accelerated plans for a huge, car-free district in Shenzen, “designed for and about people”. The Norwegian capital, Oslo, has taken the extraordinary step of scrapping most of its parking spaces.

Bogotá is one of the most congested cities in the world with commuters losing an average of 191 hours a year sitting in traffic (that's the equivalent of 24 eight hour working days), but the city's avid cyclist Mayor Claudia López is hoping to turn the transportation tide by expanding bicycle transportation. This new emphasis on cycling and pedestrians is happening everywhere, but experts say it remains to be seen whether there is enough momentum from ordinary people to demand existing city neighbourhoods permanently reject cars.

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.”

So let's all continue to pile on the pressure and keep up the momentum!


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