Europe’s cities ponder more car-free areas

By Eric Marx | 11/03/2015 08:19 AM EST

Around the world — and especially in Europe — a growing number of cities are getting rid of cars in certain neighborhoods through fines, better design, new apps and, in some cases, even paying commuters to leave their car at home and take public transportation.

Will the future city be car-free?

Around the world — and especially in Europe — a growing number of cities are getting rid of cars in certain neighborhoods through fines, better design, new apps and, in some cases, even paying commuters to leave their car at home and take public transportation. Behind the shift is an effort to reduce traffic and pollution, combined with a change in urban lifestyles and an overall attempt to rebalance public spaces in favor of cyclists and pedestrians.

These plans are typically restricted to congested hours, or are staged as one-off events encompassing a given 24-hour period. At best, they limit the growth in the number of privately owned vehicles on the road, but do nothing to significantly reduce congestion. Experts say a more systemic approach — permanently banning cars outright from entire city centers — is what’s needed.

Bikers in London
London holds events to encourage people to ride bikes in the city. There is the World Naked Bike Ride (which we couldn’t get past our censors). This is the Tweed Run, a more leisurely but less-watched cruise through Trafalgar Square. | Photo by Garry Knight, courtesy of Flickr.

Norway’s capital, Oslo, with just less than 600,000 residents, is up for this. It has announced it will ban all vehicle traffic from the downtown core by 2019. The newly elected city council, with the Labor Party, the Greens and the Socialist Left, said the aim is to cut traffic by 20 percent by 2019 and 30 percent by 2030.

The plan has drawn a mixed reaction thus far. There are only about 1,000 residents in the affected zone, an area bordered by the serpentine waterfront and encompassing 2 square kilometers that extends out to the Ring 1 expressway. Roughly 90,000 workers commute to the affected area every day, and according to the newspaper Verdens Gang, some residents fear that a ban could add up to 45 minutes to their daily commutes. Local businessmen expressed concern, noting that 11 of the city’s 57 shopping centers are in the planned car-free zone.

"We are using the law to deregulate car space so they can be converted to pedestrian use or for bike lanes," explained Lan Marie Nguyen Berg, lead negotiator for the Green Party, when reached by phone.

Despite its frigid winters, Oslo residents can be seen in all sorts of weather, on bikes or simply walking. Yet the bike network, first devised in 1977, had yet to be expanded to any kind of comprehensive network.

Ever cheaper e-bikes make it possible to facilitate cycling over far greater distances. Roughly 30 miles of additional bike paths are envisioned, as are increases in overall investments in public transport, including rail, electric bus and tram lines.

"Long term," added Berg, "the ambition is to extend the car-free zone to include larger and larger areas."

Oslo saw more cars, less room for them

If there was unanimity on an issue in the campaign, it was that provisioning more roads would never solve the problem of congestion. Norwegians love their cars. The country leads the world in per-capita electric vehicle adoption. But with an additional 200,000 residents estimated over the next two decades, Oslo is expected to only get denser and more congested. It’s why Berg said the Greens opposed the building of the new E18 highway, something they succeeded in killing with their ascension to the Oslo city government.

Another goal is to cut emissions — and not only cut the growth in emissions. Electric vehicles can play a role, but if Norway is serious about aiming to be carbon-neutral by 2050, the Greens say more cars have to come off the road.

They want a range of public transport options linked together by intermodal transport hubs that can now operate more efficiently once cars are sidelined. Experts say the key is to provide seamless switching so that travelers don’t lose time transferring from a bus to a train or a bike. This kind of layered transport has long been sought by sustainability advocates, but now, for the first time, is far more feasible in the digital age of smartphone apps and fast IT connections.

Already Oslo has a very good public transit system, including a buried expressway along the waterside, with frequent streetcar service and 24-hour bus and rail. But in order to succeed, experts say it will need more car parks with public transport connections.

There are dozens of smaller European cities that have banned cars in inner cities, said Derek Palmer, a principal consultant at the Transport Research Laboratory, an independent U.K. nonprofit.

These typically peak at a half-million residents in size, with larger cities opting for more limited restrictions that downgrade cars and don’t ban them entirely. Copenhagen, with 26 bicycle superhighways, is perhaps the best example. Still, might a larger city of 2 million or more follow Oslo’s example and ban cars entirely?

"It’s possible," said Palmer, though a lot depends on the suburban spread and the location of transport hubs in the city center.

"You have to make sure your mass transit is viable both economically and technically, as otherwise you just have a very expensive white elephant."

Berlin tries to ‘balance’ commuters and bikers

Like Oslo, Berlin is bordered by a circular highway with a major mass transit system that links most parts of the capital by light rail and subways, both of which accommodate bicycles. Public transit is quick and efficient and includes well-developed intermodal links to mobility services such as e-bikes and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Yet Berlin, with just under 3.5 million inhabitants, is also one of Europe’s most sprawling cities. Thus far, political leaders have largely skirted what traffic experts say is a demographic trend that sees inner-city residents, who increasingly rely on public transport and bicycles, in conflict with the car-driving public that lives outside in the surrounding suburbs.

"I’d be really happy to have a car-free city center, but that’s not the main aim," said Tim Lehmann, a mobility expert and urban planner with the Berlin-based think tank InnoZ. "The issue is a question of balance."

Less than 50 percent of Berlin households own a car. At the same time, there are more cyclists, more delivery trucks and more tension as Berliners fight for increasingly limited space on the sidewalks and streets. Last year, the city grew by 45,000 residents, a trend line that’s only expected to increase in years to come.

As with Oslo, Lehmann says it’s time for the city to expand upon its existing bike infrastructure. More than that, inner-city car use has to be actively discouraged, with car toll collections used to fund investments in mobility hubs that would serve as park-and-ride transit points for those wanting to leave their cars outside the downtown limits.

Outside the capital, the German Greens have succeeded in sidelining cars in cities like Hamburg and Münster. Nationally, by contrast, the party has tried various measures and always lost votes. This hesitancy has carried over into Berlin, capital of a major car-manufacturing country that’s also perceived by outsiders as a progressive bastion of artists and liberal politics.

The city has yet to position itself clearly, but with an election coming up next year, pressure is building.

"The big question," said Lehmann, "is ‘Who dares?’ and ‘When will the moment be right to win elections with topics that take away cars from streets?’"

Big cycling investments in London

Europe’s largest city, London, has arguably gone much further than Berlin, said Jason Torrance, policy director at sustainable transport group Sustrans.

London pioneered things like congestion pricing and parking restrictions, "but generally, these have been in pockets of the city and have been at times when the amount of car use has been increasing, so really, these measures have just been stemming the flow in defeat, whereas the Oslo plan provides an opportunity for a more systemic approach citywide," said Torrance.

Much of the political courage has come from Boris Johnson, a two-term mayor of London and outspoken pro-cycling advocate who has allocated around $1 billion for various bike programs.

Yet the scale of investment across the United Kingdom remains far greater around road construction and making it easier to drive than it is in transforming public spaces to make them fit for walking and cycling. Most governments are still wedded to the idea of economic growth linked to big infrastructure and the car, said Torrance. The benefits of investing in walking and cycling thus lose out, even though demographic trends on car-driver trips by city residents are going down.

"The pro-car lobby is not a shady set of industrialists," Torrance added, "but car drivers and shop owners who all believe mistakenly that the car is a central part of creating economic vitality for cities."

Conservative estimates by the World Health Organization attributed 29,000 premature deaths in the United Kingdom every year resulting from bad air quality. Cars and trucks are by far the largest contributor to that, as uncovered recently by the Volkswagen AG diesel scandal.

"My feeling is the VW scandal and air quality has provided a new frame for looking at the challenges and opportunities that cities have," said Torrance.

Oslo could mark a shift in our thinking about cars. It requires vision and planning to create cities fit for people, much in the same way as our cities have been previously planned around the car.