Can Cities Become Car-Free After the Covid19 Pandemic?

In the course of the COVID19 pandemic, many cities are rethinking their transport systems. Mark Nieuwenhuijsen outlines challenges and solutions and argues that this is the time to boost the concept of a car-free city.

Cities and COVID19

Cities are large emitters of CO2, and one of the main factors behind the climate crisis. Before the COVID19 pandemic, 60 per cent of public space was taken up by cars in a city like Barcelona.

During the lockdown, cities experience that large reductions in motorised traffic and thus large reductions in air pollution and noise levels and CO2 emissions are possible. This is important, especially considering that outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill 9 million people a year and that around 20 per cent of premature mortality can be attributed to factors related to suboptimal urban and transport planning.

Now, many cities including Barcelona, London, Madrid, Milan, and Paris are extending public space to pedestrians and cyclist to further encourage these modes of transport, and to allow for sufficient distance between people, thus often reducing space available for cars.

By reducing the road space for cars, and thereby reducing the use of cars, an interesting question arises: can these cities go car-free?

Going Car-Free

A number of cities have a vision to become car-free. For example, Hamburg envisages to be car-free by 2034. While the main driver behind such ambitions is climate action, car-free cities can also have a considerable benefit on public health through reductions in air pollution, noise, and heat island effects as well as increases in physical activity and green spaces.

Many cities in Europe like Helsinki, Madrid, and Oslo have tried to pedestrianise parts of the city. A nice example of a fairly large car-free neighbourhood with sustainable housing is Vauban in Freiburg, where no cars are allowed good transport links to the centre of the city centre, for example by tram, exist.

What Would be Considered Car-Free?

Here I consider a car-free city as a city without private cars, but as one that may still have a small number of essential vehicles such as buses, lorries, taxis, and emergency vehicles. The characteristics would be that public and active transport account for the largest mode share by far, and that these are also the modes defining transport planning and engineering.

Furthermore, the motor vehicles remaining on the roads should be as sustainable and healthy as possible – for example being electric, and having speed as well as other restrictions in terms of their temporal and spatial access to the city.

Already today, the transport mode share of private cars in many cities is relatively low, as active and public transportation account for the bulk of mode share, suggesting that becoming car-free is not so far away after all.

Can We Retrofit Cities to Change Mode Share?

Compact cities like many European ones may be easier to refit to car-free cities than sprawled cities like American or Australian type cities. The main challenges will be how to change existing infrastructure that was mainly designed for cars to infrastructure for active and public transport, and how to change people´s perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. Around half of car trips are shorter than 7 kilometres, these could easily be replaced by other more sustainable and healthier modes of transport such as cycling.

Some cities have already initiated strategies to create largely car-free areas like the “superblocks” in Barcelona. A recent health impact assessment study found that nearly 700 premature deaths could be prevented if all 502 superblocks would be implemented.

There are a number of important factors to address when aiming to go car-free and they include:

  • Political vision and leadership
  • Shifting the planning paradigm from mobility to accessibility
  • Alternative convenient and quality transport means
  • Dedicated funding
  • Strategic media coverage to ensure public involvement and acceptance
  • Intensive data collection and analysis
  • Evaluation of current status, alternative scenarios, and post-evaluation of policies’ impacts
  • Stakeholders involvement and support
  • Alignment with other high-level objectives and strategies

Can Cities Go Car-Free?

While transport mode share of cars is relatively small in many cities, the streets are still dominated by cars. This is partly because, despite the small mode share, there are still hundreds of thousands of cars on the road, each car taking up of a lot of space.

Cities spend too much money on keeping car drivers happy, and too little on other road users. Therefore, a more concerted effort is needed to push for a reduction in car use and create car-free streets and neighbourhoods. Any new urban developments should be car-free and provide transport alternatives. A good model for orientation is Paris’s 15-minute-city concept that additionally favours mixed land use and strengthens the local economy.

What Aren’t Cities Car-Free Yet?

Decades of planning and investments in car infrastructure attracted cars to the cities, and it will take decades to overturn this. Large car-oriented infrastructures continue to dominate urban landscapes while relatively small proportions of municipal budget allocated to and little work done for quality active and public transport provision.

There is an urgent need to rebalance and provide better and safer infrastructures as well as policy support for active and public transport modes. For many, the car is still a status symbol and the fastest, easiest, and most comfortable way to get around, and negative impacts such as air pollution, noise, heat island effects, and CO2 emissions are too easily ignored.

Catalysing Sustainable Urban Planning

A car-free city would be a catalyst for better town planning by removing the need to facilitate car mobility, thus ensuring that urban areas are planned around people, functionality, and better built environments instead.

Mark Nieuwenhuijsen
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