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What can London learn from Car-Free Cities around the world? (Part 2)

This is a special two-part series on car-free cities around the world.


Part 2 – World car-free cities and the lessons learned

Not all car-free cities are created equal…

Car-free cities are on the rise, but what do they really look like? The term ‘car-free city’ can be misleading given that it is impossible to exclude all cars in cities at once. It is best understood to describe a range of policy measures aimed at curbing the number of cars in cities. In the absence of an authoritative data source on which mid- and large-size cities are going car-free or ‘car less’, I collected information about car-free cities across multiple sources, including journals, newspapers, and other media and web outlets and compiled them to create an interactive, digital world map, pinning cities identified as car-free cities with details of defining policies.

Figure 1. Car-free cities around the world

Based on this map, I noticed that there were three emerging policies adopted by car-free cities:

  1. a regular car-free Sunday;

  2. a city-wide car restriction;

  3. a pedestrian zone

Regular car-free Sunday

The first and, arguably, the easiest option to go car-free is to hold regular car-free Sundays. A clear winner in this category is Bogotá’s Ciclovía, where more than 120km of streets are closed each Sunday. Just like many other car-free day events, Ciclovía started as an organic grassroots movement, but it became so popular among many Bogotáns that the City government made it an official program in 1976. Today, about 1.4 million people walk and cycle the streets of Bogotá every Sunday, inspiring many cities around the world to follow suit. For example, in Los Angeles, a similar event, commonly known as CicLAvia, started in 2010 as a way to promote more physical activity among urban residents. Meanwhile in Cape Town, car-free days have been marked since 2013, following the success of the Ciclovía model. Notwithstanding its success, some critics argue that Ciclovía does not address the real problem of air pollution because it is viewed as a recreational event rather than a serious transportation solution. However, it offers a vision and an opportunity for the public to really experience what it would be like to live in a city without cars.

Figure 2. Regular car-free Sunday in Bogotá

Source: wikipedia

City-wide car restriction

Another typical policy adopted by car-free cities is putting a city-wide restriction on automobile driving. Two types of car restrictions exist. The first kind is an area-based tolling scheme, often referred to as a congestion charge; London and Singapore are good examples. The scheme applies to all vehicles entering a special zone during a certain time of the day. As the name suggests, it is meant to curb traffic congestion by charging drivers during peak driving times. This scheme is politically unpopular as no one likes to pay money to drive, but recent evidence shows that drivers are quite responsive to this type of scheme, which has proven very effective in restricting car use.

Another type of car restriction is to target old cars and trucks that likely emit toxic pollutants. This type of policy is more politically feasible as it selectively targets certain car types, and almost everyone can agree that those which emit most pollutants should bear the costs of the damage, commonly known as the ‘polluter pays’ principle. From an environmental justice perspective, however, people driving older cars and trucks are more likely to be from lower income groups, so charging people driving older cars would be seen as a “tax on the poor.” Despite the criticism, the public health benefits of banning older diesel cars and trucks would far outweigh the risks, and many German cities, such as Frankfurt and Stuttgart, are taking steps to realise this.

Figure 3. City-wide car restriction in Singapore

Source: wikipedia

Pedestrian zone in the city centre

The last type of car-free city measure is to transform a large area of the city centre into a public plaza. This is probably the ultimate vision for car-free cities. But few are bold enough to adopt this policy unless there is an economic justification for it, such as increased revenues from tourists enjoying a car-free city centre. Pontevedra in Spain is probably one of the few non-tourist destinations that has adopted this measure, covering 300,000 m2 of the city centre since 2000, motivated by a need to reinvigorate the downtown core when it suffered serious deterioration due to increased violence and drug activities. Thanks to their pioneering vision and action, Pontevedra is now a thriving place to live with virtually no traffic jams and reduced traffic accidents. Cities such as Ljubljana in Slovenia and Ghent in Belgium have since successfully implemented pedestrian zones, and Oslo and Edinburgh are considering such an approach.

Figure 4. Pedestrian zone in Vienna

Source: Wikipedia

Lessons and a cautionary tale for London

So, what can London learn from the car-free cities around the world? A phased approach would be recommended, starting with the Colombian model of a car-free Sunday. The strength of the Colombian model is that it puts a positive spin on the idea of going car free, and can help kick start the conversation about how a car-free city would look like. To make a tangible shift in policy, however, experiment and conversations are not enough. Occasional roadway closure could be used as a pilot scheme to implementing more serious transport programmes, such as regular and more frequent roadway closure or a partial or a complete pedestrianisation of a city centre.

Second, combining multiple strategies, such as encouragement and enforcement, would be more effective and less controversial. For example, regular Sunday roadway closure could be seen as an encouragement whereas congestion charging would be considered an enforcement. In London, there are many enforcement measures, such as a congestion charge and a low emission zone, but policies that focus on encouragement and a positive message will likely be more sustainable and acceptable by the public. On a similar note, if a city wants to implement a congestion charging scheme, it needs to provide enough alternative options for people to travel, such as public transit, car-sharing, or bicycle sharing. Diversifying mobility option is important because in absence of these alternative options, policies that rely on enforcement will likely backfire and could turn the clock backward.

Lastly, the evidence base supporting the health and environmental benefits of car-free cities is growing but not rock solid. For example, implementing a small congestion charging zone in the city centre may only displace air pollution problems elsewhere, without actually leading to an overall reduction in total air pollution levels. To make the case that car-free cites are actually improving health, London will need to continue monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of its policy measures. Also, carefully monitoring public sentiment and complaints is important to avoid any possible backlash, as seen in Hong Kong and New York.

A cautionary tale for London is that the time is ripe to make some bold steps towards making London a world class car-free city. But it needs to be done carefully and strategically by studying invaluable lessons learned from other car-free cities around the word.

Part 2 of this blog What can London learn from car-free cities around the world? also appeared on Thompson Reuters Trust on 20 September 2019.


About the author

Andy Hong is Lead Urban Health Scientist at the George Institute for Global Health and PEAK Urban researcher at University of Oxford. He studies emerging health challenges linked to urban and transport planning around the world.

Twitter handle: @DrAndyHong

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