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OPINION: What can London learn from car-free cities around the world?

by Andy Hong | @DrAndyHong | Oxford University
Friday, 20 September 2019 10:09 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What lessons can London learn from other cities that have car-free policies?

Go for a walk, grab your bicycle or e-scooter, dust off your rollerblades – just don’t try and drive your car in Central London on Sunday.

A total of 20km of road across the capital will be closed as 18 boroughs join forces along with over 2,000 cities globally that are taking part in this year’s World Car Free Day, opening up streets to millions of cyclists, pedestrians, skateboards, wheelchairs, and pushchairs.

It wasn’t long ago that the notion of banning cars from the busiest streets of our capital city seemed implausible. But in recent decades, the decline in car use across major cities in North America and Europe has gained traction along with political will and commitments to reimagine how citizens transition through cities and sustain them for future generations.

London has been taking significant steps in this vein since the turn of the Millennium: 2003 heralded the congestion charge scheme (charging drivers to enter specific city zones during peak driving times) and, earlier this year, the introduction of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) banned older petrol and diesel vehicles - paving the way for a cleaner, quieter London.

So far, so good, but let’s pause to consider what car-free cities look like.

Few cities are completely car-free. Rather, many are going ‘car less’ by adopting measures aimed at curbing the number of cars in circulation, with three favoured approaches: 1) a regular car-free Sunday;  2) a city-wide car restriction;  and 3) a pedestrian zone. 

Why might cities want to go car-free?

The most compelling argument comes from public health. Car-free cities mean fewer cars on the roads emitting toxic pollutants that are linked to numerous chronic health effects, such as asthmaheart disease, and even mental health.

So too, the mitigating effect on noise pollution, increased opportunities for physical activity and potential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are all notable benefits, especially when considering that the transport sector accounts for about 26% of GHG in Britain.

But some people argue that the air pollution benefits of car-free cities are grossly misrepresented, suggesting that car-free zones are just displacing pollutants elsewhere, as drivers still jump behind the wheel to get as close to the no-go areas as possible before parking and finding alternative means for the final portion of their journey.

So, with plans to expand London’s ULEZ zone over the next two years, much can be learnt from the precedent of other urban centres such as Ghent, Hamburg, Madrid, Paris and Oslo that have shifted gears to adopt various forms of car-free policy and practice.


  • A phased approach to becoming car-free is best

This Sunday’s car-free London will be a good test case for the 8 million people living in the capital, because arguably the easiest means of cutting the proportion of car traffic is to adopt a regular car-free Sunday. Bogotá’s Ciclovía first came into force in 1976 and sees more than 120km of streets close each Sunday and the results have been remarkable. 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. 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, the strength of the Colombian model is that it puts a positive spin on going car free and helps kick-start conversations about what a car-free city should look like. However, to make a tangible shift in policy, experiment and conversations are not enough. Occasional roadway closures could be used as a pilot scheme for implementing more serious transport programmes, such as regular and more frequent roadway closures or a partial or complete pedestrianisation of a city centre.

Further down the track, London could look to pedestrianize large areas at its heart. Until now, few cities have been bold enough to adopt this policy without economic justification. Pontevedra in Spain is one exception. Since 2000, over 300,000 mof the city have been pedestrianised, a move 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 with few traffic jams and reduced road traffic accidents.

  • Combine multiple strategies to become car-free

Combining multiple strategies promise the most effective progress towards car-free cities. For example, regular Sunday road closures could be seen as an encouragement whereas congestion charging would be considered an enforcement. In London, there are already many enforcement measures in place such as a congestion charge and a low emission zone, which are often unpopular at first as no one likes to pay extra money to drive, but policies that focus on encouragement and a positive message will likely be more sustainable and acceptable by the public. Cities need to provide enough alternative travel options for its citizens, such as public transit, car- or bicycle-sharing options.

  • Build the evidence on the benefits of going car-free

More evidence is needed to back the health and environmental case for going car-free. London will need to continue monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of its policy measures and keep those who live in the city on board throughout, by actively engaging with and responding to consultancy and feedback so as to avoid backlash, as seen in Hong Kong and New York.

The time is ripe for London to make bold steps towards becoming a world-class car-free city. But it needs to act carefully and strategically, adopting lessons from around the world.

We can start by all getting behind Car-Free Sunday. Do join us.

Dr 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. 

Follow him on Twitter @DrAndyHong@GeorgeInstUK and @PEAK_Urban