Cities at the cutting edge of the sustainability movement are constantly trying to provide a greener and more liveable environment for their residents. At the same time, economic growth creates added pressure for more transportation, which leads to crowded roads, stress, wasted time and air pollution.
How can cities balance these opposing trends? Beyond general attempts to reduce traffic, some are actually experimenting with car-free days or zones. URBAN HUB looks at projects around the world that could help lead to urban environments that are much less dominated by cars.
For well over half a century, city planners have focused on crafting car-friendly cities – to the detriment of people. But before cars, our city streets served as social gathering spaces, where neighbors could congregate, street vendors could sell their wares, and children could play.
The main thrust of the pedestrianization movement is that we need to re-think urban planning, and start designing cities for people, not cars. Proponents of pedestrianization say that fewer cars would mean less stress and more effective use of people’s time, not to mention cleaner air and more attractive cities. In the end, this would actually benefit businesses.
However, it is important to note that pedestrian zones don’t work so well when zoning laws require districts to be exclusively residential or commercial. This sort of compartmentalized zoning makes life without cars extremely inconvenient. Car-free zones work best in mixed-use areas where most things can be reached on foot.
Most cities understand: it just makes good sense to take it one step at a time. The approach taken by Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, was simply to make cars less attractive by making public transport completely free. Neighboring Helsinki (Finland) is working out a point-to-point, mobility-on-demand system designed to reduce the benefits of private car ownership.
Ghent (Belgium) is also moving in a car-free direction, and making public support a priority. That’s why the city introduced the Living Street project. Residents can apply to have a section of their street closed to traffic for up to several months. They discover individual solutions for substitute parking spots and alternative means of transport, such as electric bikes and “cargo bikes”.
Barcelona (Spain) is experimenting with a very interesting traffic-reduction plan, which relies heavily on pedestrian-friendly superilles, or “superblocks”. Superblocks can be created, for example, by selecting a nine-block, square section of a city (like one side of a Rubik’s cube) and preventing through traffic within it. This creates a much more pedestrian-friendly area within the superblock.
Sometimes it’s not just about reclaiming a city for pedestrians. Cutting back on cars is sometimes necessary for public health, as well. When Paris reached dangerous levels of air pollution, the mayor called for an emergency car-free day, which made for immediate improvement. This has resulted in the Paris Respire (Paris Breathes) initiative, which regularly creates car-free zones throughout Paris on Sundays and holidays. This won’t fix the problem, but it gets the ball rolling.
Outside of Europe, Bogotá (Colombia) closes some 76 miles of public roads to traffic once a week. It’s called “Ciclovía” and has been around since the seventies. And Suwon (S. Korea) is paving the way to increased pedestrianization in Asia. The city conducted a successful experiment in which residents went without cars for an entire month.
Can cities permanently establish car-free zones? Certainly, yes. Countless cities around the world already have pedestrian zones, but usually just one in the center. Pedestrianization, however, calls for many more such zones, to the point where cities are once again visibly dominated by human activity, and not vehicular traffic.
Some cities have already witnessed great success: Ghent now has a 30-hectare pedestrian zone. Still others are planning ahead. Oslo (Norway) and Madrid (Spain) both plan to ban cars entirely from the city center by 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Of course, the entire world was car-free not too terribly long ago, and there are still some modern holdouts which never really got into the whole car thing. Places like Venice (Italy), Mackinac Island (MI, USA), Fes el-Bali (Morocco) and Zermatt (Switzerland) remind us that a car-free society is possible.
Of course, banishing cars is not appropriate to many situations. Unexpected alternatives like Singapore’s “driverless pods” may prove a good means of reducing our reliance on cars, as well as other transport solutions like the Segway PT, driverless cars and car sharing.
All together, these solutions make up the multi-modal transportation we need to really cover everyone’s needs. We don’t need to get rid of cars: we need to make other options more attractive. The extra-fast moving walkway, ACCEL, is one option to expand the reach of metros and cover those last hundred meters that often make people choose their cars.
Whatever the future of the motorized vehicle in your city, there are many models available to inspire our urban dreams of healthier air and healthier communities.