Reclaiming urban areas for pedestrians and cyclists:
“Transport policy is one of the few areas where local authorities have discretion to fulfil pledges to become carbon neutral.”
Discouraging cars might be bad for business – if handled badly:
But if done well, a car-free town centre can really enhance the quality of the experience – and can therefore encourage activity:
As last weekend’s Observer reported, more and more towns and cities are trying it out:
Brighton, Bristol, York … city centres signal the end of the road for cars
In a multi-storey car park in the centre of Brighton, Peter Willcocks – on hand in a hi-vis jacket in case any motorists needed assistance – had two short words in response to the council’s plan to create a car-free zone by 2023.
“It’s crap,” he said. “This is a seaside town, it relies on visitors. If they ban cars, people won’t come. It will really damage the town’s economy.” The car park was “always busy”, he added, although he personally hadn’t driven a car for 25 years, preferring to use the “excellent” buses.
Traffic in Brighton was a big problem, said Victor Ribadulla, who drives his pizza trailer to the station forecourt every morning. There was no other way for him to run his business, he said: “Of course I worry about pollution. But there are just so many things to worry about. Maybe the ban is a good idea – who knows?”
Brighton and Hove council hopes to give Ribadulla an answer by commissioning a major study on the impact of a car-free city centre. Last week, Labour, Green and Conservative councillors unanimously backed the measure proposed by their youngest colleague, 24-year-old Amy Heley.
It is the latest in a wave of initiatives over the past year by councils around the UK to cut congestion and air pollution, and to reclaim urban areas for pedestrians and cyclists. The trend has led some transport analysts to argue that the 2020s could herald an end to the supremacy of the motor car in the minds of the public and planners.
This month, Birmingham announced proposals to ban motorists from driving through the centre – an extraordinary move from a conurbation which gave the world the phrase “spaghetti junction” to describe its complicated interchange of roads and flyovers – and the ancient city of York said it planned to ban private vehicles within its medieval walls within three years.
Earlier initiatives from Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester, among other places, include designating certain days as car-free, banning diesel vehicles, blocking off zones to traffic for certain hours of the day and imposing charges. “There is no consensus – we are in a time of experiments as we redefine what is important to our lives in cities and towns,” said Peter Jones, professor of transport and sustainable development at University College London.
At a micro-level, a change in public mood is also evident. Last year, Walton Street in Oxford, a rat run for city drivers, was closed for repairs. Now, after some residents reported improvements in air quality, safety and noise, the council is consulting on whether to make the closure permanent. Hammersmith Bridge in west London was closed to vehicles indefinitely last April after “critical faults” were discovered. Instead of spending funds – estimated at up to £120m – on repairing the problems, some locals are campaigning for a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly “garden bridge”.
Many councils considering curbs on traffic are seeking ways to fulfil pledges to become carbon neutral against a backdrop of rising anxiety about the climate crisis and demands for action on individual, local, national and global levels.
“There aren’t a huge amount of things a local authority can actually do but transport policy is one of the few areas where they have discretion,” said Tim Schwanen, director of the transport studies unit at Oxford University’s school of geography and the environment…