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Getting to car-free town centres

  • by JW

“Transport is the only sector where greenhouse gas emissions have increased in the past three decades. Now a backlash is growing, with forward-thinking mayors spearheading new visions of urban centres.”


It’s clear that by building housing estates, car traffic increases:

More housing estates = more roads = more traffic – Vision Group for Sidmouth

We need a different sort of ‘development’ – but the county town isn’t a very good example:

Exeter not doing very well on transport… – Vision Group for Sidmouth

During lockdown, LTNs were tried out – with some success but still ‘controversial’:

The questions around Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods – Vision Group for Sidmouth

We need to be looking to positive futures:

The 15-minute city: the 15-minute town – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Electric cargo bikes are the future – Vision Group for Sidmouth

And that includes Sidmouth:

Car-free Sidmouth: File: Sidmouth Folk Week 2006.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Part-pedestrianisation for Sidmouth town centre made permanent – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Street café culture for Sidmouth? part two – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Should Sidmouth have its own e-trike service? Press reports – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Perhaps we need to be going car-free:

Seeing a ‘car free’ town centre as a real positive – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Car-free cities: a rare moment to make radical change? – Vision Group for Sidmouth

Here are some excerpts from an excellent piece by Sung Erdem in the latest edition of the New European:

The future is now: driving the car-free city revolution

Transport is the only sector where greenhouse gas emissions have increased in the past three decades. Now a backlash is growing, with forward-thinking mayors spearheading new visions of urban centres

“Just because you’ve bought a car it doesn’t mean you’ve also bought 10 square metres of public space to leave it on,” Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores, mayor of the Spanish city of Pontevedra, tells me, firmly. Once you accept this, he explains in the week that Europe smouldered and hundreds died in an unprecedented heatwave, you’re on your way to saving the planet by challenging the entitlement felt by car owners and purging cities of their domineering climate-destroying vehicles.

Who owns public space? It’s the question at the heart of a defining battle of the climate emergency era. From London to Oslo, through Paris and Barcelona to the Balkans, the fight is on to reduce the burgeoning number and impact of cars – which accounted for nearly a quarter of the European Union’s Co2 emissions in 2019. For decades the answer has been motorists, but this has to change if humanity is to combat what United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres called the “collective suicide” of rampant climate change. ..

Transport is the only sector where greenhouse gas emissions have increased in the past three decades. It’s a major cause of urban air pollution as a significant source of dangerous fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides – in 2020 nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person in the UK to have pollution listed as a cause of death… Millions of cars pour into cities, which the Orwell Prize-winning environmental writer George Monbiot has dubbed “Carmageddon”. “So much land is required for driving and parking that there is little left for human life,” he wrote. “The car eats the public space that could otherwise become parks, cycle lanes, markets and playgrounds.”

But, finally, a backlash is growing, spearheaded by enlightened mayors such as Lores. The medieval Spanish city, where he has been mayor since 1999, offers a vision of what could be. Very few square metres of Pontevedro’s public space are touched by cars now. Pedestrian zones, which Lores began to introduce in the old city centre after he first took office, extend everywhere across the Galician city. Through traffic has been stopped, parking driven underground – where residents can buy “affordable” parking spots – or to the periphery, where visitors park for free. Immediately outside the 300,000 square-metre pedestrian area, a 30 km per hour speed limit constrains what traffic is left. A medical doctor and committed environmentalist, Lores estimates his efforts have reduced Co2 emission in Pontevedra by 70 percent.

In essence, he has instigated a radical reset of the car-obsessed 20th century in favour of humanity. Together with an increasing number of local leaders across the continent, he has helped cut greenhouse gases and pollution while at the same time creating a more liveable environment for residents to walk, cycle, dawdle, play, rest, chat, socialise and shop at leisure in congenial, car-free city centres. He has been reelected six times by a grateful public.

The contrast with London – where constant sniping against patchy efforts to reduce car traffic through measures such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) have forced a retreat by timid politicians – is stark…  Yet this cut little ice with the vocal campaigners calling these restrictions an assault on their “freedoms” – which usually means the freedom to drive wherever they like regardless of consequences. Anti-LTN protesters, often supported by a car lobby group calling itself the Alliance of British Drivers, have the ear of politicians and spark fear in the hearts of some Londoners by their hyperactive bombardment of households with alarmists leaflets…

But Hirra Khan Adeogun, who leads the Car Free Cities campaign for the climate action charity Possible, believes a tipping point is coming when everybody will have to recognise the dangers and act accordingly… With that in mind campaigners from London look with envy at early adopters such as Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen which began pedestrian zones back in the 1960s and 1970s…

“Oslo is not completely car free, but what they’re doing is to deprioritise cars, widening sidewalks, making new pedestrian streets, reducing the number of lanes,” Oddrun Helen Hagen, author of several academic studies of Oslo and other Scandinavian cities, told me. It worked. In a survey in 2019, she found more people cycled or walked to work than took their car, and 69% took public transport.

It wasn’t without hiccups. Some residents worried about access and shopkeepers worried about footfall and deliveries objected. The city administration paused, began a campaign of information and cooperated with locals and businesses. Some companies ditched diesel delivery cars for electric bikes. Driving cars is harder, but access for people with mobility problems, residents, deliveries, emergency services and city logistics remain – as they do everywhere. The main target was through traffic. The same plan is being replicated in the suburbs and in 2025 Norway aims to be the first country to ban sales of new models with combustion engines…

Evidence counters the perception that people don’t like traffic calming. A 2020 YouGov poll recorded strongly positive views on LTNs, overturning assumptions. Former Ealing Council leader Julian Bell, who faced threats and vandalism for his efforts to reduce traffic, found that, in London’s municipal elections, parties supporting LTNs mostly won if the issue was being spotlighted… 

The popular Pontevedra, “chaotic” and “dangerous” before its transformation, is so tranquil you can hear birdsong, the chiming of cutlery and seven-year-olds laughing as they walk to school along safe streets. Locally-run small shops thrive in the absence of suffocating, car-dependent shopping malls.

If anyone needs convincing that other cities should urgently to do the same, the spectacle of a burning Europe is surely enough to show that the time is over for hesitant, wait-and-see attitudes towards climate change. As Lores said: “We’re going at high speed when others are taking step by step approaches. That way they never achieve their goals. We can’t just leave improvements until later. It’s happening – that future is now.”

The future is now: driving the car-free city revolution – The New European