As COP26 got under way in November, Glasgow city officials announced a ban on traffic in the city centre. Meanwhile, New Zealand capital Wellington has approved plans to make two busy thoroughfares more pedestrian-friendly, and the mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, has promised to put ‘people over cars’.
Around the world, city-dwellers seem to be coming to the same conclusion: we could do with a lot more space – and fewer cars. Cities are being radically redesigned to put cyclists and pedestrians first, and at the same time, the pandemic has allowed mayors to accelerate large urbanism projects.
As some of the most ambitious plans begin to take shape, 2022 could mark a significant turning point. For example, in Paris, a ban on most vehicles from its four central arrondissements will come into effect next year. With the exceptions of residents and deliveries, cars will no longer be allowed to drive through a massive chunk of the city – around 5.59 square kilometres.
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Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has made a name for herself with bold measures to free up space in one of the densest urban areas in Europe. She has already banned heavy polluting diesel cars and pedestrianised the banks of the Seine, and was re-elected in 2020 on a programme vowing to turn Paris into a people-friendly city.
Christophe Najdovski, who took care of transport and public space during Hidalgo’s first term and is now the deputy mayor in charge of greenery, says pedestrianising the centre is the natural next step. ‘We have to move with the times, and in the twenty-first century, you cannot consider that the quality of life of a city, and its attractiveness, includes traffic passing through the centre,’ he says. ‘The idea is to recover space for trees, cycle lanes and terraces rather than cars.’
Barcelona is also pushing ahead with its ‘superblock’ project to pedestrianise one in three streets in its central neighbourhood of Eixample, with building works scheduled to begin in June. Urban designers will remodel 21 streets by 2030, blocking them off to traffic and filling them with plants and street furniture.
Mayor Ada Colau has already removed 3,500 parking spaces and made the whole city a low-emissions zone to improve air quality – measures that have been welcomed by residents. ‘People’s attitudes have changed a lot,’ says Janet Sanz, the city’s deputy mayor in charge of urbanism. ‘There is a growing realisation that we need liveable and healthy spaces. We are no longer content with a noisy, polluted city, full of smoke and cars,’ she says. ‘We want better cities.’
While the trailblazers seem to be mainly in Europe, where cities were built for walking, the revolution is spreading all over the world. For example, Bogotá, which holds the world’s largest car-free event, has gone on a bike-lane-building spree as it strives to meet its goal of adding 280km of lanes by 2024. And in New York, 20 streets in downtown Brooklyn are going car-free.
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The pandemic has played a crucial role in accelerating these changes. Lockdowns and curfews left streets eerily empty, and many residents welcomed the lack of honking, the cleaner air and the sense of space. As countries relaxed restrictions, encouraging socially-distanced mobility became crucial. More than 200 cities announced road closures in response to the pandemic, and in many cases, ‘pop-up’ bike lanes and walkways were eventually made permanent.
When Milan was still in the midst of a devastating first wave of Covid-19, mayor Giuseppe Sala announced one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes to reduce car use after lockdown, giving 35km of streets to cyclists and pedestrians. He has since urged others to use the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up sustainable policies.
Though there is still strong opposition from drivers who say such measures will result in chaos, these arguments are increasingly outweighed by the environmental and health benefits. Air pollution still causes 300,000 premature deaths in Europe every year, and reducing traffic also makes streets much safer. In 2019, Oslo recorded zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths after it removed a large number of parking spaces from its city centre.
Meanwhile, other advantages, such as economic ones, are only just starting to show and are likely to help make a case for car-free areas in years to come. Shop owners in Paris have been worrying that pedestrianising streets will cause problems with deliveries and be detrimental to their businesses. But so far, the opposite has turned out to be true. According to a report by charity Living Streets, pedestrian improvements at one junction in New York City increased retail sales by a whopping 48 percent. In Oslo, the reduction in parking spaces resulted in a 10 percent rise in footfall.
These knock-on effects also fit into the increasingly popular idea of the ‘15-minute city’, according to which everything a person needs for daily life ought to be within a 15-minute walk or cycle. First coined by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, the concept is being adopted by cities from Houston to Chengdu and recently won the 2021 Obel Award in recognition of its value for creating sustainable urban environments. C40 Cities, a city-led coalition focused on fighting climate change, has gone as far as promoting the 15-minute city idea as a blueprint for post-Covid-19 recovery.
Moreno argues that ‘if you give people easy access to essential services, they will be happier because they will spend less time travelling and have more time for socialising with their family or colleagues’.
If reducing traffic results in happier citizens (just look at Copenhagen), then here’s hoping that in 2022, more cities will rise to the challenge.