A slow and steady approach to community consultation is opening the door to car-free cities in Europe, turning many urban dwellers’ initial, visceral resistance to the idea into support.
From London to Oslo to Hamburg, Europe’s cities are successfully reducing car traffic in the interests of planetary and public health, with an approach that recognizes how many citizens see cars as potent symbols of independence and success, writes Wired.
The merits of slashing road traffic in cities are clear. In London as recently as 2016, roughly 25% of the population—including tens of thousands of children—lived in neighbourhoods with “illegal levels of air pollution,” the news story states. Since then, increasingly tight restrictions on private vehicles have seen carbon emissions drop and lung-damaging nitrogen oxide levels tumble by 94%.
In cities like Oslo and Helsinki, with car reduction strategies in place, years have now passed without a single road traffic death.
But it hasn’t been an easy road, no a short one. “London has spent years and millions of pounds reducing the number of motorists in the city,” Wired says, in the face of considerable public resistance.
“I had my address tweeted out twice, with sort of veiled threats from people who didn’t even live in the borough saying they knew where I lived,” said Lambeth councillor Claire Holland.
That kind of response is a “testament to how much our cities, and by extension our lives, are designed around cars,” notes Wired, adding that many American cities devote as much as 60% of downtown acreage to parking.
When it comes to reducing road traffic, the world’s pioneering cities have found the best approach is “carrot-and-stick”: pointing to positive reasons for taking the bus or cycling, rather than simply making driving more difficult.
“In crowded urban areas, you can’t just make buses better if those buses are still always stuck in car traffic,” said Rachel Aldred, professor of transport at the University of Westminster. “The academic evidence suggests that a mixture of positive and negative characteristics is more effective than either on their own.”
Policy-makers and urban planners must also understand that “cars are never just cars,” she added. They’re “interwoven into our culture and consumption as symbols of affluence, independence, and success, and the aspiration to achieve those things in future.”
A comment attributed to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986, as her administration embarked on a plan to deregulate and privatize public transit, illustrates the thinking: “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure.”
Almost four decades later, efforts to convince city dwellers that they can lead happier, healthier, more productive lives getting around on foot, on two-wheels, and even on the bus, are steadily gaining traction.
Holland told Wired her south London borough has seen a 40% increase in cycling, walking, and scooting since it brought in its low traffic neighbourhoods (LTN) scheme. This has translated to 25,000 fewer daily car trips.
That success owes to dedicated efforts by city planners to “rethink the entire basis of city life.” But when it’s applied effectively, using as many carrots as sticks, the approach has a very high rate of success, retention, and popularity, Wired says, even among even the most resistant urban populations.