People hate car-free cities until they’ve lived in one

Excellent article at WIRED UK, proposing that people hate the idea of car-free cities until they live in one. Which sounds about right. I’m sharing it here for two reasons. First, the topic itself; fewer cars, more and better public transport, more cycling, this combination tackles a number of huge issues for cities. Less pollution, less traffic, better health for citizens, fewer carbon emissions, etc. The second, less obvious reason, is as an example of an unpopular but essential change becoming the new normal.

The author provides a nice overview of how car-free or “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs) come about, the public opinion challenges they face, and the overwhelmingly common result that those changes are kept and people end up saying “well, this is the best thing we ever did.”

Back in 2016, “more than 2 million of [London’s] residents—roughly a quarter of its population—lived in areas with illegal levels of air pollution; areas that also contained nearly 500 of the city’s schools.” Since then, numerous traffic reduction projects were instated, with very encouraging results, including the fact that there’s been a “94 percent reduction in the number of people living in areas with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant that causes lung damage.”

It’s not easy, LTNs and other measures such as one-way bollards, barriers, planters, and various schemes to get more people cycling and using public transport are usually met with loud protests, and even “politicians and urban planners facing death threats and being doxxed.” But when cities “stick with it,” the results follow.

“The level of traffic reduction is transformative, and it’s throughout the whole day,” says Claire Holland, leader of the council in Lambeth, a borough in south London. Lambeth now sees 25,000 fewer daily car journeys than before its LTN scheme was put in place in 2020, even after adjusting for the impact of the pandemic. Meanwhile, there was a 40 percent increase in cycling and similar rises in walking and scooting over that same period.

Evidence suggests, supported by academic research, that a mix of positive and negative measures, the usual “carrot and stick,” is more effective than either one separately.

As the article shows, cities are the perfect place to cut carbon emissions.

Of course, urban driving doesn’t make up the majority of a country’s car use, but the kind of short journeys taken when driving in the city are some of the most obviously wasteful, making cities an ideal place to start if you’re looking to get people out from behind the wheel.

It’s quite fascinating, really, how much we have collectively grown so completely used to an ever-growing number of cars in cities and the incredible volume of space we dedicate to them. The presence of cars has become so ingrained as to seem unmovable and “meant to be.”

Part of that response is a testament to how much our cities, and by extension, our lives are designed around cars. In the US, between 50 and 60 percent of the downtowns of many cities are dedicated to parking alone. While in the UK that figure tends to be smaller, designing streets to be accessible to a never-ending stream of traffic has been the central concern of most urban planning since the Second World War.

The solution group after group will need to use, for a variety of projects in varying domains: proceed from the bottom up, have multiple consultations, listen to residents’ input, co-design with them, be transparent, and use progressive enhancements. The fact it can work with something perceived has so vital to life in cities is very promising for other endeavours trying to change less well-ingrained habits.

And when properly done, the change can become a new normal.

[T]hat struggle also outlines an important fact about car-free urban areas—that once cities make the decision to reduce or remove cars, they rarely go back. No one I spoke to for this piece could name a recent sizeable pedestrianization or traffic-reduction scheme that had been reversed once it had been given time to have an effect.

Image: Josep Lago, Getty Images.