Gasoline prices are soaring: how to accelerate the transition to car-free cities?

Anxiety on the forecourt is another consequence of the energy crisis in Europe, aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

UK petrol prices rose above £1.60 a liter on average for the first time this week as war continues to drive up the cost of oil around the world. As in other energy-dependent sectors, people are increasingly turning to green alternatives to overcome this insecurity.

In the race to scale up renewables, it is only fitting that attention also turns to fully decarbonizing transport. And fortunately, many inspiring examples are already in play.

A tea party in a parking spot can look like something out of Alice in Wonderland. But views like these, of a countryside of London parklets, or of people strolling down the middle of the Champs-Élysées in Paris, are becoming more common as we reimagine our city centres.

The pandemic has also accelerated the commuting revolution in some places, with widened walkways and burgeoning cycling infrastructure. As further proof of the the harmful effects of air pollution appearshould we gain even more ground?

Here are some of the strategies being used across Europe to help improve the lives of citizens, as outlined by the possible climate charity.

Redesign the streets

Once you stop taking the presence of cars for granted, many new possibilities open up.

In Oslo, most on-street parking has been replaced with street furniture like benches and mini-parks, as well as larger cycle lanes and sidewalks. Although some businesses feared a loss of commerce, the city center actually saw a 10% increase in footfall after the reduction measures.

One British man who has taken city planning into his own hands is Adam Tranter, Mayor of Coventry.

When the mini garden he built in a car park was taken down by the local council, Adam found a loophole by replant his parklet on top of a truck.

London Parklets Campaign founder Brenda Puech has big ambitions for parklets. On the first ‘People Parking Day’ in September last year, Londoners commandeered some of the city’s 1million parking spaces for fun and play.

“Not everyone is blessed with a private garden, so providing social spaces close to homes is key,” she said.

With a third of UK carbon emissions coming from travel – and private cars being the main contributors – the push for parklets is not just a colorful performance, but a vital intervention.

Invest in bikes

The medieval city of Ghent found its narrow streets overwhelmed with traffic in the 1980s.

After banning cars from its historic center in 1997, the German city invested in cycling exhibitions – bringing about a cultural change – and built 300 km of cycle paths and the rental bikes to ride them.

In many other cities across Europe, e-bike programs are taking off. In his sustainable guide “How to Thrive in the Next Economy”, John Thackara writes that an “ecosystem of bicycles, some of which are assisted, will meet most of our needs to connect and transact with each other using 5% or fewer car and train based systems.

Bike and mobility lanes are undoubtedly an important part of future infrastructure, but they are not for everyone. Some people with disabilities need vehicles to get around; as Possible puts it, a “car-free city” is free from the dangers, pollution and emissions caused by mass car ownership. It is not at all a city without cars.

More accessible public transport systems like trams are also ripe for expansion.

Better urban planning

Reducing the need to travel is another obvious way to reduce our carbon footprint.

Planning new developments for homes and businesses close to public transport like the light rail has been an important part of Freiburg’s journey to becoming Germany’s unofficial ‘environmental capital’. Nine out of ten residents now live in areas where traffic can’t exceed 19mph – even 5mph on some streets – making it clear that public transport has priority.

In Milan, COVID-19 has triggered an “Open Streets” initiative, extending cycle paths, sidewalks and play areas for children.

One area has been turned into a Low Traffic Neighborhood (LTN) and is currently being considered for a ’15 Minute Neighborhood’ pilot project, where everything people need is within walking distance.

Although Milan and other Italian cities have a crowded recent past, the country’s famous town and city squares suggest other ways of life. His ‘Open squares‘ is another key to Milan’s traffic-free future.

Block cars

Either way, reducing the number of cars in city centers is key to meeting national climate goals and improving our health.

In northern Spain, the city of Pontevedra banned cars from its 300,000 square meter medieval center in the early 2000s, and its residents have reaped economic, social and health benefits ever since. CO2 emissions reduced by 70%and the center of Pontevedra attracted some 12,000 new residents.

Things that at first seemed unpopular soon won people over too. When Stockholm first introduced congestion charging in 2006, it faced fierce opposition, with around seven in ten people against. Five years later, the numbers have changed to show majority support for the program.

Strasbourg in France was the first city to use an “intelligent traffic management system”, reducing the number of waves of stops and starts along its roads. This reduced emissions of harmful nitrogen oxides and particulates from lazy vehicles by 8% and 9% respectively.

While in Paris, Mayor Anne Marie Hidalgo experimented with a series of traffic enforcement measures, including banning diesel vehicles made before 2006 from the city on weekdays.

The capital’s annual Car-Free Day allows pedestrians to walk “face to face” with landmarks like the Arc-de-Triomphe, offering a glimpse of what wider, cleaner city life might look like.

Defogging Europe’s historic cities 365 days a year is a daunting task, but as more green schemes gain public approval, it’s a challenge the continent can rise to.

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