Where the car is no longer king

Copyright: Creative Marc / Fotolia

Share & Print:

  • Info

A growing number of European cities are kicking cars to the curb.

Walking around a newly-pedestrianised city centre can have a striking effect – as the residents and visitors of cities like Milan, Madrid, Dublin, Brussels and Paris are likely to agree. Where are the exhaust fumes, the tail-to-tail queues, and the noisy stop-start of engines that have typified so many European cities since the dawn of the automobile?

After a long period of car dominance, cities are rediscovering the needs of pedestrians, and recent large-scale pedestrianisation schemes in major European cities have been re-routing dense traffic beyond the city centre.

Pedestrianisation, of course, is nothing new – what’s new is the scale and enthusiasm for pedestrian-friendly urban centres. In early July, Brussels closed its main thoroughfare to traffic, leaving a massive swathe of its inner city to walkers and cyclists, as well as pop-up libraries, sand pits and artistic installations. Bemused pedestrians are still getting used to the new, slower pace. It’s a far cry from the specter of a city that once used its most prized square – the magnificent Grand Place – as a car park.

Paris is getting less car-friendly by the day; Mayor Anne Hidalgo is going to war with ageing, polluting vehicles and extending lower speed limit zones. Her latest plan is to reclaim the Rive Gauche – the southern bank of the river Seine – for pedestrians.

Madrid’s most recent General Urban Plan will attempt to transform its car-jammed centre into a walker’s wonderland, and Dublin is well on track to become Europe’s foot-friendliest metropolis, with a plan to completely banish cars within two years.

Meanwhile, Milan is changing a section of its centre into a haven for cyclists and walkers as part of its ongoing efforts to promote sustainable urban mobility. It follows from its publicly supported Area C congestion charge introduced in 2012 that saw 30% of inner city traffic wiped out, according to official figures.

Not the armageddon we were expecting

There can be a sense of doom among citizens preceding a pedestrianisation project. But the experience in a number of European cities who introduced earlier, smaller-scale projects, including the Finnish city of Kajaani, the English city of Wolverhampton and Nuremberg in Germany, traffic problems are usually far less serious than predicted after an initial period of increased congestion on adjacent streets. (Read more details about these pedestrianisation case studies in the European Commission 2009 Handbook called ‘Reclaiming the Streets for People’). “After an initial period of adjustment, some of the traffic that was previously found in the vicinity of the scheme ‘disappears’ or ‘evaporates’, due to drivers changing their travel behaviour,” the handbook states.

You can’t just put up barriers and hope for the best

In an ideal scenario, less dependence on private cars means more mobility investment will go to public transport, leading to better service and happier users - a virtuous circle. Cities will also spend less on providing for (and offsetting the negative effects of) private car use.

But new access restriction policies (car-free zones, congestion charging, low emission zones, park and ride, car tolls etc…) that free up city centres are welcomed by UITP if public transport supply is adequately adapted. UITP’s PTx2 strategy - to double the market share of public transport by 2025 compared to 2005 levels - can only be helped by car-free city centres, so long as policy makers encourage the cohabitation of different transport modes, and not just separation of pedestrian and vehicular flows. Banning cars should make inner cities easier for citizens to navigate, not harder.

According to “Integrating Public Transport and urban planning” (UITP, 2009) lower demand for public transport means less resources are dedicated to it,” and “policies that provide practical incentives to choose sustainable modes…will have a major impact on modal choice.” These policies require the right level and mix of public transport supply: more buses, trams and trains, as well as apps, stops and bike lanes, and everything in between. It remains to be seen, after the initial period of adjustment in Brussels if this new, higher demand for multimodal public transport will be met.

Many short- and long-term plans for public transport have been drawn up - Dublin is investing in BRT, Madrid is its widening bus lanes, Brussels has plans for 80km of new bike paths… - but different cities have taken different approaches to dealing with the diverted cars. Presuming the diverted isn’t going to just ‘evaporate’ as some might hope, Brussels has plans to build four new underground car parks just outside the pedestrian zone, a scheme which has met with fierce opposition from residents. Madrid’s plan takes a different tack; parking places in central buildings are strictly limited to encourage people onto public transport, while the city gets rid of state-owned car parks . In the example of Copenhagen, the city authority also limited the number of parking spaces and made charges for on-street parking relatively high.

Transforming car-oriented streets into functional, pedestrianised public spaces can encourage not only health-boosting active transport like walking and cycling, but also social interaction and economic development. De-congesting inner cities also helps clean the air – helping to contribute to national policy targets related to climate change in the process.

And as UITP’s recent MCD report demonstrates, more public transport means less urban space is used for transport in general, leaving more space for other, equally vital functions, improving the overall productivity and liveability of an urban area.

Yet despite this pedestrianisation trend, cars are not going away anytime soon, and they will continue to be an important part of traffic management planning. But European cities are encouraging citizens to look beyond the private car and in 2015 - with more than half the world living in urban areas - this should be the goal of any sustainable urban policy. Pedestrianisation policies are causing a paradigm shift in our perception of what a city should look and feel like. It’s about time. 

  • For an in-depth look at the role of public transport in implementing large urban mobility plans click here (Members Only)
  • For more information contact editor(at)uitp.org

In the same category

Related content

Share & Print: