A car-free future: how European cities are embracing green transport

Free public transport in Tallinn. A pedestrian city center in Pontevedra. Tons of new cycle highways to connect Berlin to its suburbs. These are some of the bold ways Europeans are challenging the dominance of cars in their lives.

While the changes often spark initial outrage from a vocal minority, it’s clear that decarbonizing our cities is key to improving the mental health of residents, combating the lethal effects of air pollutionand address the climate emergency.

As fuel prices continue to set new records – hitting £1.70 (€2) a liter in the UK this week – there are also strong financial arguments for ditching cars.

climate charity Possible followed all the ways European cities are reinventing their transport networks. Here are some of the key themes we see that we might call elsewhere.

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.

Sometimes people-friendly transportation changes can be fleeting, but help us see another way.

In September 2021, the London Parklets campaign launched its first ‘People’s Park Day’, encouraging Londoners to commandeer some of the city’s one million parking spaces for fun and play.

“Not everyone is blessed with a private garden, so providing social spaces close to homes is essential,” said campaign founder Brenda Puech.

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 swamped 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 cannot 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 lanes, 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 nitrogen oxides and harmful 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 and more green schemes gain public approval, it’s a challenge the continent can rise to.

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