As urban dwellers and city administrations become increasingly conscious of the corrosive effects cars and air pollution have on our lives and lungs, cities are reclaiming their streets. In many cities around the world a shift in urban planning is underway, away from the dominance of cars, and towards pedestrianisation and more human scaled city development.
Pontevedra, Northern Spain, serves as a model of the local transformation that pedestrianisation can bring. The city pedestrianised its 300,000 square metre city centre in 1999, bringing myriad economic, social and health benefits to its residents. Madrid has recently announced it will follow suit, from November 2018 private vehicles that do not belong to local residents will be banned from the city centre. Helsinki is developing a “mobility on demand” service that will bring together carpools, buses, taxis, bikes and ferries – all with a view to prevent anyone from needing to drive a car in the centre by 2025. Oslo is also aiming to remove all private cars from its centre by 2019 and turning parking spaces into bicycle lanes, playgrounds and cultural spaces.
It is not only in Europe that these transformations are happening. Bogotá in Colombia provides its residents a weekly window to breath and enjoy the city without cars through its Ciclovía programme, which sees around one million people take to the streets on bikes or by foot every Sunday from 7am to 2pm when traffic is banned from some 70 miles of the city’s most important streets. In the past ten years, the Bogotá model has been replicated internationally, with Ciclovía events now taking place at least twice a year in 496 cities across 27 countries, mostly in Latin America.World Car Free Day, held annually on 22nd September, has also taken off globally since its launch in the year 2000. Celebrated in cities around the world from Jakarta to Minneapolis, the campaign aims to showcase the transformative effect the simple act of going without cars can have on public space, in order to prompt reflection from citizens and governments on how we might re-think our cities. This year for the first time, London pedestrianized 50 streets across diverse boroughs for the day, joining the 2,000 participating cities from 46 countries around the world.
Pedestrianisation is a local scale rapid transition that is happening globally, with potentially transformational consequences for how we live, work, play and breath in cities across the world. The example of Pontevedra is indicative of the local transformation that pedestrianisation engenders. Since banning cars from its city centre in 1999, Pontevedra has enjoyed a drastic drop in traffic accidents, reduced anti-social behaviour, and with three quarters of all journeys formerly made by car now made on foot or by bike, there have been positive health outcomes for local citizens as well. To make your way around Pontevedra, you consult the metro style map – with “móvete coa túa propia enerxía” (move with your own energy) as its tagline – the map provides average walking times along each of its pedestrianised streets. As a result of the reduction in car use, the city has achieved a 70% drop in CO2 emissions.
Air pollution is at crisis levels in urban centres around the world – and pedestrianisation is one of the most effective tools local governments have to tackle it. When Paris went car free for the day in September 2015, exhaust emissions were reduced by 40%. Similarly, during the London marathon route in 2018, estimates put the reduction in local air pollution at 89% in some parts of the city. Transport is the fastest growing source of fossil fuel CO2 emissions, so in addition to driving down local contamination, pedestrianisation cuts a city’s carbon emissions and contributes to tackling global warming.
Pedestrianisation can bring additional social benefits to urban centres – including (perhaps counter to expectations) boosts in economic activity. Studies from the UK found an increase in trading of up to 40% across a number of pedestrianised sites. Similarly, in New York, there was a 49% drop in commercial vacancies in pedestrianised zones. Pedestrianisation of a busy city centre street in Mexico City resulted in a 30% increase in commercial activity and 96% reduction in violent crime. Cities that have implemented Bogotá’s Ciclovia model use it to promote greater social cohesion – a survey of 67 Ciclovia type programmes across Latin America showed that over half of the routes included low income areas, 89% connected distinct income areas of the city, and 61% included the participation of minority populations.
Since the development and rapid proliferation of the private automobile in the 1950s, cities around the world have been constructed to accommodate their use. The dominance of the car in urban planning has, until recently, seemed unassailable. Rare examples of car bans took place in the latter half of the twentieth century – for example in Holland in the 1973, in response to the OPEC energy crisis, the Dutch government banned cars on Sundays for three months in 1973 to curb oil consumption. The beginnings of Bogotá’s weekly Ciclovía can be traced back to 1974 – when a group of young activists managed to close down 80 blocks of the city’s two main streets, in an experiment they dubbed “The Great Pedal Demonstration”, which attracted the participation of 5,000 residents. However, experiments with pedestrianisation were anomalies in the increasingly car-centred logic of urban development around the world.
The rapid rise in private car ownership and decline of public transport over the second half of the twentieth century has led to an air pollution crisis in most major cities around the world. 91% of the global population live in places that exceed WHO’s air pollution exceeds its guideline limits. WHO estimates that 4.2 million premature deaths are caused annually by ambient air pollution – for its contribution to strokes, heart disease, pulmonary diseases, cancers and respiratory infections. According to the EU Court of Auditors, air pollution is considered to be “the biggest environmental risk” to public health in Europe.
The increasing public consciousness of the air quality crisis, and high-profile scandals like ‘Dieselgate’ has seen the tide of public opinion turning against the domination of cars in many cities, and a host of forward-thinking mayors have been willing to face the backlash and take action.
A critical element in the adoption of car-free days and pedestrianised zones in many cities has been the rise of activist groups pushing to reclaim public space. Bogotá’s Ciclovia was first pioneered in the 1970s by three young activists with sufficient social and political connections to convince the local government to close down two of the city’s main arteries for the day. On December 5th 2017 in London on the anniversary of its Great Smog of 1952, Smog Day was launched with UN backing to commemorate the lives lost prematurely to air pollution – an estimated 10,000 per year in London alone. in 2018 an online campaign launched by a London resident targeted Mayor Sadiq Khan, and after amassing over 10,000 signatures, succeeded in convincing him to commit the city to its first Car Free Day. Local volunteerism is also key to making such initiatives a success – in London’s first Car Free Day in September 2018, local residents organised children’s games and street fairs around the participating streets.
Leadership from city administrations and mayors is also a critical factor in securing pedestrianisation actions – as mayors often have to face up to the scepticism (and in some cases hostility) of local residents and businesses. Evidence suggests that learning from other cities’ policies and successful implementation is also key – the example of Bogotá’s Ciclovía was replicated in hundreds of cities across Latin America, following its promotion through international events and global policy networks by sustainable transportation and public health advocates.
Underlying all local transitions to pedestrianisation are shifting perceptions about the benefits and necessity of car use. Most local governments face stiff opposition when first attempting to introduce pedestrianised zones or days, but the successful demonstration of car-free policies appears to support shifts in public opinion that can promote policy expansion. In Oslo, initial plans to pedestrianise the centre of the city overnight were scaled back to allow for a gradual implementation of pedestrianisation policies to ensure the support of local residents. In Bogotá, following the success of the weekly Ciclovía, a referendum was held where Bogota residents were asked to vote on an annual car free weekday which covers the entire expanse of the city’s 28,153 hectares. 63% of Bogotanos voted to make the event a permanent fixture in their calendars.
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The Guardian (2017) ”Oslo’s car ban sounded simple enough. Then the backlash began”
The Guardian (2018) “’For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars”
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Sarmiento et al (2017) “Reclaiming the streets for people: Insights from Ciclovías Recreativas in Latin America” Preventive Medicine 103 (2017) S34–S40 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.07.028
UNEP (2018) “World Car-Free Day on 22 September a great opportunity to reduce air pollution” https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/world-car-free-day-22-september-great-opportunity-reduce-air-pollution