Can Urban Areas Go ‘Car-free?’
World Car Free Day gives London a chance to find out.
As London parking policy increasingly pushes for car-free development, there is an inevitable push in the other direction to say, ‘but it won’t work’. The benefits of fewer cars are obvious, but often understated, and how do you keep a city running without vehicles anyway? A transport event may provide some answers.
To celebrate World Car Free Day 2019 (this Sunday 22nd September), more than 20km of London’s roads will be closed, including those around Tower Bridge, London Bridge and the City. Private cars, taxis, private hire vehicles, as well as delivery and servicing vehicles will all be restricted from the closed-roads area. Only walking and cycling will be permitted within the closed-roads area, although public buses will continue to run, albeit maybe on diversion.
This event will release a significant portion of scarce land in London for Londoners to enjoy, explore and play in - the equivalent of nearly 200 football pitches!
And what else is gained? Well, we can expect there to be a significant reduction in air pollution levels across London as a direct result of this event. King’s College London identified that during the London Marathon, when a significant number of London’s roads are closed for vehicles, there was an 89% drop in air pollution levels across the capital. In economic terms, both TfL and the Association of Convenience Stores both agree that shoppers who arrive on foot or by bicycle spend significantly more per trip than those who drive. And a robust local shop is a community benefit too – the same report for 2018 showed that 81% of independent retailers engaged in community activities, closing London’s roads to all vehicles seems like a no brainer!
However, many people might argue that closing London’s roads to vehicles on a more permanent basis is completely unrealistic as buses perform a crucial role for many Londoners (2.3 billion trips are made by bus annually in London versus 1.3 billion on the Tube) and many people will be unable to simply switch to walking and cycling to get around, such as those with mobility issues, heavy shopping or young children. Commute distances are also rising year on year, making travel by some modes impractical for even the most able persons.
But if London’s Car Free Day can show that access across the capital remains unaffected, then the event would serve not just as a fun change for a day, but a real test of a potential way forward.
Other cities have already adopted the stance of ‘car-free sometimes’ to great success. Rather than ban all traffic all the time, Bologna closes its two principle streets from Saturday morning to Sunday evening, thanks to ‘Sirio’, an electronic surveillance system. Even buses are banned. With wide historic boulevards, new stalls spring up within minutes of the road closures, temporarily increasing retail capacity, and drawing people into the city centre to boost the night-time economy. London has something Bologna doesn’t have – underground rail, which would be almost unaffected by road closures. With London still arguing whether or not Oxford Street should be pedestrianised, perhaps the answer is to take a softer approach to change and go ‘car-free’ sometimes.Back to News