Meet the cities kicking cars to the kerb

Could you live without your car for a whole month?

In Suwon, South Korea, residents tried exactly that. Two years ago, they banned cars completely from their neighbourhood. One September morning, all of their cars were driven off to a carpark outside town. In their place, the city put on cycling lessons and gave out 400 bikes. Trucks could make occasional deliveries, and regular shuttle buses took people out of town.

Residents didn’t just cope. They loved it. People set up badminton courts, benches, pop-up parks and street theatres. Restaurants, who’d originally opposed the idea, used the extra space for outdoor seating. Adults spent more time outside and talked to their neighbours more, and children could play safely outdoors too.

Suwon haven’t kept the ban up: they never planned to. But they did want to preserve some of the car-free-dom. They kept the wide pavements and the new parks. And they voted to cut the local speed limit in half, so outsiders wouldn’t use the neighbourhood as a cut-through. A month without cars has made Suwon a nicer place to live.

Plenty of cities around the world are starting to rethink how cars fit into their neighbourhoods. They’re questioning the idea that traffic-choked streets are a necessary evil in a city - does every single street need to be accessible by car? And how do private cars fit into a city’s climate-change-busting future?

Oslo have set themselves the ambitious target of cutting their carbon emissions by 95% by 2030. Transport makes up two-thirds of their emissions, so they’re starting by permanently banning all cars from the city centre - within three years! But they’re not leaving people stranded. The city is investing in buses and trams, and building 60 km of cycle tracks. If it all goes to plan, they’ll be the first city in the world to go car-free.

Further south, climate change is already causing rising temperatures and flash flooding in Madrid. They not only need to reduce the climate impacts on the city, they want to cut their carbon-pollution too.

A few years ago they moved the main road underground, and used the space for a park. Now they’re banning cars from 24 major streets and redesigning them for walking. Where cars once drove, they’ll be planting trees and grass, and covering buildings in greenery too. And it seems to be working. The extra grass soaks up the rain, and in early tests, green roofs brought local temperatures down by four degrees fahrenheit.

Cars are also one of the major culprits of air pollution. And Madrid is taking no prisoners when it comes to their air quality. When pollution gets above a certain level, half the city’s cars will be banned from the centre. And so that people can still get around, for the rest of the day, public transport will be free! Now that’s a serious plan.

But does it actually work? When car-free Sundays were first proposed in Saõ Paulo, critics claimed it’d just move the air pollution to other parts of the city. So the scientists went to work measuring the air. At every point they checked, they found lower levels of air pollution on Sundays.

All over, cities are seeing that going car-free could well make for a nicer place to be. In Paris, they’re planning to pedestrianise the Right Bank of the Seine, transforming the street into a tree-lined walkway and playground.

And in Milan, the beautiful cathedral can sometimes feel like a traffic island. They’re hoping banning cars there will boost the “oh-my-gosh-that-is-beautiful-wow” feeling of the historic district.

Plenty of cities - especially the older ones - were never designed for cars. And perhaps we’re starting to see the back of the city centre knotted with traffic jams, as car-freedom takes hold.

This It’s Happening blog is funded by our pals at Ben & Jerry’s

Photo: Eustaquio Santimano, Creative Commons