Imagine a safer and cleaner urban environment where more people walk, cycle, and use public transport and interact on the streets. Imagine a city where children can enjoy the independence and freedom of travelling to school and visiting friends. Imagine every major city in the country being car free..
For many the idea of a car free city may seem like an impossible dream. Yet this week academics, city planners and campaigners from all over the world will descend on the city of York (UK) to participate in the ninth World Car Free City Conference. This global gathering aims to develop practical alternatives to car-dependent lifestyles and car-dominated cities. In York participants will discuss cutting-edge and radical thinking in transport policy that show that the development of car free cities is a possible reality which offers numerous social and health benefits.
There is no doubt we are a car dependent nation. We have developed and adapted our cities to cater for increased car use rather than for the freedom and safety of pedestrians and children. Today about 70 per cent of households in Britain own a car compared to just 50 per cent in 1970. The car has become an essential feature of our modern urban way of life. We use it to get to work, to go shopping, to transport our kids to school, to visit friends and have day trips out. It offers freedom, mobility, independence, status, and for some, sexual expression. It is often cheaper and more convenient than public transport.
It has even been suggested that the type and colour of the car says more about someone’s personality than the clothes they wear or the house they live in. A RAC survey found that owners of pastel-colour cars are eight times more likely to suffer from depression than people with bright coloured cars, while drivers of white cars are distant and aloof. Owners of silver or metallic blue cars are the happiest drivers on the road, while owners of cars in the pastel colours of lilac and lime are twice as likely to be the victims of road rage.
A recent government survey of public attitudes to the car and the environment found that three-quarters of adults said that they were likely to undertake some form of activity to reduce car trips due to concerns about climate change. These activities included walking short journeys or reducing the number of non-essential trips. Yet while we may be open to the idea of curbing our car use we do not always put this into action.
Back in 2004 the City of York participated in a Government pilot project which aimed to change travel behaviour, increase regular exercise and cut congestion by designing individual travel plans for participants and offering them a range of incentives. The York Intelligent Travel project contacted nearly 6,000 households of which over 240 took part in the project from different areas of the city. Results of the twelve month trial were successful in reducing the distance travelled by car and increasing the distance and number of trips by bicycle and public transport. Although the project was initially successful in reducing car use, a follow-up study a year later discovered that this behaviour was not sustained. Participants had reverted back to their old travel behaviour demonstrating the challenge in persuading people to make long-term lifestyles changes.
Despite this challenge, Venice (Italy), Fes (Morocco) and Slateford Green in Edinburgh have managed to gain car free status. The largest car free development in Europe is in Freiburg (Germany). Residents in the suburb of Vauban have to sign an annual declaration stating whether they own a car or not. Car owners must purchase a place in one of the multi-storey car parks on the periphery, run by a council-owned company and pay a monthly fee to cover ongoing costs. Vauban has become a traffic-free residential area where the streets are often full of unsupervised young children, playing and cycling.
In the UK many cities continue to struggle to cope with the social and environmental burden of increasing traffic. If we want to enjoy the better quality of life that car free cities offer, we need to reclaim the public pedestrian space that has been slowly given up to the car. Equally, if we need make public transport cheaper, efficient and reliable and walking and cycling safer and pleasurable.
A car free city is not an impossible dream; the challenge is not technical but political. We need our civic leaders to have the vision and passion to create cities for people, where road infrastructure is limited, and where car use is restricted, and where getting around is easy, cheap and enjoyable for everyone.
© Gary Haq 2010