Car Free Cities

IMAGINE for a moment a city free from the noise, air pollution, congestion and danger associated with cars and lorries.

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

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Selling a Greener Future

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are often perceived as spoiling the fun by reminding people of the ecological consequences of their actions and asking them to make “sacrifices” for the common good. If we are to make significant progress towards a low-carbon future and prevent irreparable damage to the climate system, then both the public and politicians needs to be inspired by the idea of a greener future.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS are often perceived as spoilsports by reminding people of the ecological consequences of their actions and asking them to make “sacrifices” for the common good.

If we are to make significant progress towards a low-carbon future and prevent irreparable damage to the climate system, then both the public and politicians needs to be inspired by the idea of a future which is greener, richer and happier for all.

The transport sector is massively dependent on oil and is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. It accounts for about 24 per cent of the UK’s domestic carbon dioxide emissions, the majority of which come from road transport.

Depleting global oil reserves, together with increasing transport emissions, will require us to radically rethink how we travel in the future especially if we have any hope of achieving the government’s target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

So what will life be like in a low-carbon future? Sit back, close your eyes and imagine a greener future.

In 2050, the railway system will be completely powered by electricity provided by non-fossil fuel sources such as wind and biomass. Better and more compact spatial planning will have reduced the distances to travel to work, school and other local facilities.

The high cost of fuel will have encouraged us to walk, cycle and use public transport more as this will be cheapest way to get around. Gas guzzling enthusiasts such as Jeremy Clarkson will be driving electric cars or vehicles powered by fuel cells.

High-speed rail and video conferencing will be a common feature of our greener world. Improvements in aircraft technology and air traffic management will have reduced aviation emissions.

However, air travel will be expensive. Long-haul holidays will be an occasional luxury rather than an annual event and staycations will be the norm. Flying to European capitals to hold hen and stag-dos will be replaced by “Party Trains” as there will be more accessible improved train services with overnight trains.

Travelling to a destination will be just as much part of the holiday experience as time spent at the holiday resort itself.

Changes in ship size, routing, fuel, speed and application of new technologies will have decreased emissions from shipping.

In this greener future, we will have made significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and will have averted runaway climate change.

While this vision of a low-carbon future may feel like an infringement of personal liberty, it does offer a number of socio-economic and environmental benefits. Imagine for a second that traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

The time saved not being stuck in traffic jams is spent enjoying the company of family and friends. Imagine a clean, efficient and cheap public transport system comparable to that in any other European city. And imagine opting to be car-free and being better off due to having saved thousands of pounds a year by avoiding the cost of running a car.

Our greener future will be a happier and richer future. There will be a community renaissance with people spending time and money locally due to more people walking, cycling and using public transport.

Lower levels of motorised traffic on our streets travelling at a maximum of 20mph in all residential areas will make them safer.

Children will be able to discover the delights of independent mobility and going to and from school, friends and local clubs on their own.

Older people will find it easier to cross roads, chit-chat on the street and engage with friends and neighbours, thus reducing social isolation.

The long work commute will be distant memory as all kinds of businesses will have introduced flexible working, video conferencing, and more family- and child-friendly working practices.

There will be local area offices using digital technology which will provide the link to businesses, customers and workers at home.

Less vehicle traffic will mean cleaner air as well as reduced noise and stress. This together with high levels of physical activity will have lowered rates of obesity and heart disease and improved our overall general health and sense of wellbeing.

All these factors will have contributed to the creation of high quality living environments where community life will be much improved. This vision of a low-carbon future is not a green pipe dream but a possible reality. There are no technical, financial, organisational or other obstacles in our way. Many of the building blocks to create our alternative future already exist.

The future of our climate and our way of life will be dependent on the choices we are willing to make today. A vision of a greener future needs to be communicated and sold as positive and aspirational goal for all. Once we have sold the concept then we will need to move boldly and decisively to achieve this vision for ourselves and future generations.

© Gary Haq 2009