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The war against cars will ultimately be won — and that’s good for everyone

Cities around the world are taking on the automobile

Rush hour traffic in Copenhagen. (Source: Mikael Colville-Andersen / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is among a number of city leaders around the world who are fighting back against the dominance of automobiles in order to make urban space better serve its residents. The French capital has struggled to get its high pollution levels under control for years — air pollution kills 48,000 people in France annually — and instead of taking symbolic measures, Hidalgo wants to transform the city to improve quality of life for everyone.

The mayor’s plan is ambitious and has faced backlash from automotive groups. She plans to double the number of bike paths in the city to reach 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) by 2020, ban all gas-powered cars by 2030, redesign major intersections to favor pedestrians, expand the city’s public transportation system — including a 200-kilometre (125-mile) expansion to Paris’ world-class metro system — and the closure of certain streets to vehicle traffic. It’s on that last point where the city recently experienced a setback.

Last year, the city banned cars from a section of road along the Seine river, turning it into a successful space for pedestrians. However, the Administrative Court struck down the ban last week, paving the way for cars to reclaim the riverbank, even though data showed significant reductions in congestion on nearby streets. City Hall plans to appeal the ruling and the ban will stay in place until there’s a further decision, but if it is struck down, it would be a major blow not just to the mayor’s vision for the future of Paris, but for the growing movement to reorient urban spaces away from automobiles.

Cities taking back the streets

The conflict between local governments and automobile lobbies is heating up around the world, but there’s good reason to be hopeful that officials will be successful in emphasizing the privileged place that pedestrians should have in cities. These measures aren’t so much being forced on motorists by hippy, left-wing governments, but are rather being demanded by a growing number of residents who want real alternatives to move around their cities.

Residents of Oslo, Norway elected a progressive city council in 2015 that immediately set out to ban cars from a section of the city centre — but it didn’t expect the backlash that followed. Conservative politicians and media lambasted the plan and the city’s trade association said it would created a “poorer city [with] less life” and would be “too much and too soon.”

The council wasn’t cowed by the criticism, however, and responded with a more gradual plan: instead of banning cars, it would remove all on-street parking and replace it with bike lanes and public spaces, before looking anew at the possibility of a ban in 2019. Even the trade association came onside with the updated plan; their communications manager saying that “the best thing would be to carefully change things street by street. Make every street a success, and then celebrate the transformation.”

This conflict hasn’t just arisen in European capitals. In November 2017, Toronto, Canada’s largest city, removed parking and banned most vehicle traffic on a section of King Street, one of the busiest streets in the downtown core, to prioritize streetcars. Soon after, a group of restaurant owners aligned with a pro-automobile politician claimed the pilot project was “killing business,” turning some in the city against the project, but as it continued, the data has challenged their claims.

Numbers released in February showed that streetcar ridership increased by 12,000 daily riders to 84,000 people, travel times were reduced during peak hours, and reliability increased significantly. Counter to the claims of the restauranteurs, spending on King Street was in line with the rest of the city and car travel times on nearby streets had hardly changed. The city is now moving forward with the second phase of its plan by adding features to the street to make it a place where pedestrians can spend time and enjoy the additional public space.

The backlash of business groups and automobile lobbies to restrictions on space previously occupied by cars is nothing new, yet after decades of these reactions, we still don’t seem to have learned how misguided our current focus on cars really is. It’s the presence of cars, not banning them, that is most likely to kill the vibrance of urban spaces, and there are plenty of examples which show this.

Giving cities back to people

Copenhagen and Amsterdam are largely recognized as world leaders in the share of urban trips made by bicycle — 62 percent of people in Copenhagen cycle to work and most of them continue all through the winter despite the rain, sleet, and snow that gets blown in from the North Sea. It’s common for people in some North American cities to brush off Denmark and the Netherlands as unique cases whose residents have an unusual interest in cycling. But that’s not true, as there was a time when even the world leaders in cycling were caught up in the automobile revolution.

Nieuwezijds Kolk 1986 vs 2015 (Sustainable Amsterdam)

Just as many thought leaders are now heralding the autonomous vehicle as the future of transportation, the same treatment was given to the personal vehicle in the postwar period. In most cities, this transformation went largely unchallenged and people have only recently begun demanding alternatives — but a number of factors led residents in Denmark and the Netherlands to reach that point much earlier than most.

In the 1960s, cars dominated Danish and Dutch streets, just like everywhere else in the Western world; in Amsterdam, parts of the city were completely demolished to make way for what many believed to be the future. However, people still remembered what it had been like to get around on bikes, and as they saw the death toll from vehicles mounting — there were 3,300 traffic deaths in 1971, including 400 children — they fought back.

In Amsterdam, one of the leading groups pushing for limits on vehicles was called Stop de Kindermoord, or Stop the Child Murder, and they helped lay the foundation for the pro-cycling policies that would follow. However, the real turning points were the oil shocks of the 1970s, which hit Denmark and the Netherlands very hard. In order to conserve energy, their governments promoted car-free days and turned off streetlights, while residents campaigned to make cycling safer and politicians had to listen.

Policies promoting walking and cycling may have accelerated in the 1970s, but they were gaining steam in Copenhagen as early as 1962 when the Strøget, a street running through the center of the city, was pedestrianized. Similar to the complaints of business groups in Oslo and Toronto, Charles Montgomery writes in The Happy City that

Newspapers predicted disaster. Business owners were terrified. How could a street function without cars? What on earth would serious, practical Danes do with all that empty space between buildings? Pundits warned that the historical district would be deserted.
“People said, ‘We’re Danes, not Italians, and we are not going to sit around in outdoor cafés drinking cappuccinos in the middle of the freezing winter!’” [Jan] Gehl told me when I met him in his Copenhagen office half a century later. People believed the city and its civic culture could work only one way.

But, oh, how people can change with a little nudge in the right direction. As he studied the aftermath of the pedestrianization of the Strøget, Gehl noticed that people were drawn to places where there was activity.

A bench facing the passing crowds got ten times as much use as a bench that faced a flower bed. He also noticed that more people gathered on the edges of construction sites than in front of department store display windows. But as soon as the construction crews went home, the audience dispersed. […] His conclusion seems obvious, and yet it was revolutionary at the time: “What is most attractive, what attracts people to stop and linger and look, will invariably be other people. Activity in human life is the greatest attraction in cities.”

Just as Toronto is beginning to realize, Copenhagen’s move was the furthest thing from a disaster. Plenty of surrounding streets were pedestrianized in the following years, and if you walk through the Strøget today, you’ll see plenty of activity and people sitting at the outside tables of cafés all through the winter since blankets are placed on every chair for them to keep warm.

Spreading the benefits of putting people first

To people from elsewhere, it may seem that Copenhageners love to exercise or are obsessed with being healthy, but that’s not necessarily the case — for example, a lot of Danes really hate smoking bans. The city has simply been designed in a way that makes bikes the easier way to get around, so people have responded as expected: by using bikes.

There’s a common misconception that transportation is largely demand-driven. However, decades of research has shown that when new roads are built or existing roads are expanded, it doesn’t make congestion any better; more people just end up driving. Transportation is largely supply-driven, which means that if cities build more roads, they’ll get more drivers; but if they improve transit and build safe bike lanes, there’s a good chance the numbers of transit riders and cyclists will increase.

And while people in Copenhagen and Amsterdam might not be more concerned than the rest of us about their health, there’s no denying there are benefits to their cycling cultures. A recent study out of Utrecht University in the Netherlands estimated that the country’s high cycling rates save $23 billion each year and prevent 6,500 premature deaths. It wouldn’t be surprising if the health and well-being benefits of all that cycling also play into Denmark’s frequent spot at the top of the global happiness rankings.

Compare that to the United States, where many might be surprised to learn that more people die every year in car accidents — more than 34,000 in 2014 — than the number of gun-related deaths, and an additional 53,000 die prematurely due to tailpipe emissions. All that driving is also really bad for people’s health, leading to higher instances of a whole range of diseases and conditions, and even though roads have been expanded, commute times keep getting longer.

As more cities follow the example of Denmark and the Netherlands in reining in automobiles and improving public transit and cycling to make them superior options for urban mobility, those same health and quality-of-life benefits will be shared by even more people. For a long time we’ve believed that vehicle ownership was the pinnacle of freedom and progress, but a growing number of people are realizing that’s not the case, and by embracing other modes of transportation, they can live happier lives.

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