London and Oslo Took On Cars, But the Key was Investing in Alternatives

Whether cities choose congestion pricing or regulations, they must expand transit, cycling, and pedestrian spaces

Paris Marx
Jun 3 · 6 min read

Cities around the world are recognizing that the dominance of automobilies isn’t sustainable. They’re a leading cause of climate change and a drain on public budgets. No matter how many streets are widened or highways extended, congestion always gets worse, and the only way to reduce it is to get people out of their cars and using other means of getting around.

However, that doesn’t mean all cities are following the same playbook to reduce car use. One of the initiatives growing in popularity is congestion pricing, essentially a way to charge drivers for using the roads. Singapore, Stockholm, London, and most recently New York City have chosen this path.

By contrast, other cities are choosing to instead regulate how cars are using urban space by limiting their use of certain roads and taking away parking spaces. For example, Paris closed the road along the Seine and repurposed it for people; Toronto gave streetcars priority on one of its main downtown streets; and Oslo removed on-street parking spaces in its city center.

Both of these approaches can be pursued successfully, but regardless of the policy, there’s a common denominator to their success: investment in alternatives. Whether cities adopt congestion pricing or regulations to restrict vehicle use, they must improve transit services, expand cycling infrastructure, and make new pedestrian spaces so residents can enjoy the streets they’re regaining the right to use. London and Oslo show how this can be done.

Lessons from London’s congestion charge

London’s congestion charge was introduced in 2003 at £5 for vehicles within the designated zone, and has since been increased to £11.50 between 7am to 6pm from Monday to Friday. There are exemptions for zero-emission vehicles, motorcycles, mopeds, people with disabilities, and a 90 percent discount for people living within the zone. The city also added an Ultra-Low Emission Zone in April 2019 which applies to diesel-powered commercial vehicles.

After implementation of the charge, congestion dropped by 30 percent and it brought in hundreds of millions of pounds that the city could use to improve alternative means of getting around the city. Since implementation, it’s estimated that there’s 30 percent less road space for cars because of the addition of bus lanes, bike lanes, and the pedestrianization of some streets around the city.

Cycling has grown 66 percent since the charge began, and while the number of people entering the city is up 23 percent, the number entering by car is down 44 percent. In recent years, congestion has worsened and vehicle speeds have slowed again, in part because they have less road space, but the focus is still on getting more people out of their cars.

An analysis by Themis Chronopoulos in 2012 of congestion pricing in London, Stockholm, and Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to implement it in New York City found that investing revenue from the charge in mass transit was essential to gaining public support. That helped to explain why Bloomberg’s proposal failed: since transit was controlled by the state, voters didn’t believe the vague transit improvements he promised would be realized.

Chronopoulos argues that high-income residents see the most benefit from congestion pricing because the charge will be a small percentage of their income and their drive times will improve. Low-income residents, by contrast, are far less likely to drive, and thus are not too bothered by the charge; they could even see significant benefits from transit improvements. However, middle-income residents are hit hardest and are most likely to oppose it, but transit enhancements that benefit them can make it more acceptable.

Public support for the charge in London was in large part because of the significant investment made in transit before and during the charge’s initiation period. New bus routes were added, service was expanded, larger buses went into service, boarding was improved, bus lanes were added, ticket prices were reduced, and service even increased on the Underground. This was key to getting low- and middle-class residents on board — and a similar program of investments was essential to getting Oslo residents to support the initiatives taken in that city.

Oslo replaced cars with city life

When a coalition between the Labor Party, Green Party, and Socialist Left took power in 2015, its proposal to ban cars from Oslo’s city center was met with backlash from conservative politicians and the trade association, but that didn’t stop them. Instead of an outright ban, the government began removing on-street parking, restricting vehicle use on some streets, and investing in alternatives. And now it’s reaping the gains.

In a new Car-Free Livability report, the City of Oslo detailed the success it’s had with the program, and it’s hard not to want to see similar initiatives in more cities around the world. The central area they targeted has been transformed from “car city to city life” as the 760 standard on-street parking spaces were removed, while the city worked with the Norwegian Association of Disabled to increase the number for people with disabilities from 83 to 130.

Oslo has set a goal of reducing emissions 95 percent by 2030, and reorienting the city away from cars is an important part of that. A single parking space is estimated to be worth about a million kroner ($114,000) in Oslo and the city feels that space can be put to much better use by revitalizing urban space. In its climate survey, 55 percent of residents agreed that “Oslo city centre should be as car-free as possible,” and pedestrian traffic is up 10 percent since the restrictions were implemented.

The city has expanded bike parking facilities, bike lanes, bus service, and is adding a sixth line to its metro system, but probably the most important part of the initiative has been the addition of pedestrian-friendly urban spaces to improve the city’s street life. The report is filled with examples of mini parks, seating areas, and activities that have replaced parking spaces,. It also details how it’s making it easier to hold events in large pedestrianized sites.

These changes can elicit negative reaction from groups that are used to the status quo. In Oslo, conservative and business groups opposed the initial plan; Paris had to fend off a lawsuit to reopen the highway along the Seine to cars; and a few Toronto restauranteurs tied to conservative politicians tried (and failed) to argue that giving the streetcar priority would destroy businesses. However, looking at the photos from Oslo and having lived in cities with pedestrianized spaces, it’s hard for residents not to warm to these changes.

Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s vice-mayor for urban development and Green Party member, put it best in a recent Economist piece on the city’s initiatives. She compared the restrictions on car use to Norway’s 2004 public-smoking ban: “Many grumbled before the law was passed, but few today would clamour to let people smoke in pubs again.” The same will be true of reducing car use.

Restrict cars and expand alternatives

As the examples of London and Oslo show, both congestion pricing and vehicle restrictions can gain public support and effectively reduce car use in urban centers. However, regardless of whether cities chose to pursue one or the other, their success will depend on investing in alternatives and giving more road space to those other uses.

The curtain may well be closing on the automobile age as we recognize the numerous benefits that come with designing cities for lower speeds and reorienting spaces around people instead of vehicle thoroughfares. Now our challenge is implementation, and taking lessons from leaders like London and Oslo can instruct other cities that want to follow their examples.

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.