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Cities without cars

Sarah Wray looks at how Madrid and Oslo are making their cities more people-friendly by reducing the amount of cars on the roads

Madrid is looking to reduce the size of the road network within the city
Madrid is looking to reduce the size of the road network within the city

Traffic congestion and its related issues of pollution and noise are a major issue for cities throughout the world. While many measures are aimed at easing this congestion (as we examined in our recent special report), some cities are going further and looking to create areas which are car-free.


Although the idea of “car-free cities” is a headline-grabber, this is of course not an end goal in itself but part of a means to a broader end. Principally, the aims are around environment and health but there are economic and cultural considerations too. We talked to two cities putting plans for car-free cities into action.




Madrid is currently putting together its Air Quality and Climate Change Plan, due for approval in September. The main goals are:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030
  • Meet all EU-regulated values for pollutants
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic by 50 per cent by 2030

Car-free zones are a key pillar of the strategy to reach these goals. Road traffic is the main emissions contributor in Madrid, explains Enrique García Cuerdo from the city’s Department of Climate Change (Environment and Mobility). Traffic is responsible for 51per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 55 per cent of PM2.5 emissions (fine inhalable particles), as well as 40 per cent of CO2 emissions.


Cuerdo says, “There must be a change in the paradigm of urban design…to make the city more livable and resilient, the city has to recover space for citizens and reduce the space for cars.”


Madrid has already implemented traffic restrictions by creating ‘residential priority areas’. These areas are monitored by cameras and only residents, public transport services and freight vehicles are allowed to enter, as are electric cars (with the aim of fostering their greater use). At present there are four of these areas and they will soon be merged into one large area covering the central district of the city.


Several streets in Madrid have also been pedestrianised. These are not only in the city centre but also outer districts such as Villa de Vallecas. Work will begin shortly to make Gran Via Street (Madrid’s main avenue) and Plaza de España (a large square and popular tourist area) bikes, buses and taxi-only by 2019.


To further discourage the use of cars and encourage cleaner energy vehicles, the City of Madrid has implemented an intelligent on-street parking regulation system in the centre that charges different parking fares based on the emission levels of the vehicles (identified by the car’s number plate). Zero-emission vehicles can park free, for example, but diesel cars see a fare hike of up to 20 per cent.


The city is promoting cycling through expanded use of bike lanes and shared bike schemes and is encouraging the use of public transport through tactics to improve citizens’ experience of it, such as reserved lanes and prioritisation at traffic lights, as well as a Park & Ride scheme.


The main goal, Cuerdo sums up is “fostering a structural change in the design of public space, reducing the size of the road network within the city and recovering public space for citizens.”




By 2019, the City of Oslo in Norway is looking to make an area of 1.3 square kilometres in its city centre free of private cars (traffic such as emergency vehicles, waste collection, business deliveries etc. will be allowed, as well as public transport).


Kristoffer Robin Haug, a politician in Norway’s Green Party, says, “Basically it’s an attempt at making the city more people-friendly and less car-friendly.”


Similar to Madrid (and many cities pursuing a car-free agenda), the aims are three-fold – to act on climate change, “stimulate more life in the city centre” through making more space available for cultural and leisure activities, and to address public health issues. According to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, air pollution causes 185 premature deaths in Oslo each year. Traffic is a major contributor to this.

Oslo’s journey to 2019 will be a phased approach, starting with reducing parking spaces and closing down freeways before eventually removing all city centre parking and banning all private cars within the specified zone.


Oslo is working to improve bus and tram services to encourage residents to use them, as well as promoting greater use of bicycles. The city has seen a “huge increase” in its public transport budgets to make these plans reality, Haug says. This includes provisions for a new subway tunnel to be built as the system is already approaching capacity levels and this is expected to accelerate under the car-free plans.


This is a key challenge for city leaders -- how to understand the knock-on impacts elsewhere of restricting traffic in an area of the city. Oslo was able to see this in action recently when two major tunnels through the city underwent maintenance, meaning a big artery for car traffic was shut off.


It created “an experiment for [what happens when you have] a car-free part of the city,” Haug comments.

With widespread media coverage, Haug says the experience went mainly smoothly, with most residents being well prepared. Many people biked and flexible working schemes also helped avoid too much rush hour congestion.


Haug says, “Preliminary results show that things can work really well.”


This trial run also highlighted the importance of engaging with citizens about big changes such as the car-free plans. A consultation document was sent out to residents and “for the first time in Norwegian history”, people received a text message to let them know about it.


“We’ve had an overwhelming response,” Haug explains. “I think it’s the biggest, the most publicly involved process in [our] history.” He said this engagement approach is also helping to alleviate some of the concerns residents have about “changing the status quo”.


Citizens are also being made to feel part of the process through the ability to apply for funding to experiment with different ways use the new public areas created by removing cars.


Haug’s main takeaway so far is this: “It’s actually quite easy to get people to not choose the car, and rather choose public transport, to walk, or to bike. The most difficult part is the communication around it -- to make sure people understand what is actually happening, to get them engaged in the process, and in a positive manner.”


He adds that Oslo is also thinking more about to reduce the need for transport: “When we’re planning new areas, we’re trying to co-locate jobs and living areas.”



Future modes of transport


Transport is advancing quickly at the moment, with autonomous vehicles on the way and ‘flying taxis’ being trialled by companies such as Uber and Airbus. How are cities planning for these?


For now, Madrid is trialling shared mobility as a concept, focusing on electric-powered forms. Currently, it is running five projects around ‘free floating’ electric shared mobility, with more to launch before the end of the year. For example, a public bike scheme offers over 2,000 electric bikes to citizens from 160 pick-up and drop-off stations throughout the city. There is also an electric car/motorbike scheme that operates in a similar way.

Madrid’s Enrique García Cuerdo says, “First of all we want to study and understand these new modalities of shared mobility and the evolution of e-mobility. We think that they will be the drivers of change and will lead us to the next step (autonomous cars, etc.).”


Oslo has a similar scheme around electric bikes. Its public transport agency, Ruter, is also pushing ahead with trials of autonomous buses and cars as part of the public transport system. The goal is that passengers will be able to order an autonomous vehicle via an app, and be picked up and driven exactly where they want to go, such as the closest subway or bus station or to their final destination. Other passengers may be picked up along the way.


This could be a way for the car to be integrated into the public transport system and perhaps offer a view as to its role in the city of the future.



If you enjoyed this, you may wish to view the following:


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