What do the cities of Ghent (Belgium), New Delhi (India), Kigali (Rwanda), and Pontevedra (Spain) have in common? These cities, and many others across the globe, are driving the way towards the creation of a car-free future.
In the minds of many people, cars are still a non-negotiable necessity; and in Ireland, particularly outside of Dublin, this is understandable. Unreliable and infrequent public transport renders reliance on cars still a major part of our psyche. So how are certain cities managing to adopt car-free policies and how have they been received?
In Ghent, car traffic fell from 55 to 27 percent in the seven year period between 2012 and 2019, and bicycle traffic jumped from 22 to 35 percent over the same period. By the 1980s, Ghent had reached its traffic capacity. The adverse effects of car traffic had begun to take its toll on the city, spurring city planners to undertake a radical adjustment to mobility around the city.
The city was zoned, and all vehicles except emergency vehicles, taxis and buses are prohibited from passing through zones and instead must use a ring road outside of the centre. A free park and ride system has been rolled out, the expansion of buses, tram lines and even electric boats has increased environmentally sound mobility, and the cost of parking has been hiked in city centre car parks. These factors have contributed to the reimagining of public spaces previously occupied by car parks and has also fostered a safer, cleaner city.
New Delhi, one of the world’s most air-polluted cities, has a challenge cut out for them in terms of reducing the number of vehicles on the road and improving the fatally bad air quality. In the 10 year period between 2002 and 2012, vehicle numbers almost doubled and air pollution accounts for between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths annually.
In 2016, when particulate matter (PM) rose to 10 times the acceptable limit, the government rolled out the “odd-even” scheme, meaning that (with some exceptions) cars with plate numbers ending with an odd number can drive on odd dates and cars with plate numbers ending in even numbers can on even dates. This scheme has been utilised on an on and off basis depending on air pollution levels in recent years and will return from November 13 – 20 following expected pollution levels to be up in the period after Diwali on November 12.
This scheme has been criticised and lauded by various spectators, and there is a general sense that it is helping, but that efforts to reduce air pollution must also include reducing crop burning practices and pollution from industries. As of this month, the PM2.5 concentration matter was almost 80 times the WHO’s acceptable limit.
Since 2017, there have been car free mornings on the first and third Sunday of the month in Kigali, Rwanda. What began as an effort to make the city more sustainable, is now also advocating for healthier lives for the people of Kigali.
Mobile clinics offer free medical checkups and many people use the car-free mornings to exercise without worrying about traffic. Initiatives such as this illustrate that reducing the amount of traffic has an intersectional benefit across society.
In the mediaeval Galician city of Pontevedra in Spain, the car-free transformation began in 1999. The entire city centre has been closed off to traffic with the exception of those with disability permits and delivery drivers to ensure local businesses are protected.
The loss of traffic has brought huge gains to residents and tourists in the form of increased green spaces, parks, wider pavements and less noise pollution. There have been no fatal traffic accidents recorded since 2011 and CO₂ emissions have fallen by over 70 percent.
By upending the hierarchy of who dominates the roads and streets, benefits can be seen across every pocket of society. Carbon emissions decrease, air and noise pollution decrease, space that was once used for car parks and on street parking frees up for the development of housing and public spaces, businesses benefit from more pedestrian footfall, and a healthier lifestyle is promoted due to more people walking and cycling.
Ireland needs all of these aspects of society to change drastically; so where are we positioned in the drive for car-free cities and towns?
Dublin’s Capel Street became the longest car-free street in the city last year. Car parking has been removed from the street and deliveries are only permitted between 6am and 11am daily. In many ways, the pandemic was the impetus behind public opinion swaying in favour of pedestrianisation. The potential for our cities and towns to be reclaimed by pedestrians and outdoor spaces was witnessed and enjoyed (as long as there was an outdoor heater in the vicinity). During the pandemic, many people were restricted to their five or 10 km radius and perhaps began to notice both the shortcomings and saving graces of their surroundings.
The concept of the “15 minute city” or “20 minute neighbourhood” in which all basic amenities: schools, healthcare, green spaces, and shops are available within a walking or cycling distance has thus grown in popularity. As urban areas grow, urban planning should focus on the creation of living neighbourhoods in which communities can connect together without driving. Reducing the use of cars is key to this.
Plans for a major new west Dublin town were published last year. The project, called “City Edge” outlines that the area will be virtually car-free. The first 3,500 homes are expected to be built by 2030. This is no short-term project: the project aims to be home to between 75 and 85 thousand people by 2070.
City Edge will comprise five neighbourhoods, planned around the 15 minute city principle. While residential building projects have fallen behind projected plans in recent years, we can tentatively hope that projects such as City Edge accelerate in the future.
Cork city trialled its first car-free day on September 23 between 12pm and 6.30pm as part of the European Sustainable Development Goals week. Taxis and buses operated as normal and the quays remained open to traffic.
Cork was one of 1,300 towns and cities across Europe to go car-free on this day. Two thirds of Cork city’s inhabitants believe the city needs to transform into a more sustainable place to live and 86 percent of people want more streets pedestrianised.
These steps, while tentative, are beginning to loosen the bind that cars have on many Irish people’s mentality. The future of car-free cities holds great potential to revolutionise urban spaces.
In America, there are a billion parking spaces – four spaces for every car. In London, 8,000 hectares of the city centre is occupied by parked cars. We need to reimagine societies in which cars and car parks are not at the top of the pecking order; and in their place, the environment and citizens can thrive.