A pedestrian revolution
Cars have shaped our cities and communities tremendously. But, as more and more people are starting to cycle and rethink urban planning, it might be time to reassess our relationship with them. Writer Joe Newell examines how society is moving towards a possibly car-free future.
For a future that is inevitably urban, car-free cities are less idyllic than urgently necessary.
The potential health benefits are obvious. Air pollution has frequently been cited as an acute danger to public health, especially in urban environments where commuter hotspots coexist with schools and residences. In fact, a recent study by the Centre for Cities attributes one in 19 urban deaths to air pollution. The London Environment Strategy, published in 2018, regards poor air quality as the “most pressing environmental threat to the future health” of the city’s residents. To target areas which exceed the legal safety limits, the strategy proposed new measures like Ultra-Low Emission Zones, essentially tougher congestion charges. In London, as in many other cities, a more drastic approach may be necessary.
The car-free cities agenda aligns more broadly with climate commitments, for instance in local contexts like Bristol where diesel vehicles are to be banned anyway in 2021. Indeed, amidst pressing national targets – to become a “net-zero” greenhouse emitter by 2050, as the UK government pledged last year – pedestriansation will be prominent on the national agenda.
Aside from lofty global initiatives, both residents and tourists stand to benefit from cities that favour the pedestrian. At a time when indoor seating is logistically difficult, restaurants and bars can emulate the cosy romance of European squares and spill out onto the streets. Bustling local markets could make a return. And, of course, free of noise and fumes, streets will generally be much more pleasant spaces for people and wildlife.
Free of noise and fumes, streets will generally be much more pleasant spaces for people and wildlife.
Cities across the UK are steadily warming to this vision. By way of testing the waters, Sheffield, Leeds, Edinburgh and London have trialled car-free days, while Birmingham and York City Councils have pledged outright to be car-free, the latter by 2023.
How exactly we should replace cars is less certain. For its part, the government appears to have put faith in high-tech solutions: a public-private initiative is already in the process of developing – and testing – driverless pods to replace cars in city centres. One of these buggies, dubbed “Capri”, was trialled in a Bristol shopping mall recently with tentative but promising results.
Naturally, the technophobic among us are sceptical. Developing compact, driverless cars suited to busy highstreets is predictably expensive – government spending on similar projects has exceeded £250 million in only five years, with much more required to refine the technology if it ever makes it onto UK roads. The biggest hurdle, however, may be overcoming public anxiety about handing the wheel to a machine. While many are wary of the danger such a device could pose, Aecom – the company leading the effort on Capri – maintains that the buggy is programmed to be overcautious above all else, as the Bristol test demonstrated.
Perhaps more low-tech solutions are the way to go. Local councillors and independent lobbyist groups like Cycling UK and Friends of the Earth have long been advocating for cities to better accommodate bicycles. As a remedy to our reliance on cars, bike infrastructure is decidedly less glamorous than fleets of personal pods that look like they are plagiarised from the reels of sci-fi. Nonetheless, redesigning cities around cyclists instead of motorists has promise to be effective and immediately attainable. Not to mention that it is good for the nation’s health.
Given that over two-thirds of car journeys in England are under five miles, which for an inexperienced cyclist is around a 30-minute journey, the switch to bikes is no hard sell. The infrastructural changes can also be fairly low impact: 365 cities globally have adapted their street spaces to cater for walking and cycling since the pandemic began. Ad-hoc measures like ‘slow-streets’ and coned-off lanes have proven to be effective for the most part. In Scotland, the Spaces for People scheme is a provision for local councils to collaborate with residents in finding and allocating space for temporary cycle/walking lanes; 4,100 locations are being implemented in Edinburgh alone.
Of course, a line of cones will only go so far. Some question whether a complete rework is actually possible given that UK cities have been designed to suit cars since the mid twentieth century. Permanent fixtures would certainly rack up costs into the billions, and UK-wide change could take decades. But compared to building roads and motorways, this is insignificant. For instance, a puny five-mile extension to the M74 through Glasgow cost £642 million, having opened in 2011 over 16 years after planning permission was granted.
At the outset of the pandemic, bicycle sales in the UK were up by 63 per cent in line with global averages. Limits on daily exercise during the first lockdown, combined with a reluctance to use public transport, has precipitated a cycling boom. It seems now is the time to capitalise on the commuter trend.
Limits on daily exercise during the first lockdown, combined with a reluctance to use public transport, has precipitated a cycling boom.
Interest in cycling has, however, been slowly declining since March. There is some doubt about the longevity of cycling as an alternative when cyclists are in short supply. To this, and indeed to scepticism on car-free cities in general, Paul Chatterton, Professor of Urban Futures and author of Unlocking Sustainable Cities, says that success stories are all around us, both nationally and globally.
Numerous small-scale changes demonstrate that residents will take advantage of the new infrastructure, such as on Hill’s Road in Cambridge where a new cycle lane prompted a third increase in cyclist numbers. Pedestrianised zones, like Bristol’s Queen’s Square, have also proved highly popular among local residents.
Further afield, cycling meccas like the Netherlands, where bikes and trams are easier to spot than cars, are not only paragons of urban design and culture, but also viable models for transitioning away from automobiles. As one of the most desirable cities in Europe today, Groningen looked much like other motorised cities on the continent in the sixties. Two decades later, decisive reforms like roadblocks and dedicated cycle lanes in the historic centre had a transformative effect. For countless other examples, the Copenhaganize Index rates cities across the world by how well they are adapted to cycling.
Pedestrianised pockets dotted about the UK are proof that local populations can adapt and thrive without cars. Our global neighbours show that the changes are applicable on a city-wide scale. All we need to do is follow suit.