Banning cars in major cities would rapidly improve millions of lives
Cities are starting to experiment with banning cars from their streets and the benefits to health and well-being could be enormous
By Alice Klein
IN DOWNTOWN Madrid, the reign of cars is coming to an end. Starting next month, the city centre will be shut off to all cars, barring electric vehicles, those belonging to residents and a few other exceptions.
Several other capital cities are also clamping down on cars. Oslo is eliminating on-street parking and converting roads into cycleways and pedestrian paths. Paris and Brussels have started hosting annual car-free days. Others – including Mexico City, Athens and Rome – are planning to ban diesel cars by 2025. So does this herald the end of city driving?
There are good reasons for banning cars in dense urban areas. Cars and their supporting infrastructure now fill up to 60 per cent of space in cities, says Mark Nieuwenhuijsen at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain, which takes a heavy toll on our physical and mental health. “We’ve forgotten that cities are meant to be for people, not cars,” he says.
The latest estimates suggest that vehicle pollution – which includes nitrogen oxides, soot and carbon monoxide – is responsible for at least 184,000 premature deaths globally each year, mostly due to heart and lung disease.
It has also been linked with dementia, with recent research finding that people who live near major highways are 7 per cent more likely to develop the condition. Of course, petrol and diesel cars also produce greenhouse gases – chiefly carbon dioxide – that contribute to climate change.
On top of this, road crashes injure 78 million people and kill more than 1 million others globally every year. Long commutes by car contribute to physical inactivity, one of the biggest public health problems of the 21st century. Exposure to traffic noise, meanwhile, has been linked with depression in adults and attention problems in children.
In other words, cars are bad news. Now, evidence is mounting that bans can help to alleviate some of these problems.
When Paris held its fourth annual car-free day on 16 September, levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution near major roads dropped by as much as 41 per cent and noise levels fell by up to 5 per cent. In Brussels, soot levels decreased by 80 per cent when it banned cars on the same day. And after Stockholm introduced a congestion charge in 2006, the drop in traffic was accompanied by fewer asthma attacks in children.
Unsurprisingly, car bans also seem to reduce road accidents. The city of Pontevedra in Spain, for example, has had zero road deaths in its central zone since it was closed off to all non-essential vehicles in 1999.
Additional evidence shows that car restrictions help to promote active lifestyles. In Copenhagen, which has turned many of its streets into car-free walkways and cycleways since the 1960s, over 60 per cent of residents now cycle to work, compared with 2 per cent of people in London. Similarly, more than 80 per cent of children in Pontevedra now walk to school.
For cities that are considering car restrictions, several options are available. One is to ban petrol and diesel cars but permit zero-emission electric vehicles. Another is to ban all cars. A third is to change the way the city is organised so that walking, cycling and public transport are more attractive than driving.
Audrey de Nazelle at Imperial College London believes that getting rid of all cars, except for those belonging to less mobile people and essential services, is the winning option. Restricting fossil fuel cars while still allowing electric vehicles doesn’t go far enough, she says.
“It will reduce air pollution, but I still think it’s short-sighted and a missed opportunity for more holistic thinking about health,” says de Nazelle. Modelling suggests that the health benefits gained by cities going car-free would be 30 times greater than those from switching to electric vehicles, because it would also reduce accidents and promote more exercise.
Taking all cars out of the equation would also let us radically reshape city landscapes and make them more people-friendly. The space freed up could be repurposed for other activities, like playgrounds, markets and community events, says de Nazelle.
Given that many people would baulk at the thought of banning cars altogether, less extreme approaches may work better. Similar effects can be achieved by simply making other modes of transport more convenient, says Hanna Marcussen, the vice mayor for urban development in Oslo.
Since 2015, Oslo has turned many of its roads into walkways and cycleways and removed all on-street parking from its centre to discourage car use. It has also extended its rail network, added extra trams to existing lines, made public transport cheaper, and started offering subsidies for electric bikes.
Few private cars still drive into the city centre, leaving a trickle of taxis, delivery vans and public service vehicles. A recent Greenpeace report found that the city now has some of the cleanest air in Europe.
Large, sprawling cities like Sydney present additional challenges because they are harder to traverse on bike or foot, says Dorina Pojani at the University of Queensland in Australia. But she still thinks they could go car-free with well-connected public transport systems.
“We need to move away from extreme individualism – wanting to have our own separate car and detached house – and start embracing communal consumption patterns like public transport and apartment-living,” she says. Better public transport would also reduce congestion, which currently traps Sydney motorists in their cars for an estimated three weeks per year.
This article appeared in print under the headline “The road reimagined”