Nearly one-quarter of people in the UK live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution, which can exacerbate existing lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as increasing the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
As such, climate and air pollution campaigners are calling for an increased reduction in cars as well as a move towards cheap and reliable public transport for everyone.
“When we talk about a car-free city, we don’t mean one where there are no cars at all. What we mean is a city that is free of the dangers of cars, as well as emissions and pollution that comes from mass car dominance,” Hirra Khan Adeogun, head of car-free cities at climate charity Possible, told the Big Issue.
Adeogun said the country needs to “overhaul the way we currently think about cars” and believes there needs to be top-down policy changes that will ensure people are “getting something back” from giving up their cars.
She said: “It’s about giving people infrastructure, getting people back on buses, providing protected cycleways, and ensuring public transport is affordable. Over decades we have decided to prioritise cars and if we move away from that towards a country that relies on public transport, walking, and cycling, it would revolutionise how we live.”
That is a major part of Possible’s Car Free Cities campaign, which aims to help local communities reimagine their neighbourhoods and deliver solutions to reduce car dominance.
But, campaigning for a city or country that does not depend on cars is hard. Policies to reduce urban car use have “almost universally faced huge opposition”, as Andrew Kersley wrote in WIRED last year, particularly as it’s hard to imagine how a city without cars (or at least with fewer cars) would look like.
Low-traffic neighbourhoods in places such as the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets or Hackney, as well as schemes like a “15-minute-city” or “20-minute neighbourhood” implemented in Oxfordshire and proposed in Scotland, have faced widespread opposition from locals and politicians alike.
The opposition stems from people who feel that there is government overreach in forcing people to stop driving as well as conspiracy theories that such policies will restrict people from leaving their homes or local areas entirely.
Headlines suggesting that cars are being “banned” as a result of the climate crisis are also popular, leading to people who depend on or enjoy cars and driving to panic about these measures.
But despite opposition, many of the cities that have a culture of reducing car use – Copenhagen, Oslo, and Amsterdam – never went back once people had time to get used to what living in a place like that was like. Even in London, a majority of the low-traffic neighbourhoods that were created in recent years have been kept in place.
J.H Crawford, the author of the book Carfree Cities, told WIRED: “Generally speaking, if a sensible program is adopted to really reduce or eliminate car usage in a central urban area, it seems to stick. If you go back a year or two later, people will just say: well, this is the best thing we ever did.”
Adeogun agrees: “People need to see how different it could be, and what it would look like if we just invest more into public transportation and other ways of getting around.
Earlier this year, Possible launched their car-free Visions project, which looks at various places in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, and London and imagines what that place would be like if there were cycle lanes, parks, and walkways instead of roads.
Carolyn Axtell, a campaigner with Possible, said: “With these new visions, we want to further the conversation about how we can make London’s boroughs greener, more climate friendly and more equitable, so that all communities feel they have an equal stake in our public spaces.”
In order to achieve our emissions reduction goals, a “27 per cent reduction in London’s traffic by 2030” is needed.
“We can only do this with radical, ambitious changes,” she added.
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