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Environment

In pictures: What does a car-free city look like?

Reducing car dominance can have many benefits, campaigners say

The UK has a car problem. Across the country, there are 32 million cars contributing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution into our atmosphere.

Transport was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK in 2020, a year largely spent in lockdown due to the pandemic, contributing 24 per cent of the UK’s total emissions across the year. The majority of those emissions – including particulates matter contributing to air pollution – come from road vehicles, such as cars.

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 many 36,000 premature deaths could be attributed to air pollution in the UK, according to research in 2018.

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.

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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. 

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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.

Here’s what it could look like.

London: Tooting Broadway Junction

Tooting Broadway Junction
This is what Tooting Broadway looks like today. (Image: Possible)
Tooting Broadway Junction vision without cars
This is what Tooting Broadway could look like. (Image: Possible)
Illustration of Tooting Broadway vision
This is what Possible think should be put in place at Tooting Broadway. (Image: Possible)

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London: Hyde Park Corner

Hyde Park Corner
This is what Hyde Park Corner looks like now. (Image: Possible)
Hyde Park Corner without cars
This is what Hyde Park Corner could look like with fewer cars. (Image: Possible)

Bristol: Cabot Circus

Cabot Circus
Cabot Circus in Bristol today is dominated by roads. (Image: Possible)
Cabot Circus without cars
Possible’s vision includes more gathering space for locals. (Image: Possible)

Bristol: Chelsea Road

Chelsea Road
Chelsea Road today is a popular thoroughfare for cars. (Image: Possible)
Chelsea Road without cars
More space for cycling, walking, and sitting is part of the vision for Chelsea Road. (Image: Possible)
Vision of Chelsea Road by Possible
Possible’s visions have the climate at the forefront. (Image: Possible)

Leeds: Elland Road

Elland Road
Elland Road in Leeds currently hosts a major football stadium and many roads and car park spaces. (Image: Possible)
Elland Road without cars
Without cars, there could be more space for gathering before and after stadium events. (Image: Possible)
An illustrated vision of Elland Road without cars
Food trucks, tables, and a games area are included in Possible’s vision for the future of Elland Road. (Image: Possible)

Leeds: Tempest Road

Tempest Road
Tempest Road sits alongside residences and business currently. (Image: Possible)
Tempest Road without cars
If the road did not exist, children and people could walk and play along Tempest Road safely. (Image: Possible)
Illustrated vision of Tempest Road without cars
Many of Possible’s visions emphasise a community atmosphere. (Image: Possible)

Birmingham: Hockley Circus

Hockley Circus
Hockley Circus in Birmingham includes an overpass and a major roundabout. (Image: Possible)
Hockley Circus without cars
Possible aim for more public transport options and an emphasis on walking or cycling in the area. (Image: Possible)

Birmingham: Grove Lane

Grove Lane
Many cars regularly park along Grove Lane in Birmingham. (Image: Possible)
Grove Lane without cars
A major cycle lane would incentivise people to cycle instead of driving, according to Possible. (Image: Possible)
Illustrated vision of Grove Lane without cars
E-scooters would also benefit the environment and offer people a way of getting around easier.(Image: Possible)
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