The municipal government in Oslo recently hit the headlines after announcing it was to ban cars from the city centre by 2019. “We want to make it better for pedestrians, cyclists,” says a council spokesperson. “It will be better for shops and everyone.”
Pedestrianised areas are nothing new, but Oslo’s car free zone is on a pretty big scale. Although the newly care free Central Business District is only around a kilometre across, 15 per cent of the city works within it. This in a city where around half of the 600,000 residents own cars.
Even if few metropolises are prepared to launch plans of this type immediately, the trend towards car-free city centres is clear. Increasing urbanisation has gone hand in hand with a growing appreciation of cities and the public realm.
In recent years districts of Milan, Dublin, Paris, Madrid and Brussels have all been closed to private cars. Hamburg recently announced plans to go car free by 2020. India had its first officially car-free city in 2008, while China is working on building its own (from scratch, naturally).
Across the channel, Paris trialled banning cars from its own business district for a day. The move was ostensibly to celebrate European Mobility Week, but it also served as a valuable pilot scheme which is likely to be put into practice again in the future. (Given the similarity in scale of the two cities, the move is something which London government will have been observing closely). Though European cities tend to already be far more walkable than those around the rest of the world, these incremental steps are gradually minimising barriers to formal pedestrianisation.
The UK’s biggest cities are heading in that direction, too. Some cities are pedestrianising entire districts, such as that announced in Birmingham; other cities also are taking smaller steps to a similar end.
In 2011 the EU proclaimed that all of its member cities should be free of petrol-powered cars by 2050. That suggestion was met by resistance from the UK government on the grounds of civic autonomy – yet many UK cities are likely to meet that target under their own steam. Drivers in Leeds could soon find themselves restricted from taking Diesel vehicles into the city, something which the London Assembly has been calling for in the capital too.
At the local level, some London boroughs now require new housing developments to be car-free. Policy gurus such as Andrew Adonis have called for better integration between car-clubs and public transport infrastructure. Both the Labour and Conservative London mayoral candidates have endorsed the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street. And the impending arrival of London’s 24-hour tube (whether TfL launch it sooner or later) will likely encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport, too.
The human scale
But why are so many cities looking towards pedestrianisation – and what does it mean for their inhabitants?
Of course the need to reduce vehicle dependence and improve air quality is a huge driver. But so is the need for what Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl termed the “human scale”.
Gehl’s thesis that cities should be shaped towards facilitating human interaction led to the reinvention of Copenhagen’s city centre for pedestrian use in the 1960s. The aim was, fundamentally, to make urban centres a more pleasant place to work and live.
And it has proved hugely successful. Following the main stage of Copenhagen’s pedestrianisation (reclaiming the Stroget, its main retail street) footfall increased. But the real victory was not in increasing commerce but in allowing people use of the public realm. The number of people using the streets doubled. Cafe culture boomed.
Copenhagen’s reinvention was widely praised, and in the decades following tourism and migration increased significantly. Since then, Gehl’s his ideas have been applied to cities all over the world
But pedestrianisation brings drawbacks too. Research from both major cities like Izmir, Turkey, and from relatively small towns like Hasselt, Belgium, show that, as you would expect, pedestrianisation of centres causes surrounding property prices to increase significantly.
In almost all cases retail businesses also benefit – a great thing for the city as a whole (and its tax-collecting authorities). But that inexorably leads to a rise in commercial rents, too. According to a report by property consultants Erdman Lewis, pedestrianising a site means an instant rental premium of as much as 50 per cent over comparable vehicle-access sites. And with margins constrained, it tends to be the larger retail chains who are best suited to move in and take advantage.
All this means that pedestrianised retail centres risk becoming further homogenised, with only the most high-end independent shops able to operate.
The challenge for policymakers is how to develop a city’s public realm and so attract footfall and businesses, but at the same time minimise the gentrification which comes with it. In major cities such as London and Paris, where we already see a doughnut effect of wealth concentrated in the centre, pedestrianisation could further increase the economic divide.
There is one reason to be optimistic. Pedestrianisation may create a stark contrast in property prices, dividing the “haves” in a relatively small pedestrianised zone from the “have-nots” outside it. But this could be mitigated by introducing pedestrianisation such a scale that it becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
Governments may need to tread carefully – but we are moving towards a future of car-free urban centres. We will surely enjoy improved and more successful cities as a result.