In many global cities a lot of people don’t drive often or don’t even own a car. Young people are waiting longer to get their driver’s licences, and some never intend to. And a larger proportion of the population are elderly and having to give up their licences. So we need to create neighbourhoods that are easy to get around without relying on cars.
But we can’t expect everyone to change their behaviour overnight – we’ve built our cities and our lives around cars, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to shift that paradigm. As urbanists, there are several key things that we can do to help them make the transition.
First, we need to remove the biggest barriers to active travel: safety and access. Right now, our streetscapes are heavily dominated by motor vehicles. We’ve come to expect noise and air pollution in our streets, and we accept road fatalities and injuries as normal. We know that daily exercise is core to public health and yet we’ve built hostile environments where people feel uncomfortable or that it’s not safe to walk or ride. We need to rethink streetscapes to make them welcoming and accessible for the whole community, from very young children through to the elderly or people living with disability, whether they’re walking, using an e-bike, cargo bike, scooter or personal mobility device.
Creating low-traffic and low-speed neighbourhoods – or even removing cars altogether – reduces the danger, the noise and the pollution associated with them. Once you reduce the traffic flow or slow it right down, it opens up a whole host of opportunities. Footpaths can be wider so that family groups and friends can walk together side-by-side. We can add cycling infrastructure, space for outdoor dining, and trees and vegetation that provide shade and reduce the urban heat island effect.
On the flipside, we have to give people a good reason to get out of their cars, by designing neighbourhoods where they can meet their daily needs within a 15-minute walk or cycle. It's not about leaving them stranded in suburban environments without any other support, because that’s unrealistic. Studies have shown that walkable places have some essential ingredients. The most important is medium to high-density living rather than single dwellings on their own plots. This might be semi-detached or terrace housing, or three to six storey apartment buildings. There needs to be a mix of places that provide for your daily needs such as shops, cafes and parks, and regular intersections so people don’t have to walk long distances to cross the street or get from A to B. And, of course, there has to be regular and reliable public transport for those longer-distance trips.
Then there has to be a mix of jobs sprinkled into that, so we need to include commercial and retail space, schools, gyms and all of the other things that people use on a daily basis. Making schools accessible is one of the best ways of bringing about a cultural shift. I’ve never met anyone who disagrees that it’s a good idea for kids to be able to walk or scoot to their local school. That’s part of incorporating activity into our everyday lives. Kids and parents see their friends on the way and children gradually gain independence but, most importantly, they’re getting used to doing local trips on foot.
We also need to think much more about micro-freight – there’s a belief that you can only deliver things with trucks, but most of the deliveries people get to their homes are quite small items that could be transported on cargo bikes. Even the tradies don’t always need a large van for every journey – they might only be picking up a plumbing part from the hardware store. In congested urban environments, bike deliveries are often significantly faster, especially if there are multiple stops. A van gets stuck in traffic and it takes time to park and unload.
We’ve already had a taste of what car-free streets could be like. During the COVID-19 lockdowns a global phenomenon took place. The volume of vehicle traffic dropped, the air was cleaner and people noticed that the birds were singing. People got out and started walking or cycling or jogging in their local neighbourhoods. More than 600 cities around the world, from Vancouver to New York to Melbourne responded by creating more space for people on streets: through outdoor street dining, pop-up cycleways, closing streets to motor traffic, and changing traffic signals. There are many cities that are on a long-term trajectory towards car-free centres or precincts including Barcelona, Paris, Oslo, Milan, Madrid, London, Mexico City, Bogota and Amsterdam.
Going car-free isn’t going to happen everywhere at once, but if we concentrate on areas that have the right ingredients and take an approach of testing things out, people can try it and think “yeah, that’s what I want in my life”. We need to offer a long-term vision and take our communities on a journey to get there.
Perhaps most of all, we need to change the conversation. A lot of discussion about removing cars from cities focuses on what we could lose. We need to encourage people to think about all the things we stand to gain: healthy, active lifestyles, clean air, quiet streets, more social engagement and improved mental health.
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