Car-free cities: are Australians ready to take back the streets?

By David Donaldson

Monday March 18, 2019

Barcelona. Source: Craig Sunter on Wikimedia Commons.

Australian cities are becoming bigger, noisier and more congested. Would restrictions on cars improve our health and stress levels?

One thing that stands out about car-free streets is how pleasant many of them are.

Locals linger, pot-plants flank front doors and children play. In some places, the sound of vehicles gives way to birdsong.

An idea that has been implemented in Denmark and the Netherlands since the 1970s—turning around the dominance of the car enhances quality of life—is now being seriously applied in some of Europe’s major cities to combat noise, air pollution and a lack of green space.

Madrid is banning non-resident vehicles from its historic city centre and rapidly greening itself. Oslo has removed most carparks, banned most drivers from its city centre, and is planning a network of pedestrian zones that are completely car-free. A ban on cars in the small Spanish city of Pontevedra has renewed the regional centre.

But it’s not just about banning cars. Some cities are redesigning streets or whole blocks to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over vehicles, striking a balance between safety, liveability and access.

Barcelona has received a lot of attention. Long famous for the pedestrian street La Rambla, the city is now also converting multi-lane roads in highly built up areas into ‘superblocks’ —replacing roads with trees, walking paths, street furniture and playgrounds. A single one-way traffic lane remains, but can only move at a slow pace and on the same level as pedestrians and cyclists. This means residents and delivery vehicles can still get through, but traffic is funneled away to main roads.

Other cities, such as Paris and Brussels, are taking a more gradual approach, trying out car-free days.

Some places are well advanced. Thanks to decades of prioritising investment in active transport over cars, more than 50% of Copenhagen’s population travels by bicycle.

The Netherlands is also famous for its cycling culture—even the prime minister rides to work. There are more than 6000 ‘woonerf’—’living space’—streets across the Netherlands, where restrictions on cars and traffic-calming devices give priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Several Dutch cities have large car-free central areas.

And it’s not just Europe—many parts of inner Tokyo are dominated by pedestrians, with quiet green spaces creating a surprisingly calm atmosphere in the middle of the world’s largest city.

A ‘woonerf’ in Barcelona. Source: Eric Fischer on Wikimedia Commons.

Even in car-centric Australia there are pockets of pleasant urban design. It’s notable that one of Melbourne’s greatest tourist attractions, its laneways, are popular precisely because they are so walkable.

Clearly, Melbourne and Sydney—let alone Perth or Brisbane—are different to Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But these cities weren’t always as liveable as they are today. It’s only through decades of work have they transformed their landscape and how people live in them.

So what are the prospects for the car-free movement in Australia? And is it worthwhile?

Healthier cities

Creating car free cities is “a great idea because it’ll get people to be more physically active”, says Distinguished Professor Billie Giles-Corti of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research.

Most of evidence “suggests public transport does lead to higher exercise”, she argues.

“It’ll mean people get to the city in a different way … if there’s one thing people can do for their health, it’s being more physically active. It’s very protective of all the major diseases—heart disease, obesity and dementia are all related to how physically active people are.”

Melbourne’s Centre Place. Source: Ashton 29 on Wikimedia Commons.

As Australian cities grow bigger and denser, they’re also “becoming more congested, with more pollution and noisier,” she explains.

“The burden of disease with air pollution and noise is increasing … there’s no safe exposure to air pollution.”

Plus, Australians are some of the biggest carbon emitters in the world.

Electric vehicles could help address some of these problems, but their widespread use is decades away. They introduce their own challenges, too: the City of Melbourne estimates that based on current ownership, if all cars were electric, the average household would consume 84% more electricity.

With all these emerging health problems, Giles-Corti believes Australian cities should be trying new approaches.

“Business as usual with a rapidly growing city is not a solution.”

Good for business

One of the biggest sources of resistance is local business being worried restrictions on cars will hurt trade.

But the opposite appears to be the case.

“In many studies where you have pedestrianisation, or slowing down traffic, people actually spend more money,” says Giles-Corti.

“The city will be a nicer place to be, people will stay longer. People don’t spend money when they’re in cars—in fact, research suggests cyclists spend more money than drivers.”

An early study on Madrid’s car ban shows retail spending has jumped 10%. Pedestrianising New York’s Times Square and London’s Oxford Circus led to major boosts in economic activity in both places.

The case for car-free streets in Australia

The central business districts of Sydney and Melbourne, which already have extensive public transport systems and are built on a walkable scale, are obvious candidates for pedestrianisation.

The City of Melbourne is considering many of these issues in the lead-up to finalising its new transport strategy mid-year. It has published a series of interesting discussion papers looking at ideas such as copying Barcelona’s superblocks, creating car-free zones at pedestrian gathering places, reducing car parking in the CBD and implementing a CBD-wide 30km/h maximum speed.

Initial reactions from state politicians have not been encouraging, however.

Apart from the potential health and quality of life benefits, reorienting central city streets away from cars offers a more efficient use of space. When space is scarce, it makes sense to prioritise the most efficient way of moving, and cars are the least efficient way to transport large numbers of people into busy city centres. Whereas a pedestrian typically takes up 0.5m2 of space, in a car it’s 9.2m2.

Roads take up an outsized proportion of space in Melbourne’s CBD: only 22% of trips to, from and within the Hoddle grid are by car, yet roads comprise 53% of street space. Some narrow city streets, such as Chinatown, already carry relatively few cars but still push crowds of pedestrians onto congested footpaths.

Backstreet in the Tokyo district of Minami Aoyama. Source: Syced on Wikimedia Commons.

Community consultation done for the City of Melbourne found overcrowded footpaths were residents’ biggest walking gripe. Parts of the Melbourne CBD are so dense with pedestrians it’s not unusual to see people walking on the edge of the road. Overcrowding and narrow footpaths make life especially difficult for people with limited mobility.

The number of people getting around is only going to grow. Melbourne’s population is growing quickly, and the CBD has one of the fastest residential growth rates in the country. New jobs are disproportionately located in the CBD.

The City of Melbourne hopes fewer cars will make walking safer. It has the most pedestrian crashes of any municipality in the state, with six deaths and 234 serious injuries over the past five years.

Mandatory off-street parking has led to inefficiencies too: the City of Melbourne estimates $700 million has been wasted in homeowners paying for unused parking in the construction of new buildings.

But Melbourne isn’t starting from scratch. The council has already reduced the number of on-street car parks by 22% since 2011, replacing them with trees, wider footpaths, bike lanes and new tram stops. Swanston and Bourke streets already have car-free areas, and other pockets of road are gradually being given to pedestrians.

Make the healthy choice the easy choice

But progress is still slow.

“We believe car-free zones are well worth pushing for in those urban district centres that are rich in public and active transport alternatives to driving. That said, it’s likely to be a gradual process for political reasons,” says Public Transport Users’ Association President Tony Morton.

“The City of Melbourne is largely on the right track with its strategy of reallocating road space to more efficient modes of transport.

“Our main criticism would be it’s not occurring fast enough, even in places where they can expect widespread support.”

Areas surrounding major train stations are another clear candidate for pedestrianisation.

“The need for it is clearly demonstrated by the congested foot traffic around railway stations, whether it’s in the CBD or a suburban station like South Yarra, Caulfield, Footscray or Preston,” Morton thinks.

Part of the problem in Australia is ensuring equity for people living in the suburbs. Removing cars from the CBD will require more people to take public transport, so it’s important there is widespread access to the network.

“If we ban cars or seek to reduce them through charges, we have to be mindful who loses out—the people who are currently dependent on cars,” notes Melbourne School of Design’s Dr Crystal Legacy.

This is not to say everyone who drives is vulnerable—City of Melbourne data show those who drive to the city are disproportionately on high incomes. But for some there is effectively no alternative.

“We need to continue to invest in good quality public transport … we want to make sure people have options.”

And it doesn’t just have to be expensive new trains and trams. “That includes buses as well, an unsung hero of our system”, she says.

Legacy is disappointed political leaders have mostly used car-free proposals as an opportunity “to pander to the interests of those who drive cars without articulating an alternative vision.”

Governments should be investing in high-quality cycling infrastructure so more people can easily access the train network, says Giles-Corti.

“I think it’s inequitable that only people in the inner city have good access to cycle facilities.”

Plus, she adds, “building more cycling facilities is cheaper than building more roads.”

And it’s not just about bike lanes existing—in many places they already do. They also have to be user-friendly and safe. Concerns about safety are the main reason more people don’t cycle.

“In health we talk about make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Giles-Corti says.

“And there are benefits for everyone— even for people who still choose to drive because they need to. They will benefit because there will be fewer cars on the roads.”

Main image source: Barcelona street life by Craig Sunter on Wikimedia Commons.

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