Car-free cities are becoming a reality in Europe and China. Could the concept work in Australia?

For a variety of reasons, several European cities have moved to restrict the use of cars. Oslo, Norway, plans to restrict cars from the downtown area by 2019. Officials hope that will help to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent compared with 1990 levels.

Madrid, Spain, has encouraged pedestrians and bicyclists by banning auto usage on more than two dozen streets since 2015, though residents are still allowed to drive on some streets. The city has plans to expand the no-car boundaries substantially.

Paris, France, recently made a huge leap by announcing a ban on cars built before 1997 from entering the city between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. In 2020, the ban expands to prohibit pre-1997 cars at all times, while the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekday ban expands to include all cars built before 2010. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the city’s dismal air quality demanded this action. Paris has restricted cars temporarily in the past, which achieved significant reductions in air pollution. Restricting diesel vehicles was especially effective and rapid.

China is justly notable for both horrid air pollution and building entire cities at astonishing speed. Now, a satellite city located near Chengdu is under way with a design that lets pedestrians walk anywhere in the city within about 15 minutes, decreasing the need for a car and reducing the associated congestion and pollution. This dense urban design is also flanked by green space, which planners hope will maintain healthy air quality.

High transit ridership makes car-free cities an easier sell to the general public, no doubt. Currently, about 63 per cent of Australians commute by car to work, 10 per cent take transit, and five per cent walk or bike. Would Australians accept the reality of car-free cities, or car-free areas within cities? Perhaps they would if the necessary infrastructure were built, though it’s clear that some officials do not believe this would be the case.

Last fall, Melbourne City Councillor Richard Foster proposed a one-day auto ban in Melbourne’s CBD on a Sunday or during a major city event such as Moomba or White Night. Both Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews slammed the idea, with Doyle calling it “a completely and utterly unworkable idea." Melbourne does have some car-free areas already, such as the Bourke Street Mall and a few city laneways.

With infrastructure improvements such as light rail, bus rapid transit, protected bike lanes, and well-designed footpaths, car usage can be cut markedly while maintaining the ability of people to get around. In fact, a combination of these tactics is essential to deal with population growth and increasing congestion.

Sydney offers some positive examples. The city’s plans for the CBD, announced in 2012, aim to make light rail travel quicker and easier than driving a car while also reducing the number of buses needed. Part of the scheme is the pedestrian focus on George Street, which is closed to cars between Hunter and Bathurst streets. The city also stepped up with its Walking Strategy and Action Plan, which aims to increase on-foot commuter trips, reduce auto-pedestrian collisions by 50 per cent, and improve amenities such as footpaths.

Currently, about 63 per cent of trips to Sydney’s CBD are done with transit, about 25 per cent by car, and 10 per cent on foot. The NSW government predicts that bus and car vehicle miles travelled will decrease as people switch to light rail. In addition, the light rail line will cut CO2 emissions by 700,000 tonnes over 30 years.

Limiting automobile usage also has strong potential for reducing pedestrian and cyclist deaths and injuries. The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development tallied 204 pedestrian deaths and 33 cyclist deaths in 2015.

Besides a reduction in pollution and fatalities, there could be economic benefits too. According to one study in Melbourne of how drivers spend money compared to cyclists, the cyclists come out far ahead, outspending their motorist peers by more than $10 per hour ($27 to $16.20.)

Furthermore, because cars take up far more space - six bikes can fit in one parking space designed for a car - that number is even greater.

  • When ever I read that whole streets should be car free I think of myself and others like me with either a large car boot full of tools and other times a library of documents that I need to have for a meeting. Large numbers of the cars on the road are not out for a drive to the park, but working with tools of trade in the car. Even many salespeople have to carry equipment to different business places. The biggest joke is that we should all use public transport. I do not know too many people that their work place is always accessible by public transport. Many people have to be in multiple places each day.
    If we close down all business you can have car free streets.
    People are not silly. Improve public transport and they will run to use it. I used to take a car for meetings in Melbourne CBD for decades as public transport could take twice as long as by going by car. When they introduced a few short bus lanes and changed routes a little travel time halved. Twenty years of letter writing meant no body was interested to make the smallest change. We really do not have Governments that concern themselves to improve productivity.
    In my suburb no body keeps a bicycle for more than a few months, the hills discourage even the most able person. People transport bicycles by cars and trucks to the inner areas of Melbourne for children to go for a ride. When are we going to hear about the accident rate of people on bicycles and the cost to the economy.

    • Charles, thanks for the comment. The need to haul all kinds of stuff, like tools, is a fair concern. I'm reminded of Paris on their smoggy days when they banned lorries for a time. How do deliveries get done? There a many factors to be coordinated so that all people can get around and get their work done.

  • Feasible in CBD's alone – the shoddy state of public transit in our major urban centres in combination with their sprawling extent make car-free cities an impossibility.

    • Thanks for the comment, Barry. I'm hopeful that positive examples, like the cities mentioned in the article, can show the feasibility of transit, biking, and walking. I think Uber and car-sharing can help a lot, as well. What would you think of streets dedicated to bicycles, pedestrians, and non-diesel buses?