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Choke Hold

Thursday 9 May 2019

Cars don’t belong on our city streets. People do

In 1974, when the young mayor of Curitiba in southeastern Brazil wanted to pedestrianise the city’s main thoroughfare, he had a problem: businesses on the Rua Quinze de Novembro were against the plan because they assumed it would hurt revenues.

Mayor Jaime Lerner’s solution was to ignore them. He waited until the courts were closed on a Friday afternoon so that no injunctions could be filed, and had the street pedestrianised within 72 hours. By the following Monday evening, merchants who had signed a petition to block the move were urging him to pedestrianise the whole central business district.

There was a lesson in Curitiba’s experience for London, and people may at last be taking it on board. Two weeks ago, for nearly a week, protesters from the Extinction Rebellion movement blocked traffic at four major nodes of the city’s transport network. They lay under lorries on Westminster Bridge. They held yoga classes at Marble Arch. A pink sloop took up residence in Oxford Circus.

Condemnation came quickly and predictably from the status quo-niks, but not from most businesses in the affected areas, or the police, or the mayor, who has pledged to pedestrianise Oxford Street anyway.

As for those who actually experienced the traffic-free streets of London, the transformation was swift and obvious. There was space to walk – and talk – and the air was breathable without the taste of fumes or the disposable masks that Asian tourists often bring with them to London because they assume the air will be as bad as it is back home. It was a glimpse of the sort of streets we might enjoy even in the age of hypermarkets and Amazon, if only we could muster the will.

Nor were we imagining it. Oxford Street has been closed to traffic before, including for a “VIP” shopping day last November, when researchers at King’s College measured a 30 per cent fall in nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels within a few hours.

Excessive NOx is a cause of heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke and lung and other cancers, and Oxford Street usually breaks the EU’s safe limits for the whole year a few weeks into January. It also has one of the highest levels of particulate pollution in Europe. This is not surprising. It is closed to most traffic except buses and taxis, but they are still mainly diesel-powered. Some black cabs are now battery-powered but the majority that are not are up to 30 times more polluting than private cars of the same age.

Particulates and NOx between them contribute to an estimated 9,500 premature deaths a year in London, 64,000 in the UK as a whole, half a million in Europe and seven million worldwide.

Extinction Rebellion’s primary focus is on climate change. There is no denying the urgency of trying to reverse it, but decades of effort has failed to produce the international consensus needed.

Air pollution is different. It is remorselessly degrading the quality of urban life, especially in poor and crowded neighbourhoods, and it may, perversely, be the climate activist’s friend since it is a clear and present emergency and its root causes are also causes of climate change. Since 1974 if not before it has been pointing urban planners towards a practical solution that is also a recipe for renewal.

That solution is to get traffic off roads in city centres. This need not always entail full car bans, but sometimes it does. In Curitiba, Mayor Lerner followed the flash-pedestrianisation of Rua Quinze de Novembro with the introduction of revolutionary raised bus stops in the central reservations of the city’s other main streets. The result is that buses move, load and unload fast, and 85 per cent of locals use them instead of cars.

In Pontevedra in northern Spain, another young mayor closed the entire medieval centre to private cars within three months of taking office in 1999. There have been no fatal traffic accidents there since 2009. The city has grown by 12,000 people while others in the region have shrunk, and even in the suburbs where cars are still permitted, 70 per cent of journeys are on foot or by bike.

For big cities the benchmark is Copenhagen, extensively pedestrianised since the 1960s and the most cycle-friendly city in the world. About a quarter of its central streets are entirely car-free. Pedestrianised zones excluding parks account for more than 100,000 square metres of public space. Sixty per cent of daily journeys are by bike and fewer than ten per cent by car – less than a third as many as in Greater London.

In Oslo, Zurich and Helsinki, as in the Danish capital, urban living and working are being redefined with decades-long schemes to remove private cars from public spaces. All four have used carrots as well as sticks, encouraging cycling and walking while charging for driving, removing city centre parking spaces and closing off some streets altogether.

In Paris and Delhi the priority is to cut smog but so far local businesses and bureaucracies have allowed only baby steps towards controlling traffic volumes. The same is true of Beijing, where in the generation since the Tiananmen Square massacre the arrival of the private car has poisoned air that was once breathed easily by eight million cyclists.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, a new suburb designed by a Chicago firm of architects is taking shape in which no one will be more than ten minutes’ walk across a park from a central cluster of skyscrapers.

Pedestrianisation can easily be done wrong, as Britain has shown. When an old town centre becomes a pedestrianised island of chain stores ringed by a multi-lane one-way system with public transport that ceases to function at 7pm, it usually dies. Northampton, by this measure, is on life support. It is, in the jargon, hollowed out. In Norwich, which pioneered British car-free zones, Alan Partridge is not their only critic. (“I’ll be honest. I’m dead against it. People forget that traders need access to Dixons.”) But even there, as the 50th anniversary of pedestrianisation approached in 2015, voters backed the council’s plan to expand the car-free centre rather than shrink it.

Lessons have been learned about using street furniture to share spaces once surrendered to internal combustion. Invest in good design, as the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea did on Exhibition Road, and a cannonball run for taxis can become a new part of the public realm.

Myths have been busted. Pedestrianisation does not simply shift traffic congestion elsewhere. It may do briefly, but most schemes report traffic “evaporation” as drivers decide to leave their cars at home. Nor does pedestrianisation kill retail or turn bustling towns into ghost towns at night (although excessive rents and poor public transport do).

Good public transport, on the other hand, can draw people to a car-free zone who would otherwise have stayed away. That is what Crossrail, London’s new £18 billion underground line, could do for Oxford Street, where two large-scale public consultations have shown strong public support for full pedestrianisation. So far, Westminster City Council has ignored them both. A Conservative council is in a stand-off with a Labour mayor. Pedestrianisation is on hold and it’s the public who will suffer.

We are still inhaling molecules exhaled by Caesar in his dying breath – all of us, every few seconds. By the same logic we are breathing much too deeply of the fumes produced by cars we don’t need in city centres where they seldom exceed walking pace if they move at all. When they don’t, they fill streets that could be parks, or boulevards of the kind that Baron Haussmann envisaged for Paris. And the walking and talking we could do in them would promote human wellbeing in ways yet to be measured.

Some of the world’s great cities are following Curitiba’s example. It’s time for the rest to catch up.

 For & Against

“Every year more than 3 million cars are added to the car fleet in Europe. Total road traffic kilometres in urban areas will grow by 40 per cent between 1995 and 2030. Local authorities and citizens need to decide how to respond to these pressures and decide what sort of place they want their town or city to be in the future. One option is to try to eliminate congestion by building more roads, but the costs — financial, social and environmental — can be high and the relief short-lived. More and more cities are opting for a different approach where they work together with their citizens to ensure that they have access to the goods and services they need without having to depend on road traffic.”

Margot Wallstrom, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and former European Commissioner for the Environment, 2004

“The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can ‘drive’ on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”

Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

“The way we shop and access services has changed dramatically over the last decade. High street businesses and Councils managing the public realm are faced with a choice: to adapt to the digital economy and rising challenges, such as air pollution or face continued decline of our town centres. A fresh look at what makes high streets enjoyable places to be is vital. Recent research highlights evidence that by investing in the walking environment we can help to reverse this decline. It shows that shoppers on foot can spend up to six times more than those who arrive by car.”

Living Streets: What We Say, livingstreets.org.uk

One of history’s greatest inventions, the mass-produced automobile brought mobility to the masses, provided access to better housing and low-cost consumer goods, and enabled both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. We’re solving problems with pollution and auto safety without reducing that mobility: Since 1970 we’ve seen a 180 per cent growth in driving, yet total highway air pollution is down 85 per cent while fatality rates per billion miles of driving have declined by 78 per cent. Renewed calls for “car-free cities” ignore the great benefits of automobility. As dozens of cities learned when they closed downtown streets in the 1960s through the 1980s, with few exceptions car-free streets are economically dead streets.

Randal O’Toole, The Cato Institute, on driving in the United States, 2016

Further reading

  • The Guardian‘s Story of Cities is an epic collection of 50 reports from the front line of 21st-century urbanism back to ancient Alexandria. Bottom line: cars were a blip
  • Was the century of the car one big mistake? JH Crawford makes the case in a Washington Post series in which Randal O’Toole (see above) makes the opposite one
  • Even for petrolheads who quite like being stuck in traffic, Heathcote Williams’ Autogeddon is a powerful antidote

Get Involved

  • Motivate, America’s biggest bike-share company, operates schemes in nine US cities. It was bought last year by Lyft and appears to be hiring
  • Living Streets campaigns to make British cities more pedestrian-friendly
  • If you want to let Westminster City Council know how you feel about their resistance to pedestrianising Oxford Street, this is their planning portal. The telephone number is +44 20 7641 6500