Many Indian cities have grown around cars, with large amounts of space set aside for roads and parking. What if you remove them from the picture? The redistribution of urban space is key in addressing the green factor. Taking away road space from cars is justified by socio-economic, health, and environmental factors.

The Cars-free attempt

For the last ten decades, cars have come to rule the urban landscape. Trees have been cut and roads have been widened in many cities to accommodate automobiles, and huge amounts of spaces are created to park them. Private vehicles have revolutionized mobility and made it easier to commute from point to point, but they have also brought in several ramifications: from air pollution to traffic accidents. Today a growing number of cities abroad are trying to design private vehicles out of the urban landscape altogether. Oslo and Madrid have made headlines in recent years for their plans to ban cars from their centers, New Delhi has been struggling to battle pollution with the odd-even rule (where your right to drive on a particular day depends on whether your license plate has an odd or even number) for several years – although none have entirely gotten rid of cars yet. Whether it is London’s congestion fee, Mexico City’s ‘pico y placa’ initiative (similar to Delhi’s rule), or Pontevedra’s outright ban on cars, their moves toward this represent a growing need in cities to discourage cars. 

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Delhi Traffic Jam_©The Telegraph

Get Rid of Cars

Speaking to BBC, “Our main objective is to give the streets back to people,” says Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s vice mayor for urban development. “It is about how we want to use our streets and what the streets should be for. For us, the street should be where you meet people, eat at outdoor restaurants, where kids play, and where art is exhibited.” To implement this, Oslo has closed certain streets in the center, so cars cannot enter these areas. Almost all parking spots have been scrapped and replaced with cycling lanes, benches, and miniature parks. JH Crawford is perhaps the world’s leading voice on a car-free world and the author of two books on the topic. 

“Besides the well-documented problems of air pollution and the millions of deaths caused by traffic every year, the largest effect cars have on society is the tremendous damage they do to social spaces, Today’s housing crisis stems from a lack of land – get rid of cars and the problem is solved immediately,” he says. Crawford argues that cars significantly shrink social interaction. “Today’s housing crisis stems from a lack of land. Get rid of cars and the problem is solved immediately, the places that are most popular in cities are always the spaces with no cars,” he says. They may be parks, squares, or pedestrianized areas. “If you look at the statistics, we seem to have gone beyond ‘peak car’ ownership, and driving now seems to be in decline. 

There is also a big generational difference between millennials and baby boomers,” says Ransford Acheampong, an urban planning researcher at the University of Manchester. Youngsters shifting from private ownership. suggest cars’ current dominance may soon phase out. That said, he also notes that there is a growing demand for new convenient mobility options; services such as Uber are drawing people away from public transport. “In the end, they’re still cars,” he adds. 

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Madrid_©theguardian.com
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Oslo_©theguardian.com

The Last Mile 

A city without cars sounds like we are idealizing the image too much. Is it possible? What about cases of emergency? Aged people, or people who have mobility problems? And what about small towns and villages; is the car-free equation only relevant to the youth who live in well-connected city centers? Cars constitute highly personalized spaces, and they give people a feeling of security. Transport interventions that make it more difficult to carry out specific trips/tasks will result in negative responses from the public. It is thus paramount for city planners to provide transportation alternatives to cars that are comparable in terms of safety and comfort.  Ransford says to BBC that removing cars would be helpful to reduce pollution and could improve public health “but if you take cars away from people, you need to be able to provide an alternative”. Even in places like Europe, where there is relatively good public transport, most people’s commutes and lifestyles would be impossible without a car of their own. This is the concept of the last mile, which is the connectivity between where public transport can take a person and the final part of a person’s journey. Until public transport can make this gap smaller, people will still want to drive and own cars.

Author

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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