In Paris, Barcelona and Brussels, authorities are adopting varied approaches to the task of reducing congestion and pollution
Most of Europe’s cities were not designed for cars. Their streets were once a place for a host of varied human activities: working, trading, socialising, playing. Getting from A to B, other than on foot, was a small part of the mix.
The arrival of the car in large numbers on European roads ended that in the 1950s. Streets were now for traffic, which must reach its destination as fast as possible … and have somewhere to park once it gets there. Cities changed, radically.
A fightback is now well under way, driven by a pressing need to cut air pollution and combat the climate crisis, and a wish to reclaim cities as pleasant places to live. Most major European cities now have schemes in place to reduce road traffic.
Strategies vary, from congestion charges, parking restrictions and limited traffic zones to increased investment in public transport and cycle lanes. Evidence suggests that a combination of carrot and stick – and consultation – works best.
Cars emit vast amounts of pollution. Road transport accounts for a fifth of EU emissions, and cars are responsible for 61% of that. With an average occupancy rate across the EU of just 1.6 people a car, they are also a hugely inefficient use of public space.
But traffic reduction policies often spark fierce resistance. For many, especially older people, cars are not just vehicles, but symbols of personal freedom and success. In several cities, attempts to restrict car use have opened a new front in the culture wars.
So for many different reasons, getting cars out of Europe’s cities is not easy. Here Guardian writers look at three: Paris, where car use has almost halved; Barcelona, where a new mayor has his doubts; and Brussels, where bureaucracy is not helping.
A startling statistic emerged in Paris last month: during the morning and evening rush hours, on representative main thoroughfares crisscrossing the French capital, there are now more bicycles than cars – almost half as many again, in fact.
The data point is the latest to comfort Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor, who since she was first elected in 2014 has pursued some of the toughest anti-car policies of any major city – starting with closing the 1970s Right Bank Seine expressway to traffic.
Hidalgo has since sealed off famous streets such as the Rue de Rivoli to most traffic, created an expanding low-emission zone to exclude older cars, and established 1,000km (620 miles) of bike routes, 350km of them protected lanes.
Due in part to her policies and those of her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, driving within Paris city limits has fallen by about 45% since the early 1990s, while public transport use has risen by 30% and cycle use by about 1,000%.
Coming up is a limited traffic zone that, with certain exceptions, will ban all through traffic – as much as 50% of the total – from most of the city’s central arrondissements starting in spring 2024, in time for the summer Olympics.
City hall has also imposed a speed limit of 30kph (20mph) on almost all the capital’s streets, pedestrianised 200 streets outside primary schools, and recently announced a referendum on plans to charge SUV drivers “significantly more” to park.
The mayor was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the “15-minute city” concept, meaning all residents’ daily needs – shopping, education, health, leisure, even, ideally, work – should be within an easily reachable 15-minute walk or cycle ride.
Pierre Zembri, a professor of urban planning and transport at the University of Paris, said Hidalgo should not, however, take all the credit for the dramatic decline of car use in Paris.
“She’s certainly been very proactive,” he said. “But car ownership has been falling of its own accord in big cities for some time. If there are acceptable alternatives – bikes or public transport – urban families are simply not replacing old cars. They don’t need another one, and it’s expensive.”
Only about 30% of Parisians now own cars, against almost 90% of the wider French population. The problem, Zembri said, is the risk that the mayor’s anti-car measures penalise delivery drivers, tradespeople and others who have to drive into the centre.
“Bike lanes are fine; the mayor’s voters love them,” he said. “But they’re not as effective a means of mass transit as buses, for example, which have been seriously neglected in Paris. And any Parisian will tell you the metro is permanently rammed.”
Zembri said Paris’s problem going forward was “not really cars, but coordination. Making sure the different transport modes coexist efficiently, avoiding massive bottlenecks just outside the city. For me, some policymaking has been symbolic.”
When the newspaper El País timed the same 8km journey across Barcelona by car, motorcycle, bicycle and public transport, the motorbike won, followed 2.5 minutes later by public transport, with the bicycle third and the car last.
And yet the association of cars with personal freedom is proving a hard one to break, as Jaume Collboni discovered when he won the Barcelona mayoral race last May – by unashamedly presenting himself as the “pro-car” candidate.
Ada Colau, the outgoing mayor, was acclaimed worldwide for her administration’s policies on restricting car use and improving air quality, including her much admired “superblock” scheme, designed with residents’ input.
The project groups together nine city blocks and closes them to through traffic with play areas and green spaces. Cars are not banned, but the blocks are car-unfriendly.
Before she was defeated in May, Colau completed an even more ambitious plan.
At a cost of about €50m (£43m), 21 blocks of Consell de Cent, formerly a four-lane cross-town street, have been pedestrianised, with four major connecting streets, in a “green axis” converting the area into an urban park and one of the city’s most popular locations.
“Pedestrianising more than 2km of an area with some of the worst airborne pollution in Barcelona was more than necessary, but isn’t enough,” said architect Olga Subirós, adding that the city needed a better mix of uses to avoid a high density of bars and restaurants, as well as rent controls and a London-style congestion charge.
Barcelona has the EU’s highest density of cars: 6,000 a sq km. Cars are reportedly the reason it also has Europe’s worst noise pollution, while air quality consistently exceeds EU and WHO limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM10 particulates.
The city itself has an excellent cheap public transport network, but the suburban trains connecting it to the 4 million people in its hinterland are mostly slow and unreliable, and 85% of car journeys are made by people entering or traversing the city.
And the superblocks may be oases of quiet and clean air, but neither they, nor cutting nearly 4,000 parking spaces, nor a low-emission zone, nor increasing the city’s cycle lane network from 120km (75 miles) to 275km, have reduced the amount of traffic in the city.
According to Barcelona’s own statistics, the number of journeys made by private vehicle rose between 2011 and 2021, while journeys made by public transport fell.
Whether progress will be made under Collboni remains to be seen. The new mayor has said he will reduce traffic in the city, but his first act was to bring cars back to an area pedestrianised under Colau.
Brussels is Europe’s eighth most polluted city in terms of NO2 emissions, according to a survey of 858 EU cities. For those working or living near some of the most congested streets – such as those near the EU institutions – the findings will come as no surprise.
The city centre has long had a reputation for being gridlocked, despite the frequent bus, tram and metro services. But it is getting better. In 2017, cars represented 64% of all journeys within the city; by 2021 the figure had fallen below 50%.
Trips by bike now make up 10% of the total, up from 3% in 2018, while public transport capacity has increased by 30%. Traffic crossing the Pentagon, the historic city centre, been cut dramatically thanks to bollards, one-way streets and one of the EU’s largest pedestrian zones.
“Brussels has one of the worst reputations for cars in Europe, but as a resident is it much more pleasant than it was five years ago. It is changing, in small steps,” said Leo Cendrowicz, editor of the Brussels Times magazine.
One obstacle is the complicated structure of local government, with 19 municipalities. The city’s vast Cambre Forest park became a treasured car-free zone during the pandemic, but some roads have since been reopened to cars by different councils.
“The divide of competences between municipalities and the region doesn’t help,” said Pierre Dornier of Les Chercheurs d’Air research and campaign group. “Compared with cities like London, Paris and Amsterdam, sometimes we also lack political ambition.”
The large number of company cars (22% of all private vehicles) and persuading people to change behaviours remain problems, but Brussels’ 2020-30 Good Move plan contains specific anti-car measures, including 50 low-traffic neighbourhoods.
The Ixelles city-centre municipality is visibly changing, with road closures, one-way streets and wide planted areas making it unattractive for drivers, and new restaurant-lined plazas popping up in place of open-air car parks.
Source: The Guardian