Smart Transport

How to get cars off city streets, by ex-CoMoUK chief Alistair Kirkbride

A street scene from Madrid with no cars

Have you heard about the riots in Madrid after the car access restrictions were brought in last November? No? Funny that. There weren’t any, says Alistair Kirkbride

Ghent, Stuttgart, Oslo, Brussels, Bogota, Madrid … not locations for the next Dan Brown novel, but places confidently saying that private cars no longer have a place in their city centres. It’s not just the preserve of cities; Zermatt, Wengen, most of the Isles of Scilly and many pedestrianised town and city centres have been effectively car-free for a long time. The reasons are varied and in almost all cases, banning cars is part of a wide range of carrot and stick measures. 

Cutting to the chase, we probably need to look at car-free as a norm rather than interesting exception to deliver acceptable (and legal) air quality, reduce carbon and tackle obesity. These three big ticket outcomes are beyond urgent: 950 UK schools are within 150m of roads with illegal air quality ; the UK is not on track to meet its 2023-27 carbon reduction targets  and traffic out of city centres is still rising; the NHS describes the UK epidemic in obesity as “alarming”, at least partly attributed to less walking and cycling in everyday lives.

But isn’t technology and behaviour change going to get us there? There is an emerging consensus that these just aren’t happening fast enough or at sufficient scale for the urgency of the transport-related problems we are facing. 

So let’s tiptoe around three mobility-related ideas – the role of technology in tackling emissions, the scales and rates of changes required compared to reality, and “stickiness” of interventions. 

Inconvenient truth

The first inconvenient truth about the role of EVs in tackling air pollution is that “not all air pollution from road traffic comes from exhaust fumes. In cities, about half the particulates comes from brake pads and a tenth from tyres. Another quarter comes from traffic stirring up dirt on roads”. The implication being that “if we want to cut air pollution in big cities to low levels, we need to cut traffic”. Furthermore, Cairns et al (2017)  show that areas where there are significant air quality issues tend to already have higher levels of cleaner cars that travel fewer miles. So whilst LEVs definitely have a place in tackling emissions, they can only be part of the solution.

The bigger issues are about scale and rates of uptake. Of the 31.6 million cars on the roads in the UK in 2018, only 0.6% (about 200,000) were EVs. The current rates of growth mean that electrification of cars is just not going to be anywhere near the scale required to tackle the urgency of emissions reduction any time soon.

But what about behaviour change programmes? Programmes such as the DfT’s Sustainable Travel Towns and Local Sustainable Transport Fund have demonstrated the high cost-effectiveness of targeted travel behaviour change at delivering desirable outcomes. However, once the funding ended, the “sticky” impacts were those linked to either new car-free infrastructure (e.g. cycling & walking lanes & routes, wider pavements) or car restriction (bus lanes, car-free school gates). Furthermore, the scale of these programmes means that they still only reached a relatively small number of places, people and journeys. 

These programmes could – or should – be seen as pilots from which mainstream policy and investment should be developed and the benefits locked in by locking out the behaviours that lead to the problems. 

Political fear 

There is still a political fear of restricting traffic. Even though London has declared a climate emergency  and is leading the way with Ultra Low Emission Zones  and its Healthy Streets agenda , solutions tend to be technological, encouragement of alternatives to car use or use pricing as a demand management tool; of course these are the right thing to do, but will they get us far enough fast enough?

People like places not dominated by cars. 

In Spain, an IPSOS poll in 2018 found that 63% of people favoured “severely restricting” cars in city centres . This survey was carried out in the context of Spain’s government planning legislation to ban non zero-emission vehicles in any town of over 50,000 residents by 2025. A recent survey of teaching professionals by Sustrans revealed that 63% wanted cars to be banned from outside schools to tackle air pollution , echoing a survey where the 60% of parents want Traffic Exclusion Zones near schools . 

Perhaps there’s a shift from the idea of restricting traffic in order to make places less bad (congestion, pollution etc) to designing good – and gorgeous - places and behaviours. This shift might be down to two changes. 

Firstly, more people experience traffic-free places more often and so see how they fit with their values, needs and aspirations. Put another way, people are able to compare different types of places now and recognise the benefits of traffic-free over the business-as-usual traffic dominated places. 

Secondly, cohorts of mobility consumers are emerging in which the (private) car is increasingly irrelevant to their lifestyles and values. The implications of this are not only that traffic-dominated areas are unpleasant for them, but lead to a sense of injustice that such places are “not for people like me”. 

That’s how things currently are. How do we get to where we want – or need – to be? At November’s 2018 Polis conference, Bronwen Thornton rather beautifully suggested that maybe it’s time to start hitting people with a big carrot and tickling them with sticks. 

In terms of normalising traffic-free areas, the pugnacious carrots are beautiful, calm, safe, unpolluted, vibrant places served by the excitement that flows from advances in new mobility with walking and cycling and public transport. The tickling by sticks is the “what were we thinking?” as private cars and more polluting service vehicles are respectfully restricted from these areas. 

Don’t over-complicate 

We probably don’t need to over-complicate this. Enough places have tackled traffic restriction for us to have a pretty clear understanding of how to go about achieving it. There will always be a very loud minority who will oppose the idea, but it seems that emerging majorities of people tend to support the idea of traffic restrictions.

The rate of change of how transport needs to change needs to change. Technology and the fashion for “nudging” is just not going to deliver. The number and types of places that are restricting traffic should provide a political confidence for this to become more normal in the UK. The social trends of increasing car-irrelevance should be more confidently harnessed to make traffic-domination (with associated issues of poor air quality etc) the next pariah equivalent to not wearing seats belts or  drink-driving; traffic free needs to become the next smoke-free norm.

Traffic-free doesn’t mean people and things don’t move. Indeed, it defines what the “smart” means in smart transport – properly harnessing and directing new technology alongside active travel and clean public transport to deliver on the urgencies produced by dumb transport.


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